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Extended Episode 22: Atomic Spatula

23: Conclusion >>


Tokyo - Hiroshima - Miyajima - Onomichi - Okayama - Bizen - Kobe - Hikone - Gero Onsen - Nagoya - Tokyo

Tuesday 12.6. : Tokyo

After an insanely hectic day at work, I rushed home, packed my bags and squeaked aboard the JR Nyuu Buriizu night bus to Hiroshima with all of 5 minutes to spare. This was to be no camping-and-hitching trip: I was headed for a conference in Okayama, so instead of a tent I had to lug along a dark suit and a briefcase. Next to me, two guys were drinking beer, eating squid chips and conversing animatedly in sign language. The rest of the bus was even quieter, and less than half full; after the driver announced that we were free to use the remaining seats, I staked claim on the entire back row, but after I thought it was all mine, a girl sauntered over and retook half of it. Drat. Still, a bit of extra space made being stuck on a bus for 12 hours much more tolerable, and vindicated my decision to be a cheapskate and pay an almost tolerable Y12060 for the bus instead of taking a couchette train for a ludicrous Y25000.

Wednesday 13.6. : Hiroshima, Miyajima

Washing up a bank's windows

Memorial to Chinese killed by the A-Bomb

Antique trams rumbling in the streets
I slept the way I usually do on night buses, poorly, drifting in and out of sleep, waking up at least once per hour and wondering whether I had slept at all. The bus arrived in Hiroshima around 7:30, a little ahead of schedule. The cultural shift from Tokyo was obvious: in the station itself I found the delectably named Asse Food Market, where I ate some Sausage Egg Sand and a little bag of Crispy Potato as breakfast. Trundling out towards the city center by ancient tram, I passed by a Toyota shop proclaiming "Humanification" and an interesting boutique named "Creative House BIZZARE Hair Corporation", in case you should want to creatively and bizarrely incorporate your hair, as opposed to merely cutting it or something. The buildings could have been from anywhere in Japan, but there was a little something pleasantly different, a faint tropical scent to the air; more open space and greenery, the occasional palm tree here and there...

Castle donjon

Central tower

Sightseeing route
The weather in the morning was surprisingly good for the rainy season, partly cloudy but not unpleasantly hot, so I decided to start off by visiting Hiroshima Castle. Mostly razed during the Meiji Reformation and the rest nuked along with the rest of the city on 6.8.1945, the appearance of the donjon and the castle tower has been restored (if you don't mind the ferroconcrete inside) and rest has been turned into a huge park. Japanese castles are nice enough, but once you've seen one you've pretty much seen them all, especially if that one happens to be Himeji.

Bridges in Shukkeien

Yuyu-tei from across the lake

Other tourists
I liked the nearby Shukkeien Garden (縮景園, "shrunken-view garden") quite a bit more. Despite the occasional high-rise peeping over the trees, it feels like an entirely different world, little paths crossing ponds on bridges and winding their way around graceful teahouses and waterfalls. The view from the Yuyu-tei pavilion was amazing, during a little rain shower I sat there for half an hour and simply watched the rain fall.

The Great Torii

Misty mountains (spot the pagoda)

Floodlighting at dusk

A shrine building

The inner sanctum

Lanterns at night
Since these two pretty much wrapped up Hiroshima's non-atomic attractions, I opted to leave the nukes for the next day and head out of Hiroshima to the nearby island of Miyajima, for a long time so sacred it was off-limits to commoners. One of Japan's 3 Great Views(TM), Miyajima is best known for its large "floating torii", a shrine gate built out into the bay so that during the high tide it appears to float above the water. In a rare and welcome exception to the general rule, the new buildings that may be built in Miyajima are strictly controlled, so much of it looks like an Edo-era Japanese city, the carefully tended seafront promenade lit by stone lanterns at night. In the center of it all is the temple of Itsukushima Jinja, a delightful maze of red-painted passages between little sub-temples, all built on stilts and looking out towards the Great Torii. At night the fog descends down Mt. Misen, wrapping the hillside pagodas in wreaths of mist and transforming the landscape into a Sung ink painting. All in all, one of the very, very few places in Japan that has any correspondance to most people's romantic vision of the Land of the Gods...

I'll take two scoops

Traditional buildings

Mossy wall by the beach
I had not, however, realized that Miyajima is also Spatula City. For reasons that remain unclear, in ancient times Miyajima became the place to carve wooden rice scoops, with the result that every souvenir shop sells 杓子 (shakushi) by the truckload and even the temples have tons'o'spatulae piled up in their dusty corners. So, unavoidably, proudly showcased in the center of town is (drum roll) The Largest Spatula in the World, a spatula over five meters long and thus larger than the average Japanese apartment.

