Ohisashiburi desu! (That's the local for "Long time no see.") I've been away from my keyboard for a month and a half. First, as some of you know, I made it all the way to America, where I saw not nearly enough of my friends and family. Then my nephew Dave (21, not a kid-type nephew) came back to Japan with me, and we traveled around a bit. You know all about America, so there's not much to tell, but I'll leave you with a mental image: Pete, dressed head to toe in camoflage, heading off in a beat-up pickup truck (no gun rack or patriotic/NRA bumper stickers, alas) to go running through the woods with a bunch of other guys with guns. No, I haven't joined a militia--my nephew took me paintballing. I've gotta say: damn, that's a lot of fun. Even the most effete liberal harbors an urge to prowl around in the bush and shoot at people, to hunt his fellow man like some hated prey. Of course, the more effete the liberal, the more he tends to get shot up by the fellow man hunting him, but when he finally gets the hang of it and starts killing more effectively, boy, is it a rush. And if he gets a pink paintball upside the head, the goo matting his hair looks just like what the Klingons bleed in Star Trek 6.
Other JETs have said that they were stunned by the relative rudeness of people back home, especially in the service industry, but, at least after I got out of O'Hare, I didn't find that to be the case. I found most people in stores, and people I talked to on the street, friendly and helpful--in fact, I always have, even in famously rude Paris and New York. On the flip side, I've run into rude Japanese, even a couple of shopkeepers and innkeepers (including a memorably abusive drunk in Kyoto). However, it is true that one frequently encounters here an extravagance of kindness that would be unimaginable in the west. Frequently, when I ask directions in a shop or on the street, people will leave what they're doing for a minute and lead me to what I'm looking for, even when it's not close (though if they just give directions the directions are more than likely to be wrong). Dave and I ran into extreme examples of this. In Kyoto, looking for our inn, we went into a bar to ask if the people inside knew where it was. They didn't, so the proprietor found the number in the phone book, called, got directions, and then left her customers to walk us all the way to the door of the place, about five minutes away. In a town called Nagiso in Nagano prefecture, we walked into a bar to ask if there was a hotel nearby. The bartender called several places, which were all full (it was the height of the tourist season), and then started looking at a train schedule to see if we could still get to the next town. I explained that we had a car, so then he called one more place, found out that they had an opening, and arranged for the owner to drive all the way over so we could follow him back (we never would have been able to find it otherwise, as it was some distance and many unlighted turns away). While we waited for the owner, he made snowcones for us, for free. The ryokan (nicer traditional inn) was absolutely beautiful, and we ate breakfast in a room mostly open on one side to a hillside and a rushing canal (also, the grandfather of the family [I think] and a group of workmen [I think] staying there seemed pretty interested in us and kept us entertained through breakfast). The next night, in the much bigger city of Matsumoto, we asked a waitress about nearby hotels, ultimately tying up her complete attention, along with much of the time of another waitress and two customers, for a good half hour, as she called several places, and finally after much consultation gave us directions to an area with a concentration of the sort of hotels that don't take reservations (never mind that the directions turned out to be quite a bit off). Back in my town, Takefu, at the artisans' knife-making collective, Dave was looking at a knife in the showroom. We asked a couple of questions, and then the cashier disappeared into the back and brought out the artisan who'd made the knife; another artisan joined us a few minutes later. They answered several questions, then they showed us the workshop floor and demonstrated some of the steps in knife-making (fascinating, and a place that OSHA and the insurance companies would never allow to exist in America). Later, back in the showroom, when we had another question the cashier couldn't answer (at least not in a way that I could understand), she brought the artisan back out to help us. Finally, Dave asked the artisan if he had any knives other than those on display, and though he didn't, he went back behind the curtain again and came back a few minutes later with a blade, just sharpened, as a gift for Dave. I should add that the knives he was considering, while very nice and not at all cheap, didn't represent hundreds of dollars in sales--they had no illusion of courting a big spender; they were merely being friendly.
