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!