Sunday, August 24, 1999
I was supposed to leave today, but I feel pretty ill. Not much done today except I emailed two short bios to my editor to accompany the articles which will come out in a few months. Finished packing up my big backpack, too. That thing is pretty heavy... I'm not sure about hauling it all over the place. My first forays into Europe I was carrying a heavier pack, but I think I've gotten soft lately. Haha! I backpacked (more or less) through Bali, but we had transportation wherever we needed to go. This is going to be different. We'll see.
Monday, August 23, 1999
I'm still here. In Wakayama, that is. This morning I felt like I had swallowed sand and someone had tied a noose around my neck so I pried myself out of bed and went to see the doc. He gave me a bag full of medicine (4 days worth). I got back and took a couple of those pills and gargled with powder and water and viola! Holy smokes, Batman! So much better! And just to cover my bases I ate a couple cloves of garlic. I heard that it has anti-bacterial and anti-infection type properties. Seriously! At least that's what my neighbor says and she knows all about stuff like that.
Y'know, it seems that whenever I'm going on a trip I have some kind of personal kind of thing I have to sort through. I've been really stressing about what I'm going to do when I get back to the States. How can I find something like that out on the road? Good question. But it always seems to pan out. Happened when I went to Europe, and it's the reason I came to Japan. You see things differently. The different perspective helps bring other things into focus you would have never seen otherwise. You see, hear, or smell something or talk to someone about something totally unrelated and all of the sudden the solution hits you like a ton of bricks. And this is the last chance I have to travel this summer. And for a while as well. I'm going back to the US for Christmas, but the next real time I'll be able to travel is in spring when I go to Egypt. After a while, when stuff in your life starts to build up, you just hunger for the road again.
For that reason, I'm going on this trip tomorrow whether I feel better or not. At least I have the medicine the doc gave me.
Tuesday, August 24, 1999: Out into the Great Unknown
I got off at a late start today. What a surprise, eh? But I did get up! I was already packed so I took a shower, had a light breakfast, and made my way to the train station. I bought "juhachikippu" which is a discount ticket. It lets me ride the trains as far as I can in one day, five times. The catch is I have to take the local trains which take longer than the more expensive expresses.
I made great time until after I left Kyoto station. The area I'm going to be traveling in for the next week has many prefectural borders, which in and of itself means nothing, but the trains seem to stop near or on all the borders and I have to change train. This musical trains game ate up a good hour coming up here, and the local trains are slow enough as it is over long distances.
I got into Gifu late tonight. In Gifu, there's.. well.. nothing. Hehe Why did I come here? Well, the towns I'm going to first, Gifu and Matsumoto, don't have much to offer, but they'll serve as convenient bases to explore local sights in different directions. From Gifu, I can go to Hikone and visit Naoko, and then I can take another short jaunt to Inuyama and still make it home (Gifu) in time for supper.
Gifu shocked me right off the bat. All I could see coming out of the train station was clothes stores lining the streets as far as I could see! Going down the streets looking in side streets, that's all I saw! Must be the "clothing district" or something like that.
I went looking for a ryokan (a ryokan is a small ma and pa hotel which rents a few Japanese-style rooms) which my guidebook said was decent. I wandered around fruitlessly for a while and asked some guy who led me to his friend's ryokan (not the one I was looking for), but they didn't have a room to rent for two days so she directed me to the one I was looking for in the first place. The room is nondescript, but clean. A single 12-tatami mat room. No locks on the doors, though.
By the time I was checked in it was already getting dark and the castle at Inuyama had closed, I'm not going to get to see that today, confound it all! There was no foreigners at the ryokan so I wandered aimlessly to get my bearings (is that a contradiction?). The city is unusually clean too, seems cleaner than Wakayama and Wakayama's smaller. It occurred to me that this city _was_ a lot like Wakayama, but it's like the city Wakayama wanted to be, but failed! That sounds bad, but it seems true. Except Gifu has a huge area of hostess bars! It stretched on forever! Maybe everything is divvied up purposefully here, clothes, bars, etc. Hmm.
