Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Pictorial of Goodbyes

After our travels, we spent one last week in Ota, saying our goodbyes. Here's some of the highlights:

Mikiko graciously let us stay in her one-room apartment for the week. And her sister Emiko was with us for half of that week! Here we are in that one room. Life was cramped but cozy. Unfortunately, as soon as we got back to Ota, I developed something suspiciously flu-like. You can see I'm looking a little green. But it didn't keep me from laughing (albeit half-asleep) all the way through "Lonestar: State of Mind." Didn't hurt that Emi had the whole stinking movie memorized! You guys'll be happy to know we bought our own copy. Jeff slips into it every now and then... "Earl's kissin' his sister again!"

The group at Hitachi that I taught every Monday night (and that Mikiko took over) had a goodbye enkai for us. They were a fantastic group of students: fun and easy-to-teach. The group of them presented us with our own husband-wife set of chopsticks! Thanks, guys!

Friday night we had our last Ikkyu get-together. Here she is. This picture almost brings tears to my eyes...so many good memories at this place!

Me and Ayako on the left, and Yuka-chan on the right. Yuka is coming to Canada August 4th for a visit!! YAY!!



Mikiko and Casey on the left. Mi-chan had quite the night that night. Mmmhmm, she did. And Christian on the right, Jeff's snowboarding buddy.

Minoru and Tsugio Urano treated us one last time to lunch. This couple really made Ota feel like home to us. I'll never forget my initial meeting with Minoru in Kohikan, while I was sitting there by myself, studying Japanese. He was so excited to meet an English-speaking person that he talked to me for over an hour.

The Uranos always took us to interesting local spots, introducing us to great restaurants and attractions right in the Ota area. Tsugio is the one who helped me dress in a yukata last year for the Ota summer festival. And they also introduced us to our favourite tempura restaurant and the Tatebayashi art gallery. We miss you very much!

Our last day and night in Japan was spent with -who else but Joanne- in Tokyo. She took us out to this amazing Japanese pub in Kichijoji that serves big, fat, delicious gyoza. I'm telling you, if you go to Tokyo, get yourself on the Chuo train line, and head to Kichijoji. It's not as overwhelming as the rest of Tokyo, but it has great shopping, my favourite jewelery store, and even a cafe-lined street (with a Starbucks!) that leads to a beautiful park, complete with its own swan-shaped pedal boats. We'll see you in August, Joanne!! Woo-oo!!

And just as we were calling it a night, Tokyo surprised us one last time. Right at the entrance to the train station was this amazing honky-tonk band. I mean, they were GOOD! We stood mesmerized for quite some time. I kept wondering what on earth would possess a young Japanese man to learn to play the washboard...as I said, one last wonderful surprise.

And that concludes the Japan chapter. This particular Japan chapter, that is. I expect there will be more.

Monday, July 24, 2006

And all too soon, it was done. I mean, it was really done...

It was time to go home. Back to Ota. Our plan for the day was simple: go to the last onsen of the Honguu area, and then hit the highway and drive all the way back. It was Saturday morning, and Joanne needed to be back and teaching on Monday.

The first dilemma of the day: 3 hungry Westerners who were absolutely UNWILLING to have udon or any other Japanese quick-fix for breakfast. Normally not a problem. Just hit a convenience store. But for once, we had gotten ourselves so in the middle of beautiful nowhere, that there weren't even any of those in sight. Panic set in. And then, we saw this: a convenience store on wheels. This guy was driving the streets, selling his unlikely mix of foods, including -YAY- bread products. We were so excited we couldn't even wait to get in the car to eat!

With bellies full, we went to Yunomine Onsen. It was another incredibly quaint stretch of town, and clearly an onsen source. The water bubbling through town was all boiling hot. You could buy all manner of food that you could then put into this caged-off area to cook. Yes, that's right. Boiling water just bubbling up from the earth. As you can see, eggs were a popular choice, although we also saw people boiling potatoes and even garlic. You could also try coffee brewed with onsen water. I quite liked this although it didn't agree with Joanne that much.

