From: Peter Rivard
Subject: Amazing people
For the closing weekend of Golden Week, the national let's-everybody-go-on-vacation-at-once cluster of holidays (61 million people, about half the population, traveled during Golden Week this year, I read today; catering to those 61 million people must have involved a good percentage of the other 70 million), I elected, foolishly, to get in on the act. With four days of fun to plan for, I spent one bicycling around town, then that night climbed into my car for a long-avoided camping expedition. You see, I had long felt the need to get out there and start appreciating this country again, but I simply wasn't in the mood. Having no goal at all, I headed west into the mountains, then north. The first day and a half, it rained or drizzled constantly, and after a lousy night's sleep the first night, I spent the next day fighting off a headache. Turns out the secret to car camping is judicious use of a hacksaw--removing the passenger seat headrest allowed me to lay the seat down flat against the folded down rear seat, so I could lie comfortably--at full length--from the hatchback to the dashboard. Another trick is picking your spot. I pulled off the highway and up a dirt road to what seemed, in the dark, to be an abandoned and pointless tourist attraction, a waterfall with picnic tables, that surely no one would want to visit in the pouring rain before I wanted to get moving around eight the next morning. Never underestimate the determination of the Japanese. They started coming at five in the morning, just after sunrise but in pouring rain and clouds so heavy it was still mostly dark. The next night, sans headrest and much farther up a mountain road that truly seemed to lead nowhere (though the mountain was right in the middle of the suburbs of Nagano city), I slept much better. I'd actually started feeling better after I'd settled into an Italian restaurant one suburb over from the mountain; the friendly proprietor and his wonderful pizza (much larger than advertised, and delicious), as well as the pleasant atmosphere, drove my headache away. The next day, it was too crowded to get into even the city of Nagano, never mind the temple I'd thought of visiting, and on the road again it proved too crowded to get into a popular national park, two onsens (hot spring baths), and a cablecar to a high peak (I wasn't even able to get close enough to see if it was open), so, in a surprisingly pleasant mood, I decided to come home one day early.
On my way toward Nagano, just before I found the pizza place, I had my one interesting encounter of the trip. As I broke out of the mountains and came to my first view, still from quite high, over the city, backed by its impressive curtain of high mountains, I decided to stop. I was standing fifty meters behind my car, looking out over the guardrail, when a middle-aged couple in a minivan pulled over, stopped behind my car for a minute (noting my license plate?), and then backed up, stopping four feet behind me, blinding me with their lights. I shielded my eyes and attempted to continue to appreciate the view, but finally gave up and walked back to my car after giving the driver and his insipid-looking wife a brief glare as they stared at me in their headlights, just feet in front of them. The look on her face suggested she thought I was going to loot the roadside shrine a few meters from my car. They pulled away as I walked back, but wifey couldn't pull her eyes away from way, turning her body as the van passed to keep me in sight. I laughed, but not in too demeaning a way, despite my feelings at the moment, since I was beginning to realize I'd lucked upon the two dumbest people in Nagano prefecture. They finally got far enough past me for the wife to allow hubby to pick up speed and they were gone. But of course they weren't gone. They were waiting, stopped, around the third or fourth bend, and as I passed they immediately turned on their lights and pulled onto the road behind me. This was, apparently, an idiocy that knew no bounds. I was sufficiently amused to want to play, and sufficiently bugged to want to let them know I was observing them. Having gotten a few hundred meters ahead at one point, I pulled into a rest spot just after a curve and waited for them to pass me, and then I pulled in behind them. I didn't try to hide that I was following them, but stayed far enough back so as not to scare them, either, and they didn't seem to be too scared. When I slowed down to read signs (I was more concerned with finding my way into the nearest large town to get food than with staying behind them) they slowed down to keep me in sight (wifey was completely turned around in her seat to make sure I didn't get away with anything); they even slowed down so much approaching intersections that I think they wanted to see if I was signalling a turn behind them so they could make the same turn too and not lose me. We drove past a few intersections, and I lost interest pretty quickly. After about twenty minutes, they pulled off into a rest spot; I waved as I passed, hoping never to see them again. They turned around and headed back to wherever it was they'd originally been going. I have no idea how far out of their way they went to keep an eye on me. Everyone else I met on the trip was welcoming and polite.
One last bit of weirdness. At one point, I had to use a toll tunnel (about three miles long) since the high road was still snowed in (some roads are closed into June or July). At the toll plaza, there's a simple automatic machine for paying your ¥750 yen fare, but for some inexplicable reason it's set too high and too far in from the curb for someone in an actual car to reach, so they've stationed a young woman in the street (there's no room for her on the curb with the machine) to take the bill or coins from your hand and move it the foot or so to the money slot, then to scoop out your change from the coin return door and pass it the foot and a half back to your hand--and then of course to thank you and bow to you. There was a young employee in every automatic lane. Was this intentional?
I don't claim to have found anything Japanese either in my observers or in The Ineffective Tollbooth--just the sort of idiocy that can erupt anywhere in the world. I seem to remember having run into an idiot or two in the States. I'm just impressed than in my first 24 hours in Nagano I should have run into their absolute champion morons; I've been in Fukui for almost two years and I don't think I've had that honor here (I have, perhaps, crossed paths with a few lower-ranked contenders). I suppose it's nice to know there's still something to look forward to.
O genki de