Whatcha lookin' at, human?

Deer with little green men

Collect the whole set
However, in general spatulae are a polite species who mind their own business. The same cannot be said for the two indigenous species of pests that inhabit Miyajima: tame deer and groups of schoolchildren. Even on a weekday in the middle of the rainy season, with other tourists few and far between, crowds of yellow-capped kids swarmed around the place, shouting "Haroo" (this being Japanized English for "Hello") at odd gaijin freaks like me.

My minshuku's sign

Looks better than it tastes

Iwaso Ryokan
To get around this, and to view the great torii at sundown, I had decided to splurge a bit and stay overnight. Miyajima is not the cheapest place in Japan to stay, since almost all of the hotels and ryokan in the area, like the incredibly swanky-looking Ryokan Iwaso, charge Y20000+ per person per night. I ended up in kokuminshukusha ("People's Lodge") Mori-no-Yado, which despite its proletarian name still cost about Y11,000 with two meals included, in retrospect the highest price I've ever paid. Dinner looked awe-inspiring but was a minor disappointment in the taste category; half the dishes were cold and crusty, and if I'm paying Y3000 for a meal it would be nice if the tempura included other fish parts than the head and the tail. Breakfast, however, was quite excellent; the jacuzzi built into the communal bath was luxurious; and sleeping on plump tatami bedding was heaven.

The Mystery of the Deer Stomach

Stomach lining

By the way, should you ever happen to end up in the vicinity of the lodge, be sure to check out the little public rest house on the other side of the road. Little signs inform the visitor that they are free to use the place to eat their boxed lunches, which I'm sure will go down well while studying the display 「シカの胃袋の秘密」, "The Secrets of the Deer Stomach", featuring a lovely series of color pictures on the dissection of one of these mysterious organs. Mm-mm.

Thursday 14.6. : Hiroshima, Onomichi

Schoolkids at the Children's Memorial

Origami cranes

Cenotaph of the A-Bomb victims
It rained hard all night and into the evening, scuttling my plans to hike up Mt. Misen (a scrawny 530m, climbable by cable car at that) and explore the many temples along the way. I bid farewell to the fair island and returned to Hiroshima, this time getting off in front of the former Industrial Promotion Hall, epicentre of the bomb blast and now better known as the A-Bomb Dome. Next to the Dome is the sprawl of the Peace (read: A-Bomb) Memorial Park, which contains the Peace (read: A-Bomb) Memorial Museum, the Children's Peace (read: A-Bomb) Memorial Monument, the Peace (read: A-Bomb) Flame and a slew of other Peace (read: A-Bomb) monuments. Draped over most of the monuments are thousands and thousands of colorful paper cranes to commemorate Sadako, a Peace victim who tried to fold 1000 of them to cure her leukemia but died after the 646th; and also thousands and thousands of elementary school brats, enjoying a day off and practicing their Harros.

Model of Hiroshima, before

A corridor in the museum

Model of Hiroshima, after
The A-Bomb Museum is well worth its Y50 entry free, documenting the events of 6 August 1945 and the events leading up to it factually, comprehensively and surprisingly neutrally, mentioning even the est. 15,000 killed Korean slave labourers (whose monument may still not be placed within the park) and the rape of Nanjing. 200,000 dead is a statistic, it wrenches the heart far more to see a melted tricycle and read the story of how it was buried with a 5-year-old bomb victim. Still, the constant self-righteous rhetoric of how nuclear bombs are a threat to the entire planet and how Hiroshima really, really, really wants peace started to get a bit tiresome; like it or not, Hiroshima's fate was caused by Japan's own murderous lunatics and the sheep who obeyed their orders, and toddlers burned alive were the price to pay. As Lonely Planet comments on the debate regarding the necessity of the bombing,

"Whether the Japanese would have resorted to atomic weapons if they had invented them first has raised less speculation."

After an authentic Western-style lunch at a swankier-looking restaurant (an oversized fish stick drowned in ketchup and a plate of rice on the side, eaten with chopsticks of course), I waved farewell to Hiroshima and set off down the JR San-yo line. The Shinkansen side of Hiroshima station had a long bank of ticket vending machines, none of which appeared to sell non-Shinkansen/non-express tickets, so I boarded with just a platform ticket in hand. On the train a conductor appeared:

- Where are you going?
- Um... I don't know. Okayama or Onomichi.
- First Okayama, then Onomichi?
- No, the other way, I think... err... how about I think about this for a moment and you come back later?
- OK!