Went back to my ryokan and they told me that I could take a bath/shower right then. At 6 pm. Yeah, whatever. I'll take a quick one tomorrow.
I ate some yakitori at a sidewalk store, but that didn't really fill me up, so instead of eating at one of the real Japanese restaurants, I chickened out and ate at good ol' Mickey D's! (Hey, sue me! Too many new things comin' at me today, ok?? )
After that, not really much to do with everything closing up so I ducked into this arcade for a while, then just headed back, read for a while, then went to sleep. All in all, not a very eventful day. But tomorrow is packed full so it should be good.
Wednesday, August 25, 1999
AAAHHHH!!! I woke up late today! I scrambled for the shower and found out that they were cleaning it! AAAHHH!! What's up with that?? So I scrambled back upstairs and threw on some clothes packed up my valuables and headed out for the train station; I was off for Hikone.
Now Hikone is not in Chubu area, it's actually in Kansai area. Hikone is on the coast of Lake Biwa-ko, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, it's home to one of the finest castles in Japan in its original condition. It is also home to a friend of mine. Naoko, who I met on a plane in the spring. We've been keeping in touch and this trip seemed a great time to see her again, it's been five or six months. She's really atypical for Japanese. She's a very enthusiastic person and has a lot of personality. Great to talk to and hang out with. Sucks that she lives so far away, though.
Anyway, so I get there and the first thing we do is go to see the castle. The castle was great! Many Japanese castle keeps are the same, but this one has an absolutely stunning view of the lake. We took our time around the castle and the garden. The Japanese garden of the castle has a traditional tea house, pond, trees, slopes of grass, and swans in the pond! The garden area also overlooks the lake (of course). I swear, if I lived in Hikone, I'd come to this castle everyday. But the town itself is enough for me... it's small and cozy and non-polluted and the air is nice and fresh. It didn't seem like traffic was ever an issue there. After the castle we went to eat pizza and pasta at this great Italian place. After that, she led me along the coast of lake Biwa-ko and we came to a town called Nagahama. Nagahama is well known for a lot of glassworks and ornate music boxes. We went to see those factories there.
There's a festival later this year, it's supposed to be pretty big scale where children dress up in costumes of feudal lords and parade around the castle. Naoko told me that she'd probably be dancing in it too, so I told her I'd try to come back around then to see her. I thought it'd be pretty cool to go out on the lake, and her friend has a boat, but he was working today. I suggested that I come back Sunday night and we could all go out and maybe go out on his boat, but she has to work (she has four or five jobs, aaahhh!!!)
After Nagahama, she dropped me off at Maibara (it's on a train line with Gifu) and I went back to Gifu. Because of the train-changing, I was too late to make it to Inuyama so I took a breather, ate some dinner and enjoyed a long hot bath. I read a bit, and now I'm going to start planning out tomorrow's agenda.
Hikone was such a beautiful town. I'm sure I'll never forget it. I think it's a place I could actually live in. there's very few places I can say that about.
Thursday, August 26, 1999: The Hostel Nazi
Woke up an hour late today!! I have GOT to get myself a travel alarm clock one of these days! I rushed to Inuyama and saw the castle.
Inuyama-jo was built in 1440 and is still intact which makes it Japan's oldest castle. It's also one of the only national treasures which is owned by a private individual. It's billed as a castle but the only thing really remaining is the keep. There are two small temples directly outside the castle which seemed to have an animal (looked like a jackal) theme to them; statues outside the temple doors and outside the castle. Several paths leading through the areas to approach the keep are overhung with red tori gates.
After seeing the castle, I took the 20 minute train ride back to Gifu where I packed up all my stuff, paid the ryokan keeper, and headed off to Matsumoto.
The train ride to Matsumoto (the local) was fraught with more train changes!! It took so long to get there. About two thirds of the way at the third change I jumped into an express train. If one of the conductors was checking tickets I would have paid extra fare, but nobody was checking. The train ride, aside from the incessant stops, was terrific. The countryside out here is so beautiful that it makes up for the fact that it takes so long to get wherever I'm going.
