Archive for August, 2008

Dos and Donts of the Road

Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Steph

Even though in your heart of hearts, you want to travel all 280 km from Noshiro to Aomori City by pedal power alone, do take a car along on your first long-distance bike trek. Do bring friends and travel in packs, terrorizing innocent bystanders in narrow countryside streets with your badass gaijin bicycle gang. Do stop for ice cream at every opportunity, even if the only available flavor is carrot. Do keep an eye out for monkeys crossing the street, and continue to stare in awe as they nonchalantly disappear with a rustle into the trees.

Don’t be so goal-oriented that you neglect to stop and explore the Shinto shrines tucked away by the side of the road. Do imitate superheros at every available opportunity. Do accept the vacuum sealed cobs of cooked corn from the nice man at the restaurant who just took an hour and a half to make you 4 pizzas. Don’t attempt to eat them, however, (the corn, not the pizza) as mold has infiltrated the packages and is inching its way between the starchy kernels.

When you realize that you have two more hours of biking to reach your hotel and only half an hour before check-in, do ditch your bikes in the boiler room behind the local temple gift shop and hoof it by car to your destination. Don’t feel guilty; it’s not cheating, you’re on vacation.

If at all possible, do reserve a room in a swanky onsen hotel for one night. Do take full advantage of the private onsen on your porch overlooking the Japanese-style garden as the sun sets. Do try to eat everything that is brought to your room for dinner, though this will take a good part of the night, as you wade through a cornucopia of sashimi, sea urchin, grilled fish, savory custards, abalone, pickles, rice and hotpot soups.

When you resume biking, and you pass a bus full of Japanese children on the road, DO make sure you ham it up by mimicking the one physical punch-line of every Japanese comedian you’ve never seen. This will bring you good karma with the transportation gods.

Do visit Goshogawara for their Tachineputa festival. Do arrive before dark so you can stroll down the street where festival floats are lined up and float pullers are diligently preparing for the night ahead. Do get a good look at the crazy vertical hair that the good people of Goshogawara force upon their children. Don’t expect to find much in the way of dinner. And for god’s sake, DON’T mess with the policemen. They are cranky and not happy to be working crowd control. Also… don’t idly stand in front of any food stalls while watching the festival or you will be soundly bitch-slapped by the authorities.

Do reserve a room in Aomori City for the Nebuta festival, and do it as soon as possible, say, early April. Do take advantage of the bleachers that hotels have set out just for their hotel guests. Do catch bells thrown by members of the parade for good luck. Don’t miss the ample product placement by convenience stores and beer companies. Do feel free to laugh at the effeminate gymnasts in full body unitards who want you to buy their particular brand of sports drink. Don’t spend too much time wondering how someone snuck an Egyptian pharaoh into the parade.

Do have more than a passing understanding of the festival schedule. Don’t assume that all parades are at night, and don’t park underground only to find when you’re ready to leave town that the exits have been closed off for a mid-afternoon parade for the next two hours. Don’t get grumpy when this happens to you. Hug a traffic cone instead. It understands your plight. Do understand that most of these week long nebuta festivals will probably culminate with an afternoon (not evening) parade. Corollary: Don’t be surprised when you drive to Hirosaki on the last day of Neputa only to find a ghost town when you arrive at night.

Do go into the Spanish restaurant you find while looking for okonomiyaki. Do eat the entire two baskets of bread and fresh butter that miraculously appear at your table. You’ve lived in Japan for two years. You’re worth it. Do order copious amounts of the lovely cinnamony sangria that is beckoning to you from the menu. It is just as good as you imagine.

Do go to as many onsens as possible while you’re in Aomori, but DON’T expect them to have soap and shampoo. This, apparently, is a quaint Akitan custom. Don’t pick your onsens indiscriminately or you may find yourself in the Onsen Of Death, where the air is saturated with steam hotter than hell itself.

Do take a ferry to tiny fishing villages in the middle of nowhere. Don’t listen to the guy at the dock who claims that you have no time to stop and pet dogs before the ferry returns to pick you up. Do find a tiny shack of a lunch place to order and conquer the uni-don. Do listen to the cute old lady who’s serving you lunch when she tells you that you’re about to miss the one and only ferry back the mainland. Don’t forget to buy a few kakigori on the way out the door to thank her for her kindness and attention to detail.

Do set out on your return trip home on a bike with gears, if your return trip involves biking over the Shirakami mountains. Do be on your best behavior at all times when traveling, as you will inexplicably run into your landlord’s neighbor and several members of your taiko group, even though you are cycling far from home. Don’t pull into a rest stop swarming with cops if you are a foreigner driving without a license. Do lose your bike tire patching kit in lieu of actually popping a tire. Do make the slight detour to view fields of tri-tone rice that form a giant canvas upon which famous Japanese masterpieces are re-created.

Don’t hesitate to stop at a friend’s house to crash, covering his entire floor with futons for the night. Do recuperate from your travels at a local bar, sipping on beers from Belgium and Mexico while you watch the opening ceremonies of the Chinese Olympics, surrounded by friends from Canada, India, and Japan.

Do breathe in the intoxicating summer air, thick with the smell of greenery growing furiously under a bright blue sky as you return home. On your last day out, do find as many dead ends as you can, while you follow your river back home through the countryside, thus elongating your trip as much as possible. Don’t forget to look for herons tucked stealthily among the rice fields. Do stop for a moment to marvel at the din of chirping cicadas screaming over each other to be heard, their collective discord making the air shimmer in a tapestry of sound.

Do return home exhausted and collapse on your couch with schemes for future bike trips already taking shape in your head, the last thing you remember before sleep claims your weary limbs.

Spirited Away

Thursday, August 14th, 2008 by Steph

I like to bike through the Buddhist temple district on the way to school. The road is lined with trees, and the temples add an air of serenity. The path is generally free of students, which means I don’t have to fight my way upstream against an onslaught of preteen boys fiddling with their cellphones on their way to the junior high by my house.

But today, the atmosphere had changed.

The streets were clogged with cars. Temples which are usually in a state of stasis had their doors flung open, with visitors milling around inside. Vendors were starting to assemble their kakigori stands, with the usual 氷 flags. Old ladies sat by the side of the road calling out “ikaga desu ka?”, trying to get me to buy ice cream that has been carefully molded into a pink and yellow flower bud. I know from first hand experience that this calculated presentation is a trick, that their product is an assault to the taste buds, a horrid concoction of banana and artificial strawberry that has somehow come to represent summer in Akita.

The graveyards adjacent to the temples were the hoppingest place in town at 8:15 in the morning. Families greeted each other with a smile or a wave, and gathered around graves, bringing flowers, money, and sake to family members who have passed on. A monk in a conical straw hat meandered among the gravestones, ringing a bell, ready to offer blessings to the deceased.

Welcome to the first day of Obon, where everyone in Japan returns to their hometown to be with their family and pray to their ancestors. I don’t really have any family to be with or ancestors to pray to here in Japan. But I am content to pause for a moment, to be part of this landscape for a brief few minutes on the way to work, to slow to a crawl on my bike, weaving in and out of traffic in my own private trance, dodging pedestrians and taking in the scene.