It had been raining all morning and my feet were starting to hurt, so tramping up and down hills on a temple hunt in Onomichi did not at first seem all that appealing. But the rain stopped, leaving only clouds wrapped around the hilltops as the little train snaked its way through the valleys. The weather was nice and cool after the rain, and the clincher was that after about an hour on the wooden bench my butt started to hurt. So I decided.

- One way to Onomichi, please.
- But you're going to Okayama afterward, right?
- Yes...
- OK, so I'll sell you a ticket to Okayama, and you can get off at Onomichi and hop back on later!

This suited me just fine, so I exchanged Y2940 for a slip of orange paper, and jumped off the train a little past 3 in Onomichi. I rammed my suit into a locker and set off to the Senkoji hilltop, first a few stops on a bus and then a 3-minute cable car up the hill, a pretty young thing in a purple miniskirt reciting the standard spiel to all 3 of us passengers.

Statue atop the hill

The Path of Literature

Walking along the path
The top of the hill is the starting point of Bungaku no Komichi (文学のこみち, Path of Literature), a little walking path snaking down to the city with poems by various Japanese authors carved into the stones along the way.

Monju Nyorai, guarding Senkoji

The pagoda of Tenneiji

Niko Niko Jizo & friends
Halfway down is the temple of Senkoji (千光寺), featuring the full complement of Buddhist deities plus a little Shinto shrine and the moderately odd Niko Niko Jizo, the "always smiling protector of children" and a good indication of how Japanese culture has managed to popularize staid old Ksitigarbha, "Earth Store". (Niko niko suru is a colloquial way of saying "smile", referring specifically to the female eyes-closed-and-wide-grin look so often spotted in Japanese cartoons -- not quite the expression you'd expect to see on a Buddhist deity's carved face.) I've yet to see a single statue of Jizo's evil unsexy twin Muzo, "Void Store".

Old houses along the walk

Nourishment for body and soul

Down to the city
At the bottom of the hill, next to a little shop selling Food, Tea and Fortune-Telling, the path merges with the Kodera-Meguri (古寺めぐり, Old Temple Loop) passing through almost all of Onomichi, connecting some 30-odd temples along the way. The primary reason for this abundance is that Onomichi happens to be the headquarters of the Jodo (浄土, lit. "pure land", a reference to the mystical Western Paradise of Buddhist teaching) sect of Amidist Buddhism, who preach that repeating the mantra "Namu Amida butsu" (南無阿弥陀仏, "praise to the Buddha Amida") is sufficient for salvation. (The IQ required for this would explain Niko Niko Jizo, now wouldn't it?) Just the same, they still know how to build temples, and again I admired the unusual contrast of palm trees with temple roofs.

Detail of a shrine to Bishamon

Komyoji Temple, one of many

The industrial side of Onomichi
I returned to the train station with half an hour to spare, so I decided to look for dinner. Quite a few places were offering either "famous Onomichi ramen" or "famous Onomichi rice bowl", naturally never hinting at what the famous ingredients might be, so I shrugged and tried the ramen. The secret turned out to be simple enough: pork lard. Big, fat globs of pork lard floating atop the broth. (The other difference was that the noodles were a little undercooked, but this may have been a specialty of the restaurant I ended up in.) Health-related factors aside, the soup was indeed remarkably tasty, and as way of compensation the fried rice was considerably less greasy than usual.

A little after 7 PM I arrived in Okayama and headed straight to the Seinen-Kaikan YH (青年会館, "Youth Meeting Hall"), about a kilometer from the station, although the bus took the long way. The hostel, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the usual mental images of a Meeting Hall, is in an older, slowly crumbling Japanese-style house, painted a peachy shade of pink, and as I was the only male guest I got a tatami room all to myself. Yet again the rain only started to really pour after sundown, and I fell asleep listening to the rain beat down on the clay roof tiles.

Friday 15.6. : Okayama

My sleep patterns still disrupted by the night bus, I was wide awake by 7:30 and the hostel's extensive (and delicious) Japanese breakfast. No nattoo, no seaweed, even the egg was cooked -- Chugoku-style cooking is starting to appeal more and more. I headed out on foot, through a kilometer-long shopping arcade filled with interesting signs in romaji -- arcade Ribura ("Libra"), Guriru B ("grill"), a shoe shop offering Nurse Shoes ("naasu" vs. "naisu", damn those pesky diphthongs!) -- then under the station and along the main thoroughfare Momotaro-dori to Korakuen Park, one of Japan's Big 3 Parks (have we heard this before?) and Okayama's #1 attraction.