So I finally get to Matsumoto. It's a smallish town and when the train rolled into the station there came a singing voice over the loudspeaker which called out "Matsumotoooo! Matsumotoooo! Matsumotoooo!" After fumbling around with the bus system I make it to the hostel.
I can tell right off the bat that this guy is a little... off. Y'know, wherever I go, the hostel keepers always seem that way. Not that they're left all by themselves, but their social skills seem to be lacking. They're usually surrounded by foreigners, most of which won't be spending any more than two days there and they usually don't want to talk to them anyway. The hostel was expensive, and there is no bathing facilities in the place. BUT, he is soooo gracious because he gives you 200 yen a day to go to the neighborhood public bath. Yeah, what a sweet deal, huh? And he says he wakes everyone up at six, we have to be back at the hostel at 9 pm cause he locks up, and we're supposed to have all the lights out by 10. This guy really needs to loosen up.
But he does have quite a bit of information in the way of brochures and maps and stuff. He told me a good place to eat and an open air onsen which is open tomorrow which looks really cool. Seriously! I think I'll try it if I have time. There was only one other person staying at the hostel at the time; a Japanese college student who wasn't there just then. By the time I got settled in, I had just enough time to rush to the public bath before it closed. The people inside were really friendly and I talked to a couple of the Japanese people there. The bath was scalding hot. The Japanese man who was trying to get in the tub without burning himself told me (via simple Japanese and gestures) that the hot water was good for you, that it puts hair on your chest. Then he decided that it was too hot and added cold water from a faucet via a long hose. I thought they were playing traditional Japanese music (which really was not to my liking) in the bathing area, but it turned out that it was just an old woman singing from the other side of the tub. The mens' and womens' bathing areas were separated by a tall wall that didn't quite reach the ceiling so you could hear everything that was being said.
By the time I got to the restaurant it was nearly closed as well. It had more of a cafe atmosphere, and they played Bach. I had just about the best yaki-soba (fried noodles) I've ever had. I read and talked to the proprietors, they were really nice.
I got back to the hostel and the Hostel Nazi was talking on the phone (trying in vain to speak English) trying to tell someone how to get to the hostel via bus. He cried out for help and being the nice person I am, got on the phone and talked the guy through the directions here. His name is Seth, college student from New York on vacation with a rail pass (lets him ride the shinkansen too!! Grr!!)
He got to the hostel and we stayed up for a while talking. He was just passing through and needed a place to stay for the night, wasn't really interested in seeing anything in Matsumoto, but the castle here is really good so we made plans to see the castle together tomorrow morning. He's only been traveling in Japan for a little while, but he's been really observant and knows some things about the Japanese which are contrary to stereotype in the States which took me a while to figure out.
Friday, August 27, 1999: Shinonoi
At first I didn't know what that awful sound was. It stopped after ten seconds or so and I just rolled over. I heard that the Hostel Nazi woke everyone up at six, but I didn't know exactly how. I figured it out as I still lay in bed a half hour later and the terrible music sounded again. It was the accursed radio exercise!! I couldn't believe it. Is this man mad? Is he crazy, sick, twisted? Or is that how they did things in whatever village or town where he grew up? At any rate, the radio exercise is not pleasant music to be abruptly awaken to. I'm thinking more like Star Wars. Vintage John Williams. That's my cup of tea. That'll get you up in the morning and get you ready to kick some serious butt. The radio exercise... all it did was make me wish I was back in Wakayama where stuff like that didn't happen.
After Seth had gone to the ofuro and we were all ready, we took a bus to the train station so he could drop off his luggage and then found someplace to eat. Nice little cafe place not too far from the station. After breakfast we went to the castle.