The friendliness of the Japanese people really made this trip wonderful, though it would have been in any case. We first spent a few days in Tokyo, which was nice, though we lost a lot of time fighting the nonsensical disabilities of the primitive Japanese banking system. Oddly, the most fun I had in Tokyo (I'll let Dave choose his own favorite moment) was in a slightly dilapidated very old fashioned amusement park near the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, with goofy outdated rides and very friendly costumed performers. I just love the atmosphere of old-fashioned amusement parks and carnivals--must be the Bradbury fan in me. Other amusements included dodging pimps and hustlers in searches for bars and restaurants in a couple of different neighborhoods (including the one that had the deadly fire last Friday night). If you say "no" to a simple offer to help you find a bar or taxi, the services offered become more and more outrageous.
Then we made our way to Kyoto and did the usual course of temples and shrines. I enjoyed dinner the first night, when we parted the curtains of a local tiny bar/restaurant and, unable to read the menu, chatted for a while with the other patrons and the proprietors before asking her to choose some stuff and bring it out for us ("Do you like fish?" she asked). Turned out to be an assortment of grill-your-own seafood and a small hibachi. The other men in the bar, in a friendly way, tried to bully Dave into getting something harder when initially asked for just water to drink. We made a side trip to Nara, which was fun--more and more I think I have to add Todaiji in Nara to my list of things people shouldn't miss when they come to Japan--and then set about positioning ourselves for what for me was the whole reason to be in Kyoto that night. The week before had been Obon, the time when the dead come back to earth, so Kyoto's temples and shrines had been active until fairly late at night, and the main cemetery was lit up beautifully. On the last night of Obon, the spirits leave for the western paradise, and to guide them on their way Kyoto lights five giant bonfires on four mountains. Four of the bonfires are in the shape of Japanese kanji characters, and one is in the shape of a ship. We'd asked before we left for Nara where we should go to see the fires, so when we got back to town--at the last possible minute--we made our way to the general area and saw the first character, a 500 foot "dai" meaning "big" or "great," on a nearby mountain. Then we headed toward a smaller hill to see if we could get a better a view of the "dai" or the other characters, and as we climbed a crowded stairway, the mostly older people around us showed us the best place to watch from and pointed out the three other characters and the ship visible from there, as well as asking us where we were from, etc. Great atmosphere, and the fires themselves were very impressive. Even the words burning all the way across town, a few miles away, looked large and easily readable from where we were, and the "dai" facing us on the nearby mountainside was beautiful. I'd had to call ten or a dozen inns to find us a room for that night, but it was worth it.
From there we took a train to Himeji, spent the afternoon at the beautiful castle there (the most impressive in Japan and definitely mandatory for any visit to Japan), and then went on to Hiroshima. From the station, we called around to find an inn, then took a trolley to it. We walked around the bomb sites for a while, occasionally trading friendly remarks with a group of three guys who were serenading three women on the river bank above them, and occasionally (well, just me, to Dave's probable embarrassment) singing along to the Beatle's songs they were playing. In the covered arcade area, we saw several small groups performing, each surrounded by its young fan base. I really loved the atmosphere there--you could just walk around and talk to anybody, as everybody was just out relaxing and hanging around. I imagine it must be one of the nicer Japanese cities to live in (it's also more attractive than is normal for a city here). The next day, we went to the bomb museum, which oddly devotes a lot of its space to supporting some of the arguments for the bombing--it extensively demonstrates Hiroshima's military role, disproving the notion popular here and in the West that it wasn't a legitimate military target, and it presents some evidence for the likelihood that an invasion would have been needed otherwise and for the huge human cost that would have entailed (quoting Hirohito in the spring of 1945 calling for "100 million deaths with honor," using the phrase for suicidal resistance to an inevitable defeat, and noting the huge number of "deaths with honor" in the hopeless battle to keep Okinawa). Obviously, the point of the museum is antiwar and antibomb, but the evenhandedness of it was startling. What got me the most were the stories of parents searching for their children and finding only a sandal or a lunch box full of carbonized rice (the actual lunch box and sandal sit in the case in front of these stories). As an aside, I was also struck by the sizes of the tattered school uniforms on display--clothes for junior high school students, ages 12-15, are about the right size for five-to-six year-olds in America, maybe eight or nine year-olds in contemporary Japan. It really illustrates how much the Japanese have grown since the war (about 9" on average, I've read, versus about 2" for us), and how incredibly huge our soldiers must have looked to them. The average soldier in the war must have been just about or maybe even under five feet tall.