Exotica by Japanese standards...

...but beautiful by any standards

And even the carp are well fed

Spiky details,

big details,

tropical details...
Entering through the South Gate, the first impression is that of a giant lawn, crisscrossed with wide paths and the occasional teahouse to break the monotony. But the interesting stuff (at least from a barbarian's POV) is lurking on the sides: waterfalls, tiny shrines, miniature maple forests, a lotus pond, even a greenhouse filled with orchids and cacti...

Crow Castle perched on a hilltop

Fit for a shogun

And golden fish too
Right on the other side of the Asahi River is one castle that refuses to conform to the mold: U-jo (鴉城), the Crow Castle, so named because unlike every other castle in the country it has been painted a striking black, only a few protruding bits and the occasional lucky fish-gargoyle (kinshachi, 金鯱) gilded. It too took beatings during the Meiji period and WW2; with the exception of one authentic turret, the current version dates from 1966, but at least the rebuilders were considerate enough to install an elevator while they were at it. In the tower is a museum documenting the castle's history, English explanations are few and far between but at least you can practice your court Japanese with a soap opera on video, de gozaru.

Beyond suburbia

Okayama Prefectural University

Laptops all around
My three hours were up, it was time to head back to the hostel for a quick metamorphosis into a suit and then out to Okayama Prefectural University for the theoretical purpose of the whole trip, the Japan Human Interface Society's 「コミューニケーションおよび一般」 conference. The university's grounds are in Hattori, a spot too small to fit on most maps, the unmanned train station shack half an hour's worth of rice paddies away from Okayama on the JR Kibi line. Not exactly a tourist-heavy area, even the conference secretaries cooed when I managed to spell my name in katakana, but shut up after I wrote Toukyoudaigakudaigakuinkougakubusanpousekkeikenkyuushitsu (東京大学大学院工学部算法設計研究室) in kanji in the next column.

I chose not to fork out Y3000 for the evening dinner (a surprisingly affordable price as far as conference banquets go, but the second price to pay is the hangover) and headed back to Okayama, ending up in a fish restaurant called Asuka (飛鳥) for their "3 Flavors of Aji" set meal. I've see aji translated alternately as "trout" and "horse mackerel"; whatever the case, deep-fried aji is frequently spotted in the Tokyo U student restaurant and rarely has it been a particularly memorable experience. Asuka's aji sashimi wasn't too spectacular, the texture was oddly chewy and squid-like, but the deep-fried aji was excellent and the aji no sunomono, aji in vinegar, was nothing short of amazing. This with the usual rice, miso, pickles and even a glass of beer thrown in was just Y1200! Asuka is right off the west side of Okayama station.

Saturday 16.6. : Bizen, Kobe

Shortly after 5 in the morning the sun peeped in through the hostel window and I cursed -- of course, the weather would be sunny, warm and perfect on the one day I have to spend in a black suit with a bloodflow constriction device around my neck... I lugged my stuff to the station, dumped most of it in a locker, and headed out to Hattori again, this time to give my own presentation. I spoke in English, but still got a chance to test out my keigo by cracking a few jokes about my Japanese ability or lack there of and a eigo de happyou sasete itadakimasu (English-in presentation cause-to-occur-to-you humbly-allow-me-to-receive) to start, and I even fielded the post-session questions in Japanese better than usual.

Then it was time to make Japan Railways richer again. I rode back to Okayama, grabbed some lunch, and continued down the Ako line in a train with broken air-conditioning and a gazillion students returning from Saturday school. (The armpits of the shirt I wore are still yellow.) The vinegared-eel lunch box I bought from Okayama stayed in its box, since there was literally no space to eat.

Scenic Imbe city

Not bad for a bowl

Boredom at the train station
At long last I arrived in Imbe, a dull little town in a wide valley known for its unusual clay and the things that result from baking it, known as Bizen-yaki (備前焼) pottery. Bizen-yaki is quite simple in style, mostly unglazed brownish-red with beautiful natural shades, right up my alley; alas, in Japan there are millions of tea ceremony enthusiasts who couldn't agree more, meaning that the simplest of cups cost around Y5000 and prices went up into the stratosphere for more complex items (one vase I spotted cost a cool Y2,500,000 yen). With exactly an hour to spare (Ako-line trains don't run too often), I checked out the neighboring pottery museum, goggled at the prices in the shops, and aften much should-I-shouldn't-I seesawing bought one small bowl for Y3000, a bargain by Bizen standards but still twice as much as my previous record...! The bowl wasn't even very "Bizen-like", being a rather pale shade of brown with designs etched in red, but it was Different(TM) and my collection didn't have anything like it before.