Matsumoto-jo was really something. It had two towers alongside the main donjon, but there was some huge concert coming up on the weekend and they had scaffolding and stuff set up alongside the keep which kind of ruined the view of the castle from the garden. Matsumoto-jo is really well preserved considering it almost fell to rubble and only stands now today because independents helped preserve it. Now it's a national treasure and one of Japan's best castles. There were some great excavation sites outside the perimeter of the main castle where the samurai quarters were where many artifacts were recovered, but the actual quarters don't exist anymore.
After we saw the castle we parted at the train station, I was off to Mt. Asama-yama and Seth was heading off north. We saw each other shortly thereafter however, because I had to take an express train to Nagano and a shinkansen to Karuizawa to get there in a reasonable amount of time and Seth was taking the expresses because his train pass let him! Kindof a bummer to split up because he seemed like he'd be a good traveling companion. But I got off at Karuizawa where I took a 50 minute bus to Mt. Asama-yama.
At the site, there was this cheesy "museum" which only sold gimmicky toys and candies at exceedingly high prices. There was a trail you could walk around the volcano, though. Mt. Asama-yama itself wasn't what I was expecting at all. I didn't see any long flowing dried lava beds. No steaming of the crater (the peak was lightly covered with clouds). I didn't see the harshest environment imaginable. What I did see was beautiful countryside, great mountainscapes, and rocks. Large, impossibly shaped rocks. At first I thought they couldn't possibly be volcanic rocks, but they were indeed. Everywhere. It was as if God broke up a black mountain into pieces and scattered the bits around Mt. Asama-yama. It was really weird. In some areas it seemed as if they had to carve corridors out of the volcanic rocks to make the trail. Those rocks couldn't have slowly moved out of the crater as lava. They were blasted out of the volcano when it erupted. I knew volcanoes hurled ash and lava and some rock when they erupted, but this?? I was really surprised. Mt. Asama-yama was interesting, but I'm not sure it was worth the long train/bus ride over there. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but it was getting late and it takes a while to get back.
I was hot, tired, and bummed about how long this little side-trip to the volcano was taking me and the ride back would have made things worse if it wasn't for a delightful young lady by the name of Sharon.
When she got on the train she didn't really acknowledge me (some foreigners don't acknowledge others) but at a certain town the train stopped and my ears were assaulted by rapid-fire Japanese being driven over the loudspeaker. I glanced across at the foreigner across from me and she returned my quizzical look. I asked her if this was where we should get off for Nagano and she said it was; a Japanese girl sitting next to me was more than eager to confirm that for me. The train across the platform was the one I wanted and since the only seats opened were next to each other, Sharon and I started talking.
She was a JET (incidentally of the town, Karuizawa, I had just visited to see Mt. Asama-yama) and on her way to Nagano to visit a friend. We talked about a bunch of stuff. She told me that it is indeed possible to climb the volcano (though it's strictly prohibited, but who the heck cares?) and she had done it. It takes six hours but when you get to the top you can see the steaming crater. That's soooooo cool! She was really interesting and I was bummed when my stop (Shinonoi) came up. I gave her my email address and she told me that the train I wanted was on the platform across directly across, platform #1.
I thanked her and walked up the stairs stopping to ask the person collecting tickets if that was the right platform (all the signs were in Kanji) and he confirmed that it was, and that it was the next train. So I waited and figured out that I'll make it back in time to eat a nice leisurely dinner of yaki soba at that cafe again if I hit the next train change right. I got on the train and after a half hour I realized that I was going the wrong way!! This train was going back to Karuizawa. ARRGHH!!! Getting on the wrong train is something that has happened only twice here in Japan. It's an utterly maddening experience which wastes at least twice as much time as it took to figure out that you were going in the wrong direction. Insanely frustrating. And that guy had told me the next train was the one I wanted!! I felt like how George Costanza felt in that one Seinfeld episode where he was waiting in line to buy a ticket forever and realized that was the wrong line, even though he asked the guy in front of him if he had a ticket.
