Monday, May 22, 2006

Back in Canada

Hi everyone! It's been a week. A full week. We are back. We are safe.

In one week, we've managed to accomplish a lot. We bought a car, we both bought cell phones (they suck SO BAD compared to Japanese cell phones), we moved into our apartment for the summer, changed over our yennies, and even managed to celebrate my mother's birthday yesterday!

How are we? Hmmm... Well, we've always liked "newness", and starting over fresh, so I guess in a way we're enjoying the excitement of that. And of course it's wonderful to catch up with family and friends, and enjoy their extended presence again.

But something's not quite right.

I know that we're not quite okay when I get so angry at my useless Canadian cell phone that I want to smash it to pieces... when my most exciting moment of the day occurs when I find sushi rice at the local Asian food mart... when I sigh softly at the mention of places like AEON, SaveOn, Joyful Honda, or products like Pocky, Kirin, dashi...when I long to take a walk past Daidai and down amongst the rice fields again...

We're okay.

But keep in touch, okay? Don't stop your friendly little emails. We need our friends in Japan just as much as we need them in Canada. (oh, and we like our American friends, too...Kirlin)! And keep reading the blog. We still have to finish our travel journal...there's about one more week of that left, and it's the most exciting one, cause Joanne joined us! And then our blog will gradually shift to our new Canadian lives. So don't go away, please...

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Beautiful Shikoku Coast

After our night in Nanrakuen, we headed down the coast through Tatsukushi and Minokoshi to Ashizuri Misaki, the southwestern cape of Shikoku. The coast was spectacular, with all kinds of cool rock formations. And we managed to beat the rain for the most part, finally getting partially soaked at the lighthouse. Not bad.

One thing we've noticed about the Japanese is that they can be very imaginative when describing rock formations. Every touristy place we've been to, we've heard rocks described as turtles, lions, breasts, monks... So in the Japanese tradition, Jeff would like you to look closely at this rock ... what do you see? We see a child's face. What's kind of weird is that this whole section of coast was covered in flat rocks interspersed with strange round rocks... like a whole lot of half buried skulls. Cool.

This is a cave we hiked down to, just as we were reaching the cape. The English signage caught our attention, as it referred to the cave as "someshing special." This picture doesn't really do the cave total justice. It really was huge. We could walk under it, as the tide was out. We hadn't seen anyshing so special in quite a long time!

And finally, the lighthouse at the cape. It was already raining at this point. I love the blues in this picture.

After reaching the lighthouse, we drove up the other side of the coast to the city Kochi. Great city with lots of cool markets. If you go, try the katsuo. They serve the fish raw, searing just the outside in flames. Tasty. And they have a fabulous market on Sundays...that we didn't get to go to. Something like 600 booths. Oh well, next time, right?

Sex Shrines and Pretty Flowers...(?)

So after Matsuyama we started to travel down the coast to head towards Ashizuri Misaki, one of the capes of Shikoku. I had read that in Uwajima, a town along the way, was a shrine dedicated to fertility, with an adjoining sex museum. "A sex museum?!" thought I. "Don't have these in Canada...hmmm... let's check it out!"

Well, I think this picture sums it up well. Yes, folks, a large wooden penis. We should have listened to the warning bells; we should have turned back... but we didn't.

We paid our entrance fee to the 3-story museum, and entered. I turned my head, and saw the monk/priest who took our money surfing porn on the Internet. Once again, we should have listened to the warning bells; we should have turned back... but we didn't.

What did we see? TOO BLOODY MUCH!! Every single millimeter of space was used in this museum - floor to ceiling. Phallic "items," positional diagrams, sculptures, photos...I'm still working on cleansing my soiled mind. Thankfully, not everything I see resembles a penis anymore. Phew.

Enough said. Live and learn.

After our disturbing stop in Uwajima, we headed down the coast towards Nanrakuen, our camping stop for the evening. This is a close-up of a gorgeous flower Jeff found just outside the restaurant we went to for dinner. Gotta love the macro lens! The flower is actually not very large... the close-up just throws you off. I absolutely love the sharp colors.

And here I am at our dinner stop, madly planning our time in Shikoku. Me and a map ... a very common sight during our trip.