One hour passed, back onto the train to eat the eel (not bad, but a little too much wasabi) and do more transfers: Bizen-Aioi, Aioi-Himeji (the westernmost point of J2J, and not a bad demarcation line between the amorphous regions of Chugoku and Kansai), Himeji-Sannomiya, and finally Sannomiya-Rokkomichi...

Jun-chan was waiting with a hug, her usual serene, smiling secretarial self, but when Nori-chan came bounding out a shoe shop I had to rub my eyes to recognize the slim girl in a cowboy hat, snakeskin-patterned top and spiked heels as the plaid flannel hiker girl of Shiretoko. Then again, my black suit and tie seemed to elicit the same reaction. A quick apartment visit later I was in a more comfortable green Uniqlo T-shirt and khaki cargo pants (Nori-chan was also smart enough to change her shoes) and we headed up to the first obligatory sightseeing destination, Mt. Rokko-san (六甲山).

Jun & Nori

A restaurant on Mt. Rokko

Osaka Bay at night
Kobe is easy but slow to navigate in, explained Junko; a thin strip hemmed in between the sea and the hills, three parallel train lines traverse the long length of Kobe but going up (or down) for most part requires either a lot of walking or taking a bus. Rokko-san is the highest peak on the nearby hills, so we did the tourist thing and took a cable car to the top as nightfall slowly approached. The cable car station offers decent views, but is still not quite the highest point, so we strolled up the gentle slope (and one rather long flight of stone steps) towards the rotating observation platform, a few km away from the station. Rotate it did; we arrived precisely at sundown, and as we watched the lights of Kobe, Osaka, Nara and Kyoto flickered to life, the entire Kansai plain lighting up.

Dinner was that Kansai culinary treat, okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, "cook it as you like it"), a type of seafood-and-cabbage-laden pancake, along with a delectable bowl of sobameshi (そば飯), lit. "noodle rice"), essentially Chinese stir-fry but with chopped noodles in the mix as well. Sounds (and is) simple, looks ugly, but tastes great! The feast continued at Jun-chan's place with a bottle of Canadian sweet white wine (courtesy of Nori), another of Lapponia cloudberry liquor from Finland (courtesy of yours truly), and one more of fine Japanese sake (courtesy of Junko) -- all this with a mind-bending assortment of roast fish, Gorgonzola, garlic bread, prosciutto, ice cream, bracken flour jelly munchies, and more. In the words of the Principia Discordia, "the ceremony gradually degenerates."

Sunday 17.6. : Kobe

Rock Garden is indeed rocky

Watch out for wild boars

The hard way up

Jun: "We climbed that?!"

The summit

Nori: "Piece of cake!"
Nobody had a hangover, which was a surprise to all parties concerned, so we stuck to the original plan and climbed another mountain, this time on foot. Our destination was the so-called Rock Garden (Jp. "Rokku Gaaden") and its highest point Kazefukiiwa (風吹岩, "wind-blows-rock"), both aptly named since the summit of this particular hill is implausibly strewn with boulders and bare bedrock. The day was hot and sunny, it being Sunday quite a few other locals had joined the fun. I got mildly sunburned for my troubles, but the views up top were remarkable and scrambling up the rocks was fun; on another nearby peak a number of real rock-climbers were scrambling up a steep cliff. For lunch we sampled tamagoyaki, which despite the name does not mean "fried egg" (which is, naturally, yaki tamago), but odd little takoyaki-type soft, puffy balls of egg and octopus, dipped into a clear soup before eating. Trust me, it was better than it sounds.

But the real excitement came in the afternoon. Nori-chan wasn't lugging along a suitcase full of frilly pink clothes and pumps just for yucks, she was on a mission: it was time for a first date with a young man from another department of her company. They hadn't met face to face yet, although they had exchanged mail and pictures -- but his was a faxed copy of a 10-year-old business card, containing a 2x2cm blurry picture of a standard-issue salaryman and associating him with Dai-ichi Leasing. Why, we pondered, didn't he include a newer picture? Perhaps he's now a fat, balding ase ga sakekusai slob? ("Sweat smells like booze", a painfully descriptive metaphor that provides yet another reason I'm glad to be male.)