So, I took the next train back to Shinonoi and got back on the #1 platform and I asked a girl there if the next train was the correct train back to Matsumoto. She said it wasn't and she conferred with her train schedule book and the old woman next to her and together they came to the conclusion that I shouldn't take the next train, but the one after that. I thanked them and they were really happy to have "helped" me (I put quotes around that word for reasons that will become all to obvious to you in just a bit).
So I get on the train after that and just after I'm through the door I ask a woman sitting nearby if that train goes to Matsumoto (in Japanese). She replied, "No, I think you'd better get off the train now and wait for another train." My brain stalled. She was speaking perfect American English. That was the last thing I'd expected way out there in the sticks. The door closed and she said, "Well, now you probably should get off at the next stop and then take a train back to Shinonoi." After consulting a map inside the train I found out that she was indeed right; I was going back to Karuizawa. I tried to talk calmly to her, but by now I was near quivering with fury and frustration. Turns out that the reason that she spoke such good English was because she owned an English language school in Nagano (one that I'd never heard of so I can't remember the name). She was traveling out in the middle of nowhere because of her business and she was getting off at the next stop so she could direct me to the next train back to Shinonoi.
So we got off at the next stop and she asked the conductor which platform I should be on for the next train to Shinonoi and she said that it's good, I had a lot of time, it doesn't come for another 35 minutes. Oh, wonderful. In the meantime, my hostel in Matsumoto closes at 9, the buses in Matsumoto stop at 9:15 and even if I convince him not to lock the doors he's going to be a real jerk. I'm tired, haven't eaten, and generally feel pretty miserable at this point.
So I wait for the next train, and I'm stalking across the platform, pacing back and forth, when I see the woman again coming back through the turnstyle. She said that her business in that town was already finished and now she was going back to Nagano which meant that she'd be taking the same train with me back. Well, we talked for a while about her family, her business (to which she invited me to work for her if ever I got tired of JET), politics, economics, and some other stuff.
When I got back to Shinonoi I crossed the stairs again and the ticket guy gave me a really strange look (this was the third time he'd seen me cross this platform within two hours) and I scrambled through my guidebook to find the Kanjis displayed on the platform signs. I found the kanjis for Matsumoto. It was another 40 minute wait. Sigh. I was really upset at this point. I couldn't wait for this horrible, horrible, day to end. I called the Hostel Nazi and I think he understood me when I told him I was going to be late, but he hung up on me so I have no idea if he's still going to let me in!
So I was standing on the platform waiting for my train when walking down the steps comes this attractive Caucasian woman. She had long, curly brown hair, brilliant brown eyes and carried an exceedingly large backpack. She hurried onto the platform and got in line for the next train. Often times when I see a foreigner in Japan I feel I should say hello, but I'm always restrained by the fear that maybe they don't actually speak English. Maybe they're German, or French, or whatever. So, I gave her the standard "toothless smile and nod of the head". I was prepared for the same from her so I was quite surprised when she opened her mouth and began to speak to me. My greeting died on my lips and my brain stalled for the second time today. Her first sentence immediately betrayed her nationality; she was Spanish. Her train pulled up just as I made some response in Spanish that now I can't even remember, all's I remember is that it wasn't that coherent. She got on the train. She said something before the doors closed (which I couldn't understand because a) her accent, b) she was speaking too fast, and c) my brain wasn't working quite right). I opened my mouth to say something in English and the doors closed. She laughed softly and waved. As the train pulled away she smiled and winked at me as she waved again. I waved back and smiled and was left with a goofy smile standing on the platform as an old Japanese woman watched. She pretended not to have been watching but she wore a telltale grin on her face.
So I get on the train and we rocket (I use that word sarcastically here, the trains in this region move like snails) back to Matsumoto.