From Hiroshima, we caught a train to Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands (much of the train ride was through tunnels, so I'm not even sure which one of them carried us under the sea--Dave never ceased to be amazed [nor me, really] by how much of our travel in Japan, both by car and by rail, was underground). Finally, we ended up on a small diesel train climbing through a series of switchbacks into the crater of the enormous Aso volcano. About 100,000 years ago, a giant explosion blew out a roughly 10 by 12 mile volcanic crater; more recently a series of newer volcanoes rose inside of it, and now you can hike around them, take a cablecar to the currently active cone, which by number and frequency of eruptions over the last 1300 years (or maybe it's since 1300, I forget which) is the most active volcano on earth. The active crater had been closed for the week before we got there due to poisonous gases, so people hadn't been allowed closer than a kilometer, but the winds of an approaching typhoon seemed to have blown away the accumulated gas, and as we waited to board the bus into the area, a woman came out and removed the "volcano is closed" sign. Anyway, Dave and I separated early in the day, so I did not influence him to do the dumb thing I did, although when we met up I found out he'd done exactly the same thing an hour or so before me. After taking the cablecar to the approved lookout and looking down into the crater, which turned out to be filled with turquoise water boiling into sulphurous steam, I hiked along the edge of the still-closed area (I could see trails into it simply ending where they'd been buried in the 1990 eruption), through an absolutely dead black and white landscape of dust and rocks--it looked exactly like the pictures the Mars Pathfinder sent back a year or two ago. I followed the line of the "No entry" signs quite conscientiously as it moved farther and farther away from the boardwalk, and where it ended, I saw no reason not to enter (at least, I could imagine myself explaining plausibly to a ranger, "but there weren't any 'No entry' signs where I entered, so I thought it was OK"). I hiked along the back rim of the crater, occasionally popping up above the rim to look into it, and finally found myself across from the viewing area. A little beyond that, I saw an area, roughly where the steam was rising up, that promised a better view, so I made for it. Anyway, with a high wind blowing through and not even a whiff of sulfur, I approached a promising overlook. When I was about ten feet under it, I began to smell sulfur, but I was so close I figured I could pop up, look around, and get out without a problem. When I popped about the rim and looked down, though, the sulfur was so strong it burned my lungs. I got a good look, took a picture, and then ran down the slope until I could get a lungful of clean air, but I ended up coughing for a good ten minutes and having to use my asthma inhaler before I could move on. No damage done, but damned stupid. For the record, don't do that. Off the record, it was worth it for the views from the back of the rim, as well as for the hike through moonscape on the back side of it, just don't go near the rim right where the steam comes up (my route, and overview of the crater area). Rather than fight his way across the slope, Dave had made his way up a dry gully running from 15 to 30 feet wide and usually about ten feet deep that had been cut into the 20 year old lava in the valley just behind the crater, climbing out of it and up the rim to look into the crater periodically, a much smarter route--he was probably also bright enough not to stick his face out right where the poisonous steam was coming up. After that, I rejoined a trail and followed it up one of the nearby mountains and was on my way up the next when I ran into Dave coming down. The trails were surprisingly rough, often hard to even find (where the blazes are in some places doesn't look any more passable than where they aren't), which actually made it a lot more enjoyable than the broad paved paths and stairways we'd expected. The views were incredible--although the mountains aren't that large, they are sharp and steep, and they have little to give a sense of scale, so that looking up at an 80 or 90 foot wind-carved formation I had descended, one could think it was some thousand foot monolith from the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley in the American West. Absolutely wonderful. The town of Aso doesn't have much to offer, though. Our inn was quite nice, but when we were looking for a restaurant the second night, we found that the place we'd been the first night was quite literally the only place in town. We were hard pressed to find any reason to be awake after 8 pm (and we were leery about heading for the baths too early for fear of having to share them with the junior high basketball team also staying in the inn, though the day we were leaving, on closer examination, the team turned out to be girls and so would have used the other bath [Dave claims to have noticed right away that they were girls]; incidentally, they won the game they'd come to town for, and were quite pleased to have been asked about it).