This is a picture of the onsen area in the town, with the boiling source water on the left. This onsen offers a choice of hot spring baths. You can use the regular style bath, or you can try the "kusuri onsen" ... medicine hot springs, where the water is 100% hot spring water, and really stinking hot!! Joanne and I went for the second option. It was really old school, hard core bathing. A small change room, and then an equally small bathing area, with taps where you could rinse yourself off, and then one deep, square bath. And no soap allowed in the bathing area at all. I guess they want to make sure to keep the water totally pure. We stunk like sulfur after this one.

This bath is the third option. I believe it's called "tsubo no yu." It is a little shack of a bath house. What you see is what you get. It holds a max of two people. You pay and then get the shack to yourself. You'd think people might take advantage of the system and take exhorbitantly long baths. No chance of that. Shortly after seeing someone enter the shack, we would soon hear exclamations of "atsui! ATSUI!" (hot! HOT!). And soon after that, said bathers would emerge very red-faced. Not worth the price of admission, if you ask me. But a neat idea.

After lingering in the town most of the morning, Jeff and Jo managed to drag me out. I really didn't want to leave. I really didn't want it to all be over.

And then we drove. And drove. And drove. Just for fun, here's what Joanne's view was most of the trip.

We arrived in Ota at 2 in the morning, and crashed at a crazy place called the "Mongolian Spa." If you want to know the full story, ask us. But it involves wearing colour-coordinated towel-like outfits, and sleeping in a room full of loudly snoring strangers on blue mats. Ya. Only in Japan.

In the morning, Jeff thankfully dropped me off at Mikiko's before he drove Joanne to the train station where she caught her train back to the jungle of Tokyo. If you didn't believe me before, here's the proof: the Daihatsu, post-trip, in front of Mikiko's apartment. We really did it. Three of us. And it really was that packed full. The whole time. It's a good thing Joanne's short and we all have keenly developed senses of humour is all I can say.

Can I get a wooo-oo wooo-oo?! ;)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Our Wonderful, Bittersweet, Last, Full Day

We had an absolutely packed, but absolutely amazing last full day. We started by driving the 40 minutes to Shirahama. We wanted to start the day at this oceanside onsen resort town, enjoying a dip in the hot springs and a stroll along the white sand beach. The onsen is amazing. Jeff's and Joanne's favourite the whole trip. As you can see, (don't look too closely!) it's right on the ocean. If it's a windy enough day, the waves splash into the onsen. This one is strictly an outdoor bath, as usual segregated by sex. Even though we were there in the morning, it was still quite crowded. But the ocean view is breathtaking! There are a number of small pools, and if you get too hot, you can climb onto the rocks to cool down. (However, I think only the men do this!)

Here's Joanne and I lounging on the rocks by the ocean right after our bath.

And then we went to the beach. WOW! Can you believe this is in Japan?? Suddenly, we felt like we were walking around on some tropical island! The sand was so white, and the water was this perfect turquoise. Funny thing is, the current strip of white sand was imported from Australia after the original bit was washed away! I guess they just couldn't part with such a good thing...



After checking out Shirahama, we started on our last coastal drive. Our goal for the day was to drive along the coast from Shirahama to Shinguu. Then we planned to head back inland to Hongu for our last night. The LP listed a number of places to stop and admire the rugged scenery, and we spent our day doing just that. It's amazing how you can never tire of looking at jutting rocks and swirling sea. As Joanne put it, "Today rocks! We're rockin'!" Well said, my friend. ;)



This picture and the one above are of a set of rocks in Kushimoto known as "Hashi-kui-iwa." The Japanese say that the pillars look like hooded monks walking in line to a nearby island. To be honest, we saw the resemblance this time. Maybe all the travelling and imagining finally got to our brains!