The appointed time rolled around, Junko & I standing around as backup; he was stuck in a traffic jam and would be a little late... him, no, oh no, not him, nope, phew, ooh, maybe him... and then somebody appeared from behind.

- Hi. Are you Ms. Tanaka?

Whoops! Date boy turned out to be a strapping young man, reasonably good-looking as far as I can tell (which I can't), dark tanned muscles bulging in a sleeveless gray shirt, hair dyed brown, gold necklace around his neck and the car a Jeep... which, not incidentally, is also pretty much a checklist of what the average Japanese chimpira "no good" bike gang member (bosozoku, 暴走族) and/or unskilled construction worker looks like. Still, Noriko got in the car and they drove off, leaving us to wonder.

- Uaaaa! Scary!!! I wonder if we'll ever see Nori-chan alive again, moaned Junko.
- Hmm... sure looked like a chimpira, didn't he...
- And not one bit like a salaryman, that's for sure...
- Did you check if he still had all his fingers left?
- Eek! Oh no, he wasn't a yakuza, they're not like that...
- But the car's windows were darkened...
- Well, at least I think he wasn't a yakuza... I hope...

But there wasn't much we could do other than send a message with my mobile phone and gently inquire as to whether she had yet been carved up with a chainsaw and buried in plastic bags.

The House of Rain

A German barbarian house

The magnificent Kitano Toilet Plaza
While we waited for the answer, the two of us continued the sightseeing tourney, next stop being Kobe's #1 attraction, the Ijinkan (異人館). The literal meaning is "Different People's Houses", but this is probably a bowdlerized version of the other ijin, 夷人, which means "barbarian" or "devil", as used in the slogan 「尊皇攘夷」 (sonno-joi: revere the emperor, expel the barbarians). Dating from the Meiji era, ie. after the defeat of the shogunate and its isolationists, the dozen-odd barbarian buildings are mostly consulates and fancy residences, nothing too out of the ordinary from a Western point of view but fascinatingly alien (& trendy) for the Japanese. Junko gaped at the pillars supporting a second floor veranda, leaving empty space underneath -- such an extravagant waste of valuable real estate!

Walking down the hill we passed through the shopping mecca of Sannomiya, and the Higashimon entertainment district's love hotels and snack bars on our way to the harbor, one of the hardest-hit areas during the 1995 Hanshin earthquake and where a short stretch of wrecked pier has been turned into a memorial park. Concrete ripped to shreds, lampposts helter skelter... as we walked along Junko nonchalantly pointed out buildings here and there: that department store collapsed totally, there was the broken expressway. Living in a northern suburb at the time, her apartment was rattled a bit but she didn't even realize the extent of the damage until she came home after a day's work and saw the night sky lit up red by the fires raging in the city center.

Speaking of disasters, my mobile beeped with a message from Noriko: she'd had enough of tan-boy and would be heading our way. Junko led us to yet another amazing little restaurant, this time "ethnic" (yup, the Japanese use the word too to describe random Asian food, Asian meaning "not Japanese" of course). The most remarkable bit was white sesame pudding with black sesame ice cream and whipped green tea cream, which sounds exceedingly bizarre now that I write it up but was very, very, very good indeed.

Alas, Nori had to head back home to Gifu in time for work tomorrow morning, so we bid farewell (with the obligatory handshake, required by Japanese ideas of Western sensibilities) and I headed back to Jun's place for the night.

Monday 18.6. : Hikone, Gero Onsen

Junko skipped out at 7:30 in the morning, I loafed around munching on toasted Camembert sandwiches and packing my bags around 10 AM, then cursed when I realized that my route would pass right by Lake Biwako and I had just thrown away my chance to visit the last of the Big 3 Temple Areas, the Tendai sect's Mt. Hiei-zan (the other two being Tohoku's Mt. Osore-zan and Wakayama's Mt. Koya-san). It would have been the perfect half-day detour, but I no longer had half a day to spare.

Shikataganai. More train transfer ballet, Rokkomichi to Ashiya, Ashiya to Kusatsu and Kusatsu to Hikone, the last two legs in a luxurious shinkaisoku just like an express train, except that it only costs the price of a local. I groaned when I read up on Hikone in the guidebook -- "famed for its Hikone-jo castle and Genkyu-en garden", exactly the two things I had already seen too much of on this trip -- but shrugged and submitted to my fate (and the lack of alternatives).

