Monday, March 15, 2010

On Beyond Tokyo

So it turns out I had to buy another gadget to get the whole uploading thing to work for my phone. But now, Success! Natalie 1 Japan 0. Take that.

My lovely and crazy friend, Megumi, invited me to come to Tokyo and then on beyond to her hometown in Toyama prefecture at the end of February. I happily agreed, because
1. I really wanted to get out of Shimane
2. Megumi got a job with a company that will be sending her to China at the end of the summer so she'll be leaving me for exotic lands and
3. I've decided not to renew my JET contract, so I'll be coming home at the end of July and I want to see as much of JAPAN before that as I can.

Our adventures were so numerous I'm not sure where to begin. But, I suppose the beginning would be a good place to start.

I ventured to Tokyo by a phenomenon kown as a night bus. In Japan, driving a car is expensive for a plethora of reasons. For one, getting a driver's license costs upwards of $3000 dollars. Also, all highways are tolled so when driving long distances you can choose between spending days using local roads or paying out the ... erm ... nose ... in tolls. Finally, once you actually reach your destination, good luck finding parking. Especially in big cities, parking lots are few and far between and EXPENSIVE when you can find them. For all these reasons and more, Japan has developed many cheap and useful modes of public transportation. The most popular of course is the train but unfortunately in Shimane we don't have a good train system. Even the Shinkansen doesn't go this far, no siree. But there are highway buses that are actually safe and will take you almost anywhere you want to go. I boarded the Susanoo Express (Susanoo is the wind god, he's the one who chopped off Yamata-no-Orochi's eight heads) at 7:30 pm from Shimane, and arrived at Tokyo Station bright and early 6:30 the next morning.

After resting in Starbucks and injecting caffeine (yes, Starbucks has infiltrated Japan too) we wandered over to the grounds of the Imperial Palace, which are a short walk from Tokyo Station. It's rumored that the Emperor actually lives somewhere inside this huge complex, but I'm skeptical. The grounds were breathtaking though. Outside the palace there's a huge park and many gravel pathways. Megumi says the buildings around the palace grounds are have some of the most expensive rent in all of Japan, because the open air of the palace actually allows sunshine to penetrate the widows of the buildings. Seriously, you will never see an open area like this in Tokyo City for any other reason than for the Emperor. We were there a few days before the Tokyo Marathon, so we saw many runners out enjoying the sunshine and training their legs off. Apparently there's a new trend known in Tokyo as 美ジョウッガ (bi jogga) or "beautiful joggers" to whom looking good while running is almost more important than running fast. You'll see them wearing running skirts and sporting clothes complete with cosmetic compartments so they can touch up their makeup as they run. We kept a lookout for these bi-jogga as we were walking and marveled at them.

Next, we crashed the Japanese Diet building. It was pretty interesting. We happened to get there just when hundreds of school kids also were coming on a field trip to their nation's capitol. The nice thing about this was we just tagged along also for a free tour (not that I understood much of what was being said). I was also happy that I didn't have to have a fully body cavity search as I feel I would have if I wanted to tour say, the Senate building or something. The structure and interior decoration was entirely Baroque, which was quite a contrast to the tatami mats and folding screens I was hoping for. Oh, well. We got in trouble for taking a rest in the seats in one of the court rooms, and by in trouble I mean a governmental security guard politely asked us not to sit there. A nice government lady outside even offered to take our picture. I'll admit, I'm not at all interested in politics of any sort, but I'm still proud to be able to say I saw the Diet .

Traveling with Megumi is always a gastrointestinal adventure. We both love eating healthy, international food. So, that afternoon we stopped in for a late lunch at a Vietnamese buffet. Now, let me stress, that it is extremely difficult to find international food in Shimane. There are a handful of "Chinese" places around, a handful of "Italian", and maybe an "Indian" restaurant or two, but that's the extent of it. I put these words in italics because they still taste distincly Japanese .Even those few cuisines can only be found in Izumo or Matsue. So eating in Tokyo is a huge relief. There are all kinds of restaurants everywhere, and we do our best to sample them all. Here we are eating Pho- Vietnam's famous rice noodle soup, and Goi Cun, my very favorite kind of spring roll. YUM. The deal was you ate all you could stomach in 90 minutes for one low price. So, Megumi and I ate for a half hour then took naps in our booth for the next hour, much to the chargrin of our waitress. Heh heh heh.

The next day we took yet another night bus to Toyama, Megumi's home prefecture. Now she told me before we went that it was like Shimane- very countryside and very mountainous, but it's nothing compared to Okuizumo. She even has a mall in her hometown- pretty fancy! Toyama is apparently famous for its medicine and its delicious fish. Medicine salesmen used to go door to door selling their goods, employing a "use now pay later" system. I was fortunate enough not to need to sample the medicine, but I did try the fish and that was VERY good. We stayed at her parents house, which was large and spacious and very lovely- much in contrast to the cramped lifestyle of Tokyo.
This is part of a display for the Hina-Matsuri, or Doll Festival. Hina-matsuri is celebrated on March 3rd and is a festival to pray for the happiness and health of young girls. The display is usually a huge, multi-tiered collection of fifteen dolls each complete with its own accessories. Megumi said her parents got tired this year and only set up the Emperor and Empress, the two most important dolls. I don't blame them! That's a lot of dolls.