After a tonkatsu dinner in Shinguu, we drove back to camp, making it in time for a soak in the Watarase rotemburo. This was one of my personal favourites of the trip. There is something completely breathtaking about quietly bathing in an outdoor bath at night. The baths were HUGE, more like small pools, really. At one point, I was alone in one, and I actually did swim! The night was peaceful, the stars were out. I found myself not wanting my time there to end. It was a very sentimental night for me, as I knew we were heading back to Ota and then soon to Canada.



After returning to the camp, each of us with one large can of beer in hand, we went and sat by the river to enjoy our last night. Jeff made a little fire for us to enjoy, and we bundled up to keep bugs at bay. I remember wanting so badly to remember each and every sensation from that night. I had completely fallen in love with the Wakayama area, with its perfect blend of ocean, onsens, mountains, rivers, and camping. I spent a few minutes focussing in turn on each of my five senses. I watched the ripple of moonlight in the river, the glowing of the fire, I tasted the bitter fuzziness of the beer, listened to the crackling, to the hushed voices, I smelled the smoke and the dampness, and felt the warmth of my hood and the flame.

I'd like to have that night back.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Paradise Found

When I read about the Kii-Hantou region of Wakayama in the LP, I knew that this was not a place to be missed. As our time was running out, there were compromises we had to make, places we could not see. I was willing to give up a few stops, but not this one. Its combination of mountains, cheap river-side camping, spectacular coastal drives and famous, yet out-of-the-way onsens most definitely called out to me. I thought it would be the perfect way to end our travels. And it was.

We started our day with (sigh) more traffic. We had driven quite off our path to find the love hotel, and we ended up driving back through the city of Wakayama just to get back onto the -toll- highway. We had spent most of our trip avoiding the toll roads as much as possible, both for cost and sight-seeing purposes. However, since the area we were heading into was really mountainous, Jeff had figured it would be best to take the toll roads as far as possible before hitting the windy, curvy roads that take a lot of time and make Joanne feel kinda queasy.

Ah, yes, well...once again, we hit the highway, and we... STOPPED. I mean, when we moved, we generally went no faster than 5 km/hr. Luckily, the sun was up, and we were prepared. We read. Yes, we read. ALL of us. And we thought nothing of it, really. Like I said, when we moved, it was usually only at about 5 km/hr. So Jeff drove with his book open on the steering wheel. Don't worry; we were practicing safe reading. As soon as traffic got moving over 10 km/hr, Jeff put the book down. At one point, I looked up and saw a young Japanese couple in a mini-van peering at us and laughing quite hysterically. I guess it did look sort of funny. And they couldn't even see poor Joanne squished with everything else in the backseat reading her book!

After over an hour of not-really-driving, we saw the sign for the love hotel we had stayed at just that night. "You mean all of that sitting in traffic (not to mention paying for it!) just to get us to where we started this morning??!!" Jeff was not impressed. So we got off at the next exit (the one for the love hotel) and decided to chance the windy back roads. We had no idea what to expect.

Good news, folks. The Golden Week craziness seems to be confined to the highways. We had NO problems. Very little traffic. It was a longer route overall, but worth it. The mountain scenery was spectacular, and we got to stop at some really interesting sights, like this suspended bridge. And Jo's tummy held up too!

Once we got to our destination, we decided to focus on finding a place to sleep first, and then relaxing for the rest of the day, since the previous day's travels had really worn us all down. We drove into the very rural town of Honguu, looking for the onsens and the camping. As we drove along the river, we soon found the camping. Talk about a deal! We had to pay about $6/night/person. In turn, we got to enjoy the exact opposite of Japanese "auto camp." The guy who took our money motioned for us to plunk ourselves anywhere there was room. There were no official "sites," just tents and cars all happily crammed in together. There were no sticky rules about not having fires either. There was a basic wash-up area provided, for cooking purposes, and toilets, but no showers. But who needs showers when the nearest onsen is only a minute's walk away!