Foggy vistas of Hikone

The castle tower

Moat surrounding the castle
Shortly after noon I arrived, ate a quick Chinese lunch and headed up to the castle. Hikone-jo would be entirely unremarkable if not for the unusual fact that it happens to be the real thing, instead of the usual 60s-era concrete reconstruction; that much being remarked, it again becomes unremarkable. It doesn't even rate as a Top 3 anything; local tourist literature rather pitifully notes that it does rank among the Top 100 places to sightsee in Japan. Much was also made of the fact that the castle tower is an official National Treasure and that a number of the turrets have been classified as Important Cultural Properties; typically, there was nary a word about why these have so designated...! Everything was covered in a thin layer of humid mist, visibility was so poor you could barely see the lake even from the top floor of the castle tower. The one castle turret that should have had good lake views was not only reduced to its foundation stones, but covered in an impenetrable thicket of trees and vines.

Poking around Genkyu-en

Weeding the lake

The spartan Raku-Raku ("Joy Joy") Hall
Next to the castle is the Genkyu-en garden, which I had never heard of before, and which also isn't much of a match for Korakuen or Shukkeien. But it did have the one reason I made the detour: an authentic little tea house in the middle, where a timid granny in a kimono offered ceremonial green tea, a mochi sweet and complimentary honorifics for Y500. I sipped at the bitter green foamy liquid, looked at the garden pond where men in rice straw hats were poling their boats around, netting up floating leaves, and pondered at the fact that this is the last cup of matcha, the last castle, and the last garden on this trip; not just the "subtrip" of being in Kansai, but the entire yearlong J3J experience. As proper style dictates, the large cup was less than a quarter full, and in a few sips it was gone, leaving just the dregs and faint, green patterns of tealeaves around the edges. The kimono-granny sat in seiza position nearby and watched me, motionless, except once when a bug landed too close -- she daintily slapped it dead with her bare hand and flicked the corpse into the grass.

One stop from Hikone to Maibara. I pondered between taking the express and the local train for 10 seconds too long; by the time I concluded that another 1000 yen is a drop in the bucket, the choice had been made for me. The local (which, fortunately, was much less a clunker than I feared) snaked along the green valley, once again, but this time shadowed by the slippery white viper of the shinkansen track, popping in and out of view on the other side of the valley. The Takayama line out from Gifu was closer to what I had feared; one-man trains chug along once every hour, stopping at unmanned stations along the way; I rode half an hour in a clunker to Mino-Ota, waited 40 minutes for the next train, and in the end paid the express surcharge for the last half-hour hop to Gero Onsen. (And belatedly remembered that express surcharges are heavily quantized to 100-km intervals, so I could have taken the express all the way from Maibara for the same price.) The last half-hour was also one of the most scenic routes I've seen in Japan: the ### Valley is green and wide, with the ### River running along the bottom and little hamlets scattered about. The river (heavily dammed, like almost all of Japan's rivers) flows so slowly that the scenery was reflected like a mirror, and little puffy clouds floated directly above the surface of the water.

Finally, at 5:30 PM, 7.5 hours after I started my trip (admittedly counting the ~2 hours at Hikone), the train arrived in Gero. Japanese love the name -- gerogerogerogero -- because in modern Japanese gero also happens to be the onomatopoetic word used to describe the poetic activity of throwing up. (Yes, geronimo would mean something like "and also the vomit".) Still, as I had remarked to Jun while we were debating my choice of spa, Gero Onsen is still better than the -- hypothetical, I hope -- Geri Onsen, which would be Diarrhea Springs.

A typical onsen townscape

Thermal water fountain in Gero station
Gero is one of Japan's Official Big 3 Onsen Towns (ha! yet again!), which for most part just means it's big and full of concrete, and perhaps a bit more down and dirty than its smaller counterparts. Across the street from my ryokan was the headquarters of the local Geisha Association; their modern Filipino counterparts were freelancing in a nearby parking lot. Down the street a ticket-selling granny read a novel inside a lurid red neon facade advertising a nude show, and various dubious "snack" bars lurked in the alleyways. Still, sideshows aside, it was a friendly enough place with people clip-clopping about in the streets wearing yukata and geta clogs and lots of souvenir stores dealing out Hello Kitty pastries and local pickled produce.

Outdoor bath at the inn

Japanese-style hallways
My ryokan, Izumi-so (いずみ荘) was a pleasant surprise for only Y8000/night with two meals. In addition to local delicacies like the finger-licking good houba miso, sweet miso paste cooked on a leaf, it also became the first place that has ever managed to serve me good raw octopus. The bath area was tiny but still managed to cram in three pools: one outdoors (tepid, alas), one indoors (hot & lovely) and one with a jacuzzi-type jet built in (whee!). The local sake, however, was not quite worth the semi-extortionate Y1200 per tiny bottle.