Now I had a good hour and a half on the train with my thoughts (at this point, that's a bad thing). The guy at the hostel is a total jerk and when I get there he might not even let me in, he seems a real stickler for rules. So what do I do if he doesn't let me in? I needed a contingency plan. Well, the train stations are always good. But I'm not sure if they shut those down and kick everyone out when they close (they probably do that in Japan). I could try a ryokan, but they're probably all closed now anyway, and my odds of finding one without a map at night are really slim. I could maybe find a hotel if I wanted to waste 80 or 100 dollars. I started thinking really crazy things, too. I could just find some kind of park bench or something and descend to the ranks of "bum" status for one night, that'd be interesting. I could also see if I could get inside the castle grounds. That would be pretty cool. I've never slept inside a castle before. Maybe all's I have to do is hop a gate or a fence (see? I'm thinkin crazy now). But I came to an agreement there... that if I had to sleep somewhere strange, on a park bench, in a love hotel, in the castle, or on the streets I'd end my adventure and return to Wakayama the next day. This day had just too much. A wise traveler knows when to pack it in and retreat with as much dignity as he/she can muster and I'd had my fill at that point.
Turns out that wasn't necessary. When I finally got to Matsumoto and took a cab (complete robbery at $17 for a few miles, but I saw a Denny's on the way! A DENNY'S!! Now I got a mean craving for a Grand Slam #2!) and got to the hostel, the doors were unlocked and I tried to creep in without attracting any attention. That turned out to be no good because the guy was looking for me and he came out and demanded to know what had kept me (it was about 45 minutes past "lights out" and 1 hour and 45 minutes past "close up" time). I tried to tell him about the train mix-up and he didn't believe me and he said that he wanted me out at 6:30 the next morning. I said, forget that, bub. I paid you good money and I'm not leaving until I'm good and ready. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and I went up to bed.
And as I wrapped myself in my sheet on my bunk I suddenly realized that my adventure wasn't over. My mind began to race with all the things I wanted to do and see the next day. Tomorrow.. anything, really anything, could happen...
The ordeal of the day melted away and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of dice tumbling in my head.
Saturday, August 28, 1999: Kamikochi
I got up at 6:30 when the second radio exercise was playing. I went to the bath, got back and packed up my stuff then left without actually "checking out", the guy wasn't at the counter. That guy was such a jerk last night, I'm not going to wait around for him. I suppose I should have some sympathy for him... it looks like he's the only one who runs the place. That's a 17 hour per day job with no breaks. But he could get out of it if he really wanted to.
Anyway, so I take a bus back to the train station, drop my heavy backpack in a locker, and go for breakfast at the same place Seth and I went to yesterday. After that, I went back to the train station and got some help planning my route. To get to Takayama I need to take a train to one town, a bus from there to Kamikochi (Kamikochi's a very popular hiking area in the Japan Alps), change buses there to go to another small town and then change buses there again for one bound for Takayama. Takayama is supposed to be a real quaint, nice old fashioned town with a lot of stuff to see. There are a couple of old folk villages nearby which have been carefully preserved and Shokowa Valley is nearby too. Going there is supposed to be like taking a trip in a time machine, very very old working villages dot the valley.
The train was so crowded with people going up to Kamikochi. Surprisingly, they were mostly older people who looked really fit. Laden with backpacks with sleeping bags or tents tied to them, they were the diehard outdoorsmen. I thought about taking a couple hours to explore Kamikochi, but I don't know how long it will take me to reach Takayama.
The bus ride to Kamikochi was breathtaking. The bus rolled by some of the most beautiful landscapes I've seen. I haven't seen anything this beautiful since I was in Ireland. The bus crept through the cracks of the mountains alongside rivers, forests, and stepped rice paddies. I couldn't read or do anything else except watch the world roll by. There's something to traveling by bus or train and just looking outside the window that I just can't describe. Its relaxing and inspiring at the same time. Many people here find sitting in a massage chair or a hot tub to be the most relaxing thing, but for me it would have to be a window seat on a train or bus traveling through countryside. It feels so great to be back out on the road!
I made up my mind then. I'd take a few hours to explore Kamikochi and if I really liked it I'd stay the night even if it cost me the big bucks. After all, what could be better than to spend a day and a night (the last of my trip) in this place? Really, what could be better than that?