A word to lovers of hot springs: You really MUST visit this area. It is SO worth it. There are three beautiful onsens in this area, each very unique, and each within a minute or two (by car) of each other. The one closest to us, which we could walk to, was Watarase Onsen. This onsen features the largest rotemburo (outdoor bath) in the whole Kansai area. At night, it is simply magical. Then, there is Kawa-yu Onsen. This one is really unique. The road through town runs parallel to a shallow river, only about ankle-deep. While the river water is cold, the water bubbling up through the gravel river bank is warm, even hot. You can play here all day! Just bring a little shovel, sit your butt on the river bank, and start digging. Soon you'll have your own private bath. Some ryokans even have staff who "manage" the bathing holes, digging them for their guests. This one is a real hit with young families. One family even had their dog soaking with them! But, as you can imagine, you'll want to wear a bathing suit to this one. It is, after all, smack in the middle of town. Finally, there is Yunomine Onsen, which has a small complex of baths. We went there on our last morning, so I'll save description of that one for later. Oh! And if all that bathing weren't enough, you're only a 40 minute drive from Shirahama Onsen, a super-old and super-famous bath right beside the ocean. More on that one later, too.

Other than finding our destination for the next three days and two nights, we did little else. We had dinner at a small restaurant where we could watch the bathers at Kawa-yu, and then we relaxed at the campsite. It was a gorgeous night. Golden Week was at its peak, and the place was packed. Families sat around fires, lit off sparklers, played by the river. We met a very nice couple who shared their delicious sake with us while Jeff was surrounded by a group of elementary-school aged boys who wanted to practice their English on him. It was a very relaxing night.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

hahahaha!

I can't believe I just found this picture! This was taken with Joanne's camera. It's the curtained-off area in the lobby of the love hotel we slept in. Oh ya...this picture is a keeper!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Golden Week Madness

After travelling for five weeks in often lonely conditions and deserted places, Jeff and I were curious about the supposed Golden Week hordes. The unbelievable crowds of people who block traffic for miles and miles and make travel entirely unpleasant, if not impossible. Golden Week mostly consists of three consecutive holidays, put together with a fourth earlier holiday, a weekend, and maybe a day or two of nenkyu (paid holiday) to roughly equal a week. Japanese and foreign friends alike had told us Golden Week horror stories of sitting in traffic for hours on end. The week leading up to all the kafuffle, we asked around. We were unsure of what to expect, and most definitely nervous as we had made absolutely NO reservations anywhere. Responses ranged from "oh yes, we are booked solid," to "oh, we don't expect it to be too different." At first we thought we would be safe. After all, we were on Shikoku island, still a mostly backwater location. But those initial thoughts failed to take the Akashi Kaikyou bridge into consideration. That would be the convenient little bridge connecting Kobe, population 1.5 million and Osaka, population 2.5 million to sweet little Shikoku.

The above picture is Joanne and I looking happy at the start of the day. We spent the day travelling up the coast of Shikoku from Muroto-misaki to the Naruto whirlpools, where we crossed the aforementioned bridge into the cosmopolitan world of Osaka. What were we thinking???

This is a picture of a stupid place. Don't go to this place, my friends. Especially if it's Golden Week. Disregard what the Lonely Planet guide or any tourist tells you. It's simply not worth it. The Place: the Naruto Whirlpools. The attraction: let me quote the handy-dandy LP, (2003, p. 612) "At the change of tide, seawater whisks through the narrow Naruto channel with such velocity that ferocious whirlpools are created." Yes, you can take boat trips to get close to the whirlpools, or you can go on a walkway under the Naruto bridge to give you a birds-eye view.

Or, you can experience the following: a frantic drive through the not-very-excting town of Naruto. OKAY...we're in the town, we see the water, so WHERE are the whirlpools?? Oh beautiful land of helpful road signs, WHERE are your signs?? A frantic stop at the over-crowded tourist info office. A couple of frantic wrong turns. Okay, we're almost there. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnddddd....
STOP. The traffic. The buses. The people. The people wearing bright uniforms and directing the traffic. The overflowing parking. The shuttle buses that take you to the damn museum instead of the whirlpools. The Japanese tourists who, for once, are just as clueless as the gaijin. The correct shuttle buses that don't let you on because they are jam-packed full. Hey! Aren't we in Japan? Where are the little men with the white gloves to shove us on the buses? And finally, we arrive, with 10 million gazillion other people, and we're.... two minutes too late.