We tried on her old PE uniforms. Every school in Japan has two kinds of uniforms: Dress Uniforms and PE uniforms. My two very rural schools, Takata and Takao don't even do the dress uniform thing. In the summer they just run around in their PE uniforms and in the winter they wear normal clothes. I kind of think the kids have good feelings toward their PE uniforms especially, as they're comfortable and casual. Her parents also have a super cute dog named Koro. He's a kind of Shiba-ken, one of the most popular dog breeds in Japan. I love shiba-ken and actually often watch the Shiba-Cam when I can't satiate my need for cute. You can see I'm starved for animal contact at my apartment, save for the goldfish that greet me when I come home, so I spent a lot of time playing with Koro-chan.

The next day we went sightseeing. It was a choice between the Unesco World Heritage Sight in Gokayama or neighboring Kanazawa to visit the Ninja Temple. Gokayama has a charming village built in the gassho-zukuri style, characterized by steep roofs made out of rice straw. I'm sure it's very lovely and important, but come on. You know which one I chose.

The Ninja Temple (it's proper name is actually Myoryuji) was built in the Edo period. I'm going to preface my explanation by saying that I didn't take any pictures, as her cousin came with us and was in charge of the picture taking but then promised to send actual copies by snail mail (ahhh, curse that medieval technology). But, if you click the link above it will take you to the temple's website which has a ninja flash animation that I hope will more than make up for my lack of pictures. Anyway ninjas did not actually inhabit this temple, it got its nickname because of its many trapdoors and hidden rooms. It even has a special hidden room for Seppuku, or ritual suicide, which once you enter you pysically cannot leave. In the Edo period, houses were only allowed to be built two stories high, but this structure had two hidden stories extra. In the courtyard there is a well that supposedly connects to Kanazawa Castle so in case of a surprise attack someone could swim to the castle and warn the Daimyo. As it is a dark, slimy, underwater tunnel several kilometers long I'm not sure to the practicality of such a well, but you can't begrudge them ingenuity. It was a super cool temple, and I definitely recommend it to any ninja-wannabes who visit this fair land.

Sunday evening we took yet another night bus back to Tokyo and arrived there bright and early Monday morning. For my last day in the big city we did some shopping and found some more delicious food. On the right you can see one very popular kind of Japanese food known as 丼 donburi. This basically means rice in a bowl with stuff on it. In Okuizumo, since we're famous for our beef, 牛丼gyudon or beef rice bowl is very popluar. I would just like to note that most kanji in the Japanese language are hardworking little suckers, appearing in many different combinations to make many different words. However, the kanji 丼 just means "rice bowl with stuff on top". That's it. No wasting time fraternizing with other words. Pretty funny, actually. Anyway my rice bowl was a seafood bonanza. Yes, that is an octopus tentacle poking out and yes, I actually ate it. The little red balls are salmon roe known as ikura. No, I didn't eat those. Luckily they're Megumi's favorite so she happily took them off my hands. My favorite? Salmon. Now in the states I was a pretty strict vegetarian, even a vegan at one point. But Japan, with its ubiquitous and delicious seafood, as well as its propensity to put meat into unexpected places, has made me chill out a lot. I still consider myself a vegetarian but, dear god, do I love salmon.

That afternoon Megumi's roommate Chie asked us to participate in her own filming of GeGeGe no Kitaro, a famous anime whose artist, auspiciously enough, is from Shimane. In this anime our hero Kitaro hunts ghosts and monsters but, ironically, is a goblin himself.
I got cast as 九尾 the nine-tailed fox god and had to memorize lines. That was an interesting feat, as Chie wrote the dialogue in old Japanese, which is kind of like asking a foreigner to memorize lines from the King James Bible or Shakespeare. Megumi got cast as Sunakake Baba, a creepy old woman. Her roommates are all really cool and diverse people. The girl with the huge red bow (Bun-chan) and the girl with the gum-taped head (Naomi-chan) both did study abroad in Germany. In fact you can see the video Naomi's german boyfriend filmed for her here, Naomi Come Back. I'm not gonna lie, it's fantastic. The director, Chie, is about to graduate and start work as a video game designer. Her other roommate was at work at this time and thus not in the picture, but she's traveled all around the world too and is a hilarious person. Anyway, as soon as Chie edits and puts together anime, I'll post the YouTube link. I promise. Even though it's going to be embarrassing. They've already filmed a couple Sailor Moon Episodes which I'm trying to find online too. Those crazy girls.

One last exhausting bus ride later and I was back in good old Shimane. Four night busses in 6 days= exhaustion.

There's a saying in Japanese that goes 出会いがあれば別れもあり "If there's a meeting then there's a parting". Unfortunately this is true in our relationships But for certain people in my life, I'm sure that just as many times as we part we will meet again. Good luck in China, Megu-chan!


  1. I wish i could have been a bug following you around and catching all the sights!!! Susanoooo makes me think of the game Okami - which i know is a retelling of their legend but it's one of the best games I've ever played!

  2. おもしろい日記!
    I am sure we can meet again and again:)
    Love Love