Tuesday 19.6.2001 : Nagoya, Tokyo

I slept like a log, straight through my alarm, until 8 AM when the staff woke me up for breakfast (more houba miso! yay!). I could hear Jun wagging her finger -- 「贅沢、贅沢! 貧乏な学生じゃないよ!」 (Luxury, luxury! You're supposed to be a poor student!) -- but just the same I forked out Y4000 for a non-stop express ride to Nagoya.

Nagoya's overcast skyline

Yamamotoya from the outside
Nagoya struck me as stultifyingly boring. There seemed to be few attractions worth seeing (the primary official attraction was, once again, Nagoya's castle), and due to my impending departure back to Finland I wanted to get to Tokyo fast. Thus I limited myself to one single detour between switching trains: visiting a restaurant called Yamamotoya in order to sample its famous rustic nikomi udon (煮込みうどん). Fame is of course a relative concept here, I would never have stumbled into the place -- secreted onto the 13th floor of the adjoining Takashimaya department store -- if Norichan hadn't so enthusiastically recommended it as a place of pilgrimage by udon enthusiasts throughout Japan. Udon are thick wheat noodles, whose flavor is usually best described as tasteless. Nikomi, on the other hand, literally means "boiled", but thanks to the Japanese habit of ellipsis this always means "boiled in miso stock".

Yamamotoya is the kind of place where the calligraphy on signs and menus is close to indescipherable and the staff on spotting you, the gaijin, suck in their breaths and politely enquire as to whether you really know what you're getting into. (I didn't, but I've learned to fake it.) Udon is usually served with a thin soy-and-dashi broth, but Yamamotoya's version is made with Nagoyan red miso paste, the broth so thick you had to scoop it out with the spoon instead of just drinking it Japanese style. The noodles were, of course, made by hand on premises, and in the basic version (Y1200, some 5 times the normal going rate) the soup was garnished only with a tiny bit of leek. Optional but recommended was a bowl of rice on the side, including a few pickles. The soup was served in a large earthen bowl and all diners (almost all of them in business attire) were provided with paper bibs. It proved useful: the bowl itself was heated, so the soup was scalding, and fishing out the chunky noodles was a difficult task indeed even for the natives, the udon squirming its way out through the chopsticks and flopping back into the bowl with a splash. When you did manage to get them in your mouth, the taste was almost overwhelmingly earthy and powerful despite using no spices at all, very unusual and not entirely pleasant at first, but as the sweat started to drip in the un-airconditioned restaurant it became better and better.

And that was it -- my last little glimpse of old Japan, making a very big deal out of something very simple, while at the same time attempting to hide the effort and pretend that it really was something very simple... paradoxical and striking at the same time.

Nozomi sneaks up...

...dives towards you...

...and zooms past!
As for new Japan, for the final leg to Tokyo I boarded a Nozomi, the fastest of the Bullet Trains. (The older versions are Kodama, "Echo", and Hikari, "Light". What could be faster? Naturally Nozomi, "Thought"!) I had heard whispered rumors of the stability or lack thereof of the things -- according to an acquaintance who might have been in a position to know, the calculations had been intentionally fudged so the Shinkansen could continue to compete with the TGV, and the Nozomi was a disaster waiting to happen. The only thing I can say for sure is that pricewise, at Y12000 a pop for the two-hour Nagoya-Tokyo run, the Nozomi is a certain disaster for your wallet...

The ride was a bit of a letdown. The Nozomi lacked both the prominent speedometer and the funky acceleration sounds of the older models I rode in the North, so there was no way to prove to myself that yes, I really was hurtling past the countryside at 350 km/h. Next to me, a young lady was intently studying a World Bank publication on rural microlending in Bangladesh, aka the story of the Grameen Bank. Within half an hour she gave up, stared out the window at the drizzly countryside for a while (no chance of seeing Fuji in this weather), and then nodded off to sleep.

The steaming bowels of Tokyo station felt like home. I lugged my backpack and the unwiedly clothes bag onto the subway and across a kilometer of platform at Kasumigaseki, the site of the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack, and remembered crossing the same platform a week ago, walking in the other direction, and thinking:

"I wonder if I'll be tired of carrying this bag by next week..."

23: Conclusion >>