Did I fail to mention that these amazing whirlpools only happen about twice a day? That's right: you snooze, you lose. Or, as the LP says (2003, p. 613) "get the timetable and don't go at the wrong time." No kidding. Thanks for coming out.

This is about the time things got beyond ridiculous. To cross the bridge to get back onto Honshu, the main island, we had to take the toll highway. The highway you PAY to drive. So we did. We figured we'd cross over, drive as fast and as far as we could stand, find a love hotel (yes, the three of us) and crash before going into Wakayama-ken, our final destination, the next day. But no sooner than we got on the bridge, this happened. And it just got worse. We finally saw a sign for a rest stop that was 1km away. It took us over an hour to get there. I kid you not.
The atmosphere in the car rapidly degenerated. The politically incorrect jokes became waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay incorrect. To make matters worse, if you think Jeff can get out of hand, try putting Jeff together with Joanne. In a very small overstuffed car. Half the time I didn't know if I should laugh or cry or scream. Thankfully, I mostly laughed. We came up with some good business ideas though. We decided we should start teaching conversational English from the car using large flashcards conveniently held out the window. People could toss donations into the open windows. I started working on the opener, a few cards with the question, "Do you speak English?" But by the time I was done, we had reached the rest stop. Too bad.

I'll leave to your imaginations the state of this rest stop. It was a long night.

Did you think I was done with the storytelling for today? I'm not. Not yet. We finally reached Wakayama, Wakayama around midnight. We were dead tired. Things were starting to fall apart. Our collective patience was just about done. We wanted to stop driving, and we wanted to sleep. We drove the city streets of Wakayama, but for once, the love hotels eluded us. We just couldn't seem to find them. And then when we did, they were full. We started to catch on to the dreadful truth: the Japanese had learned our secret. No longer were love hotels only for secret rendezvous. They too were now using love hotels as cheap places to crash for a night. Oh no.

Finally, at the last love hotel "on the strip," Jeff got desperate. The sliding doors were closed. He pried them open. The surprised woman offered the only room that was left, at 3 man. (That would be $300) Jeff looked dejected and started to walk away. Then, as a last act of desperation, he asked her: "Do you have anything else? She joked that we could sleep in a curtained-off section of the lobby. Jeff's eyes brightened. "How much?" "7,000 yen," she said. (70 bucks). We talked her down to 6,000 yen, 20 bucks per person. What an experience! They pulled out the softest futons EVER for us, gave us Pooh-san blankets, provided us with water "service," and let us use the staff toilet.

And forever after, we get to say that we slept in the lobby of a love hotel. Right on!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Rocks, Lighthouses, and Sunsets

We started our day with this hysterical sight: someone likes Demi a little too much. Mind you, the van was also for sale, so perhaps the love affair is over. All the cameras were out for this one...cell phones, digitals big and small. I think the Japanese people driving by wondered what all the fuss was for!

After having coffee at the cafe that ONLY plays ONE SONG by the Black Eyed Peas, we took Joanne back to some of the impressive sights we had just seen a few days before. Here she is on the vine bridge...



And then we hit the coast. Our goal for that day was to get to the other cape/point/tip of Shikoku, called Muroto-misaki. This was another loooong driving day, but since Jo was new to this, she didn't seem to mind.

The coastline at Muroto-misaki was simply amazing. SO rugged. The wind was also super strong in this area, making for awesome crashing waves. We heard they get a lot of fierce typhoons around here. No kidding. The picture on the right is a "Where's Waldo" inspiration. Can you see Kathy and Joanne??

All around Shikoku we kept finding these amazing trees. So much personality.

Previously, we posted the lighthouse on Shikoku's other tip/point/cape, Ashizuri-misaki. This is the lighthouse we saw at Muroto-misaki. Not as impressive, in my books, but still pretty cool.