From Aso, we came back to Takefu, with a stop in Kyoto for me to buy groceries I can't find here. Following is a translation of a conversation I had in Meidi-ya, a fancy foreign-foods supermarket.
Peter: Excuse me. This goat cheese is spoiled. Do you have any more in stock?
Clerk: Spoiled? [Looks at the expiration date.] No, this cheese is still good.
Peter: It is black and hairy.
Clerk: It is a black cheese.
Peter: It is a hairy cheese. Hairy is bad. Black is bad. I know this cheese. I bought this same cheese here six months ago, and it was white. I know cheese, and this kind of goat cheese is white. Only pepper cheese is black, and this is not pepper cheese [showing him the package]. Do you read French? It is not a pepper cheese.
Clerk: Let me look in the back. [Goes away.]
Manager: Is everything OK?
Peter: This cheese is spoiled.
Manager: [Looks at expiration date] It is still good.
Peter: [Screams on inside, maintains blank smile on outside.] This cheese should be white. It is black and hairy. Look at the black hairs on this cheese.
Clerk: No, I'm sorry we don't have any more.
Peter: OK, thank you.
[Clerk and manager discuss cheese for a moment, then put it back on the shelf.]
You begin to see how an entire nation can think milk is SUPPOSED to smell like rotten raw chicken.
In Takefu, it rained most of the time, so we didn't get too far afield, though we did get to drive to the coast one day and climb out along a breakwater made of giant concrete jacks, sort of a huge-scale jungle gym, to an island just offshore, where Dave climbed a small cliff. Although the jacks are fun to climb on, they are damned ugly, and they are covered with fast-moving 1.5" things that we first took to be roaches until we noticed that they had far too many legs. We (probably Dave) christened them "roachipedes," though when I took a closer look it struck me that they looked like the biting, legged sea worms that are used as bait for fishing in the ocean. They also looked a lot like trilobites. I kept my distance from the roachipedes. I went to the ceremony I'd had to return to town for, and the next morning we loaded up my car and headed for the hills.
We passed through Takayama, where the guidebook had told us the English-speaking tourist information office would be able to help us book rooms in Tsumago and Kamikochi, our goals for the next two nights. To be fair to the Lonely Planet, my copy is three and a half years out of date, but it was wrong. No one at the office spoke English, though perhaps the woman who said she spoke very little English would have tried harder if I hadn't spoken Japanese, and they couldn't make any arrangements in Tsumago or even provide a map of that area because it was out of their territory. In fact, the commercial travel agent across the street told me the same thing. Also, all the rooms in Kamikochi were either booked or more than $200, so the best she could do was tell us we could try our luck at a campground that had a few bungaloes and didn't take reservations. Hmmm. We went on to Nagiso, near Tsumago, and found a hotel as described above, courtesy of a kind bartender. (How far out of the way is this? His bar is on the second floor, but the toilet is a simple drop-pit--no flushing, just a foot-wide pipe leading from the bottom of the squatter to a pit in the basement.) We walked around Tsumago before the tourist buses arrived at ten the next morning--it's a small post-road town so well preserved that, before the tourists arrive and the shutters go up on the souvenir shops, you could look down the street (another street) and get a very good idea of what much of Japan looked like two or three hundred years ago. We then stopped briefly at an even touristier town before heading toward Kamikochi, an area of mountaintops and valleys famous for scenery and hiking. On the way through Matsumoto, I mentioned to Dave that although it's a fairly ugly city, it is supposed to have one of the nicest original castles in Japan (after Himeiji), and we decided to see it. It is a wonderful castle, perhaps not worth coming all the way to Matsumoto for, but if you happen to find yourself in the middle of Nagano prefecture, you should take a look at it. After the castle, we decided to take advantage of the little sunlight left and headed toward Kamikochi, stopping about halfway there to hike around a little bit and then drive and hike some more on and around a very rough mountain road.