There were so many people at the bus terminal going every which way, but especially coming to Kamikochi. At Kamikochi there are trails which last only a few hours or those which last weeks. I picked one at random. The trails around here have a lot of streams running across them. The underbrush ran high. Every now and then a break in the trees would let in a great view of the cloud capped mountains. I couldn't find any lockers so I had to carry my huge backpack wherever I hiked... the amazing thing was, is that it didn't really bother me. I carried it around for hours on uneven trails and up slopes, but it didn't bother me.
I wandered around for a few hours and then decided that I'd better be moving along. I really wanted to see Takayama. So I headed back to the bus terminal. The number of people heading in my direction was staggering!! I couldn't believe it! I had to wait in line for about an hour for a bus out of there.
Back on the bus. Out for more adventure. Takayama's going to be great. Damn, this feels so much like my first trip through the British Isles. I haven't slept well, my clothes are dirty, I'm carrying this huge backpack wherever I go, I feel like a homeless person, and I feel great. Not only that, but I'm looking forward to more of the same!
The bus ride to Takayama was like the ride to Kamikochi, only better. The road would go through a small tunnel, come out the other side and all of the sudden you'd be dazzled! The sunlight streams through the edges of the tunnel and you see the edge of the road grazing precipitously the edge of a steep cliff. A huge river flows at the bottom of the cliff. Huge forested sloping hills, rocky crags, and streams running alongside the roads. I haven't felt like this in years! I can't believe how alive I feel! It makes the way I felt, the way the world looked before, seem so paltry and weak, and now I see the world in full color. I'd forgotten what it felt like to see the world like this, and regretful that I'd forgotten, ashamed really.
And now fearful. Fearful that I'll go back and forget what all this truly felt, smelled and looked like. But I guess you have to forget it to a certain extent or else you'd be out there all the time and never settle down to a sane existence. But for now I have a respite. From the nagging of my ambitions, my teachers, my future, and my responsibilities. Now I only have the texture of my backpack under my fingers, the hum of the wheels under my feet, the beckon of the road and the smell of adventure.
The moment we rolled into Takayama I knew this town was different than any other city I'd been to. It's a small town, yet it handles so much tourism... and yet it hasn't been blemished by all of it. The houses are more old-fashioned the town has a lazy kind of laid back feeling to it.
I got an English map at the tourist information and they helped me find my way to the hostel on the other side of town. This hostel is inside a Buddhist temple! I checked in and paid and the room I'm in is a very large, nondescript tatami room. Two lights, no furniture, no closets, and a whole lot of futons outside. It didn't look like there was any other foreigners in the hostel so I went out into the town. It was too late to see any sites, they'd all been closed by then) so I went out for Takayama's famous Hida Soba. Just about every restaurant sells that around here. I got a few things at a gift shop and took a few pictures of the "Old Town" quarter.
When I got back, the place was teeming with Japanese people. The only non-Japanese person I saw was an Indian man. I was looking for the bath and he was apparently coming back from it, so I asked him in Japanese where it was (I didn't want to seem presumptuous and just start speaking English to him). He said, "I'm sorry, but I don't understand Japanese." Sometimes I'm just too cautious in that PC direction, I guess. I asked him again in English and he directed me to it. After the bath, I went back to the room and read for a while. Then I watched some TV out in the common room. There was a large group of young girls.. .they seemed to be by themselves but they could only be about 13 years old. Around 8 they started playing this soothing traditional Japanese music, I heard they play that until around ten to help people go to sleep. Around nine guys started piling into my room along with the Indian man. He was from Nepal. I overheard him talking to a Japanese girl speaking English. I asked him about her and he said he was traveling with a group. I wondered how an older Indian man from Nepal wound up traveling with a bunch of Japanese college students but I didn't want to appear to nosey and ask. He was a nice guy, we talked for a bit before we went to sleep. His name is Swami Shailendra and he lives in this little village out in the sticks in Nepal.