Here's Joanne demonstrating how to properly walk downhill on our walk back to the car from the lighthouse. You really should ask her how it's done. She's got stellar technique. And according to Jo, you save a lot of energy doing it this way... (notice Kathy in the background trying not to pee herself...)



And finally, the sunset. Wow! We had just pitched the tent and were on our way to look for dinner when we literally stopped on our way downhill on the side of a road to admire this beauty. It was the most gorgeous sunset we had seen our whole trip. We sat and watched it for quite a while. On the left, you can see the sun dipping behind another land mass. That is actually the other side of Shikoku island! It was really breathtaking.

A lot of people have commented on this picture, so I thought I'd post it here. This was the free campsite we stayed at that night, along with a bunch of friendly motorcyclists. We were constantly awoken by the fiercely strong winds that kept blowing in the sides of the tent. We created this photo effect by shining a flashlight in circles on the tent while Jeff took the picture. Beautiful night!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

This One's for YOU, Joanne!

For our last week of travels, Joanne joined us! She couldn't have had more perfect timing. As we were nearing the end of our trip, I was becoming a bit melancholy, knowing that our time in Japan was almost up. It was wonderful to get some fresh enthusiasm pumping through our little Daihatsu. And it was simply surreal... picking Joanne up from the airport in Takamatsu and going for a week-long drive with her through the mountains of Japan!

We started the day by exploring a really BIG temple, #75 of the 88-track. Shikoku is home to Japan's most well-known pilgrimage, an 88-temple circuit that runs (mostly) around the perimeter of the island. Pilgrims (henro in Japanese) have been completing this 1400km circuit for over 1000 years. For me, this was an incredibly meaningful portion of the trip. It was pilgrim season while we were there, due to the (mostly) ideal weather, and everywhere we went, we saw pilgrims walking along the roads, whether it be in the heat or the pouring rain. We were actually really surprised by how many we saw. They are very recognizable as they always have the same "accessories." I was extremely impressed by their commitment to walk this path. We saw many elderly people doing the walk, in addition to father/son and husband/wife pairs. We even saw one couple who were walking the whole route with their husky. I found it very touching. Especially to see the older folks.

Here's Joanne and I doing our own pilgrim impersonation.

Unfortunately, our visit to this temple was less than pleasant. It was a MASSIVE complex swarming with people. Not exactly a peaceful stop. And on top of that, we were followed -and pestered- by a drunk Japanese man who was a little too excited to be meeting 3 Canadians. He kept trying to give us money so that we could send his wife some Canadian omiyage (souvenirs). And he also was getting a little too friendly with my shoulder... Joanne and I managed to escape, leaving Jeff to fend him off.

Oh, yes, but we did enjoy watching the funny turtles.

After this, we headed to the ocean. Witness two retards getting excited over the sight of salt water:


And witness Jeff in yet another tree he probably shouldn't be climbing...

We ended the day by visiting temple #88, the last one of the circuit. The difference between this one and the one we had seen earlier in the day was like night and day. This one was in a much more rural setting, and the whole atmosphere was very quiet, serene, and sacred. Jeff and Joanne walked around the grounds taking pictures of interesting statues and architecture, while I stood mesmerized by the chanting of two pilgrims. It was the first time in Japan that I had witnessed the Japanese being outwardly spiritual, but in a private setting, with no monk or priest or whatever leading them. It made me crave to see more of this side of the Japanese, the side that is more open in spirit.



After another udon stop, we found a "campground" to spend the night in. A word about camping in Japan. If you want camping in the Canadian sense, avoid what the Japanese refer to as "auto camp." It's really not cool. You drive into a sterile area that has been stripped of all its trees, park your car, and pitch your tent in your cordoned off area. And you pay too much. Why? Cause of the facilities. Beautiful, polished wood, super clean facilities, so the yuppie Japanese couple in their sparkly Beamer can enjoy their rented cottage in a spotless setting. Blech. Needless to say, we were slightly amused, but mostly unimpressed.

All I want is a hole in which to empty my ass, and a flat surface on which to lay my ass! Thank you very much.