The next day, Dave and I had the most interesting hike I've ever done. When I had been driving through the central Japan Alps with Chris last April, we passed through a river valley with a lot of natural hot springs--areas where volcanic steam was just shooting out of the ground and the rocks along and above the riverbank. Dave and I kept an eye out for the same area, and when we passed through it we found a place to park down a dirt road off the main highway. When we got as far as the bank over the river at the only accessible path down we could find, we saw that we couldn't walk along the shore to anywhere near the vents, so I suggested we leave our shirts and valuables on the bank, jump in, and wade and swim through the parts of the rapids we couldn't walk around, including climbing and floating through some low but powerful waterfalls. We first went upstream a little bit and found hot and cold waterfalls (the hottest emerging with plumes of steam) and jets of boiling hot water just shooting directly out of the rock in little arcs (looked just like the stream from one of those peeing-boy fountains, but with steam and sulphurous stench). Some of the hot springs had mixed with the cold water coming down the mountain, so there were some waterfalls that were merely warm or hot but not scalding. There were also areas where boiling hot water seeped out of broad areas of rock and ran down to the river, or bubbled up through mud. In the river itself, there were areas where the hot water collected that were too hot to bathe in, but along the fringes of these and in other areas it had mixed enough with the cold to be perfect. Generally, the hot and cold mixed unevenly, so one would have nearly scalding areas and icy cold areas on different parts at the same time, though these areas kept moving around, and sometimes I had to move my arms to sweep in more cold water when the water around me built up to scalding. To go down the river, we floated through rapids and climbed down the sides of waterfalls when we couldn't walk. Later, coming back up, we had to face a couple of areas where we'd decided on the way downstream that we wouldn't be able to fight the current, but I devised a technique, not wanting to do all the climbing and bushwacking that would have been required to find an overland route. In two places where the waterfall itself and the swift current at the bottom of it were the obstacles, I decided to get as close to the side of the bottom of the fall as I could and dive across it, hoping to catch onto a rock on the other side of the main force of the current before getting swept downstream. It worked, and was great fun. In fact, once we got back up to where we'd stashed our stuff, we continued farther upstream to the first group of vents we'd visited to enjoy a last onsen experience (hot waterfall, cold swim) before leaving. Then, on the way back downstream, I decided to float through as many of the waterfalls as I could manage, which was also great fun. In one I decided to half float, half climb through, but it took all my strength to hold on against the force of the water and then pull myself out of it onto an adjoining rock, and had I not been wearing the belt I'd several times earlier wished I'd remembered to leave behind the damn thing would most certainly have unpantsed me.
We found the remains of a small onsen ryokan above the river, but in what was left of the main bathing pool the water was almost boiling, and in front of the ryokan building a small geothermal something had been installed. It had big pressure tanks and pipes leading all around and venting steam in several huge plumes, but we couldn't see that it had any kind of generating capability. It seems the mountain had gotten too active for the resort. Also, all of the resort's improvements to the riverside, as well as the first incarnation of the highway through the mountains, had succumbed to gargantuan landslides. We'd come to that valley immediately on exiting a tunnel. The road along the river replaced by the tunnel had not been merely less convenient; it had been obliterated. We found pieces of it under a slide of boulders larger than my apartment--the entire side of the mountain had come down on it. There were also places where the current version of the road had been destroyed by rockslides and then rebuilt.
We had a fabulous hike/float, like a combination jungle gym and water park with the added attractions of an onsen and volcanic vents. I'm not sure I'll ever get the various stains (iron, sulphur, and some sort of bluish algae that thrived in the hot water) out of my pants, and it'll be a while before the most vicious of my bruises heals, but I'd do it again in a second. Of course, with the water a bit higher and faster, it might be too dangerous some other time.