And Onto the Next Island ... Shikoku

Our first stop in Shikoku was Matsuyama, the largest city on the island, with a population of around 470,000. While there, we checked out its two major attractions: Dogo onsen, and Matsuyama jo.

Dogo onsen, with its massive, beautiful public bath house, is everything I think a Japanese onsen should be. The building is over 100 years old, and it’s absolutely gorgeous, especially at night, with its dark wood and Japanese screens. Leading up to the building is a covered shopping arcade, with shops full of traditional Japanese items, including fans, prints, lacquerware, and onsen bathing needs. People staying at the surrounding ryokan inns totter about in their wooden geta and their loose cotton yukata. It all makes for an incredibly romantic scene.

That being said, it wasn’t one of our better onsen experiences. It became very clear very quickly that people from all over Japan come to this one bathhouse to be able to say, just as we now can, that they have bathed at Dogo Onsen. The system was confusing, as you could pay a number of fees for different levels of service, and the change rooms and baths were absolutely packed! To the point that we were almost touching one another while we bathed!

Jeff and I opted for the “mid-range” service. This meant that we were each given a yukata to lounge in after the bath. We also got to sit in a common rest area and enjoy some tea and snacks after the bath. Sounds nice, eh? Except for Jeff… with his long legs and his knee problems, he can’t sit “seiza” – on his knees. Meaning that he constantly had to worry about his yukata robe splitting apart and revealing his world!

So ya, been there, done that…!

The whole area around the onsen is very quaint. Natsume Soseki, a famous Japanese author, once lived in Matsuyama and frequented the onsen, so some sights around the onsen are modeled after his book, “Botchan”. This train actually runs (for the tourists’ sake, of course). Doesn’t this scene look so Niagara-on-the-Lake??

Finally, the other attraction we went to visit in the city, was Matsuyama castle. There are castles all over Japan, but most of them are concrete reproductions. This castle is an original survivor. Unfortunately, as would be the case, while we were there, the main part of the castle was covered in scaffolding! But Jeff still did his best to capture parts of the castle.

Finally, this is a samurai outfit that caught Jeff's attention in the castle. I wouldn't want to meet up with someone dressed like this! These were scary little dudes!

Back to Honshu...

Yufuin and Beppu were our last stops in the large island known as Kyushu. We were very loathe to leave Kyushu, as it had been such a fascinating place with natural attractions we had never seen before. However, our time (and money) being limited, we knew we had to move on back to Honshu and towards Shikoku, our next main destination.

Unfortunately, this move back to Honshu also provided us with our absolutely WORST hostel/town experience of the entire trip. It was such a horrid letdown that we actually considered just calling off the rest of our travels. I’m glad we didn’t.

In the Lonely Planet, it advises people to make a day trip out of a visit to the Akiyoshidai caves, as the town doesn’t have much to offer. People, HEED this advice!!! It is a grave understatement. Weary from a long day of travel, we arrived at the youth hostel only to find a huge, ugly, smelly, institutional-looking ramshackle of a mess. It was cold; everything, including our “clean” sheets, smelled of cigarette smoke and mildew. Judging by the furniture, carpet, posters, peeling paint, and ETC, it looked as though no one had stayed there since the 70s. And yes, we were the only ones there. After our bath in the skuzzy bathroom that permanently soiled our towels, we spent the rest of the night ferociously planning our escape the next day.

We woke early and got to the caves as soon as possible. It quickly became apparent that the caves are the only sustenance of the town. The road to the caves is lined with dilapidated souvenir stores selling tacky outdated items that would suit the atmosphere of the youth hostel quite well.

ANYHOO… the caves really were fantastic. They are the largest limestone caves in Japan. A river actually runs through part of the cave and there are all kinds of funky rock formations… that being said, I’m not sure I’d do it again.

After the caves, we decided to try our best to make it to Shikoku that night. We hit the road, stopping only once, at Iwakuni. This was a much more worthwhile destination. Iwakuni is famous for its old samurai quarter and mainly for its five-sash bridge. The bridge is beautiful, really beautiful. At one time, only samurai could cross the bridge. Regular folk had to cross the river by boat. I highly recommend the town for a pleasant afternoon of strolling with “soft cream” in hand.

After enjoying a few hours in Iwakuni, we made the trip to Shikoku. Thought you might enjoy seeing the Mazda truck we saw at a convenience store stop.