The girls next door to us (the group of 13 year olds) kept me up for a loooong time, they were so loud. It sounded like a slumber party. So out of place in a Buddhist temple. I decided not to rain on their parade until they woke me up at 12 or something. They were just way too loud. I think I heard one of the guys from my room go and tell them to shut up a half hour before but they were still loud. I got up, knocked on their door. After three seconds of silence, the door opened softly and there were about 8 girls sitting in a circle. I brought my finger to my lips and, "sssshhhhhhhhhh". About 20 "gomennasai"s ("I'm very sorry"s) later I wished them good night and didn't hear another peep out of them.
Sunday, August 29, 1999: The Way Back
I'm breaking with my tradition here of ending the week on Saturday, but I'm writing Sunday because this is the last chapter of my mini-adventure.
I woke up today to what sounded like new-age Japanese music. Very mellow, very cool. Breakfast consisted of rice, vegetables, a hard boiled egg, meso soup, and one or two other things I could not identify. I saw the girls again at breakfast, all wearing girl scout (the Japanese equivalent, anyway) uniforms. Ok, that explains it. After breakfast I talked to the Indian guy again and we exchanged addresses and phone numbers and email addresses (yes, he had email!).
I left the temple and went back to the train station and dropped off my stuff before exploring the city. Yesterday when I got the map at tourist information the person there explained that buses to Shokawa Valley are really few and far between. The earliest they come back from the valley is 1:30 and I had already hoped to be on my way back to Wakayama by then. And if I went I wouldn't be able to see anything around the city. So the first thing I did was I went to the morning markets along the Miyagawa River. Every morning, farmers' wives from nearby villages bring vegetables and flowers to sell. There are also a number of omiyage-type gifts and tourist knickknacks.
After that, I saw Takayama Jinya, a historical government house which resembles a small palace. The neatest thing about the Jinya wasn't the building itself, but the granary where they stored the rice stalks to keep track of taxes due.
After the Jinya, I visited a Hida folk village. The villages were like small museums to where they had moved houses from all over the area. It was really interesting. Thatched roof houses with firepits in the center of the house. The Forest of Seven Lucky Gods was nearby. Displayed in Edo-period granaries at the entrance to the forest are seven huge wooden statues carved from 1,000 year old trees! The forest was relatively small but so much of the large statues I've seen have been Buddhist. These gods are Shinto.
Ahh, then it was time to go. I checked out the times for the trains. To take a local (for which my train ticket would have been valid for) to the next major city would have taken four hours. But the expresses (there were more of these for some reason) take about an hour and a half. Oh, yeah. I have two and a half hours to burn. Sure.
So I bought the express ticket. It was already 1pm and the long train ride sounded appealing in a certain way, but I wanted to get back. 10 hours to get back to Wakayama is a long train ride (if I took only locals).
The scenery back was still fantastic. From Takyama to Gifu we passed endless rivers, mountains and small ponds. Now and then I'd see a farmer working in his stepped rice paddy. The train would come out of the tunnel and we'd be facing a river or pond with a fisherman standing or boating in the middle of it. The sunlight cast thousands of glittering diamonds over the waters. I think that if I was born and raised in a place like this I wouldn't be as restless as I am.
I met someone on the train. A Japanese engineer named Tanaka. We talked mostly about working conditions in Japan and America. He gave me some stuff to think about. He said he wanted to retire when he was 30 or 35. He transferred with me as far as Osaka, he went on to Hyogo. He was only visiting his friend in Takayama who retired from engineering to make woodcarvings. I got back to my apartment around 8:30 or 9 tonight. More than 7 hours on the train. I can't wait to get my pictures developed! But now my mind has to settle down and get ready for school. I got a message from Glen reminding me that a short letter for the JTEs is due tomorrow at our meeting with Mr. Tsuyama.
It's said the best way to solve a problem is to distance yourself from it. I didn't really figure out what I wanted to, but that doesn't matter so much to me right now. I saw things I'll never see again, met people from all over the world, and experienced things I won't forget. I didn't find what I was looking for, but I found something I thought I'd lost. Something I thought I'd lost a long time ago.