Dave and I had one more Japan experience that night, Dave's last in Japan. We were looking for food in Takayama on the way back from the steaming valley to the train station where I would leave him the next morning, and the steakhouse we had looked for (after enlisting the help of a passerby in reading a sign for it a half block away on the main street) turned out to be just closing. Across the street (the street being about seven feet wide), we saw the curtains over the doorway of some kind of small establishment, so, figuring, "what the hell, maybe we won't know what we'll get but that's the adventure," we parted them and went in, and I asked if we could get food there. The bar had all of six stools, and the two customers urged us to come in and sit next to them, so we did. The proprietor asked what we wanted to eat, and since Dave had mentioned beef earlier, that's what I said. She set about preparing stuff (we ended up getting several courses until I told her we were getting very full, so please no more food) as she and the two men started talking to us, delighted that I could speak enough Japanese to converse (simply) and translate for Dave. They poured some sake for Dave and insisted that I have a some, too, though I insisted that I couldn't because I was driving and, as a civil servant, I'd get reamed if I were caught (Japan has a zero tolerance policy--no alcohol whatsover in the blood when you're driving). Despite all that, I wasn't able to get away with any less than half a cup. They were really interested in talking to us and making sure we were having a good time. The two men were in their early sixties, the proprietor (a woman) was 65. They joked, asked questions, told us about the region and the food we were eating, and generally made us feel quite welcome. At one point, one guy was trying to get the hostess to ask us our sizes, which she responded to by slapping him playfully, while the other guy was telling her that American penises are like the Japanese in some way (something to do with circumcision, I think), while the Chinese are much different. I laughed, and the hostess sort of "pshawed" the men and told them, "he understands." I replied, "Yes, I understand," and laughed again, telling Dave what was going on. Then the guy next to me wrapped his left hand around his right forearm to indicate the part of it from there to the end of his fist, about ten inches and quite thick (strong guy): "Westerners are about this big." I corrected him, rapping him on the shoulder to get his attention, then grabbing the middle of my upper arm to show a section about twenty inches long: "No, no. About THIS big." We've had a couple of great experiences like this, wandering into places that don't get much tourist traffic (even in the middle of Kyoto) and being welcomed into conversation with the locals, as well as being advised and taken care of a bit. These two made sure we got some of the proprietor's special take on the local specialty, a kind of noodle dish, as well as making sure we understood how special it was. One of them also tried to make her give it to us for free, but I insisted that we pay (though I have no idea whether or not the noodles figured in the final accounting). Generally, these places are innaccessible if you don't speak any Japanese, but even with my very limited Japanese and my inability to read pictographic characters, people have been very welcoming and eager to help once they realize that communication is possible. Generally, I'll ask what's good, someone will ask if I like fish, or tofu, or whatever they specialize in, and they'll just bring me a good assortment of food, and the proprietor and the other customers will explain what everything is and how to eat it (whether or not I know), marvel at how well I use chopsticks, and generally if temporarily welcome me and whomever I'm with into their little group. Volcanoes and sulpherous springs aside, these are the kinds of experiences I really treasure over here.
On the final drive to the train station, we saw another castle high up on a mountain, and thought, hey, what the heck. Here's Dave's last castle in Japan. Finally, after I abandoned my nephew at train station near Kyoto, convincing him that I was sure (I was) that the train to the airport would leave from there, I took the road less traveled into Takefu so as to miss rush hour in a big city on the main road. This road, soon to be replaced by a short, straight tunnel, climbs through a mountain pass and enters Fukui over the very tip of the valley that eventually widens into the plain that holds most of the bigger towns in the prefecture, including Takefu. When I came to this point, though, it was just about sunrise, and the haze in the valley was so thick that I couldn't see into it all--just a bath of pink clouds below me and a rim of mountains all around. Often what should be a beautiful view is spoiled by thoughtless environmental destruction or poorly planned public works projects, but just as often when one doesn't expect it all a fabulous view suddenly just pops up and knocks one's eye out.
So, I'm getting to see a little more of this country; it really is amazing how much there is to see and do in such a small place. It's even more fun when you see and do it with a good friend, so I've been doubly lucky.
O genki de