Well, it wasn’t really a weekend, but when you’re unemployed, it’s all the same. I was in my summer holidays, and my girlfriend has totally random working hours, so when we got three days off at the same time, we decided to go away somewhere! So, we decided to check out the countryside prefectures just north of Kyoto – Fukui and Gifu – famous for, pretty much nothing at all.
We hired out a nice standard car, complete with the crazy high-tech GPS navigation system which is a pretty standard fixture in most Japanese cars these days, and hit the road. The navigation system was a must, due to the terrible state of the highways in Japan. There is a network of Expressways which spiderweb over some parts of the country, but they cost a fair amount of money and only go to very specific places. If you just want to take the normal roads, they are absolutely terrible. Usually one lane either way, twisting and turning all over the place, and no road signs anywhere. So that’s the route we decided to take. After all, we didn’t really have many specific locations to visit, just more of a drive around the countryside.
Our adventure started in Fukui, just above Kyoto, at a nice little collection of lakes. The clouds kind of marred the beauty, so we didn’t stay long. At the lookout at the top, however, were thousands of locks. Turns out this is a place where you can add a padlock, and your wish will come true. Most commonly, this is for couples to cement their future. My girlfriend added one, but I … let her do it herself.
Driving up the coast, the next stop was the beach! Luckily, the clouds cleared for us and we had gorgeous weather. And the people on this beach were just as gorgeous. I’ve never seen such a concentration of fantastic-looking people in such a small space. All the girls, and even all the guys were in prime physical condition. There was no random fat or ugly person, anywhere. It was like a movie. I felt totally out of place. But, the beach was great. The weather was hot, the water was cool, and the people were friendly. People had set up little camps as well, and were sitting around
eating watermelon, a popular Japanese summertime activity. However, this was when I found out my girlfriend is afraid of the water, so alot of time was spent sitting on the sand. Luckily, there was the Happy Happy Beach Store, or whatever it was called, where you could buy any manner of beach accessories or food. Because no Japanese experience is complete without throwing shopping in there somewhere.
Further up the coast we caught the sunset, and then stayed in a Japanese-style hotel near Tojinbo for the night. The woman at the hotel was lovely, and even shut down one of the public sex-segregated baths for an hour for us, so we could go in and enjoy it together!
The next day started with Tojinbo. This is a natural rock coastline formation near the top of Fukui. Slanted rocks give way to huge crevasses. I was kind of surprised by how open it was. I get the feeling that in New Zealand, or probably alot of other places, something like this would be heavily guarded. There would be rails everywhere and all kinds of precautions to stop people from falling off. Here, there were none. Of course, the temptation was to go right to the edge, and one wrong step and you would be dead, but that made it all the more exciting. Lots of younger people were daring each other to go as close to the edge as they could. Apparently it’s a very popular suicide spot.
From there, we decided to give up on the Dinosaur Museum we had planned to visit, and travelled inland, stopping by one of the most famous temples in Japan – Eiheiji. It is secluded way up in the mountains, and the only temple in Japan I’ve ever been to where before entry you have to sit through a lecture about the history of the temple itself, and then follow a regulated tourist course. But it was very nice, and at one point I saw some monks practicing a ritual. One of them stuffed it up. And him and his mates had a good old laugh about it. I was happy to see it, because whenever you see monks, they are always so damn solemn. They all sit there in their black robes and shaved heads and it’s almost as if facial expression is forbidden by the scriptures. I assumed that if a monk made a mistake in something as important as a ritual, he would have to prostrate himself before the head of the temple and have the head beat him with a holy stick or pour ice cold water on his head and have him stand in the snow or something. It was nice to see a bit of regular humanity come through.
After Eiheiji, the plan was to cut through the top of Shiga Prefecture, and come into Gifu. However, this was where the trusty old Navi system finally let us down. For some reason it plotted our course to run, not through the flat and easily-navigated Shiga, but the other way, through the mountainous and treacherous Ishikawa. Sadly, we didn’t realise until we passed the “Welcome to Ishikawa” sign, and by then it was too late to turn back. To be fair, the ridiculous mountains should have given us a clue. “Ishikawa” literally means “Rocks, Rivers”. And from what we saw, that was a pretty apt decription of the place. It was all rocks and rivers. Everywhere we looked. Apparently this is the
most countryside prefecture in the country. We certainly saw no signs of civilisation. Simply mountains as far as the eye could see, as our crappy little single-laned road weaved in and out, up and down, and my girlfriend hid her head between her legs and tried not to vomit.
However, there were two cool things about Ishikawa. One was an onsen, bang in the middle of nowhere. A real, natural hot spring completely open to any people or animals who wanted to partake in it. You don’t get that in the cities. The other was the fact that after we went through one of the mountains, we found all the clouds that never made it to the back in Fukui. They were all backed up here, and visibilty was absolutely zero. It was fun to run around in for a while, but then when it was time to continue driving, the fun wore off as we crawled along at about 10 km/hr through the same winding, unnavigatable roads. They were so bad, I’ve even had to use a word to describe them that I’m not even sure exists.
After spending a good portion of the day driving in and out of Ishikawa, we arrived in Gifu Prefecture. At the top of Gifu, our target was the small village of Shirakawa-go, an old-style traditional Japanese village completely hemmed in by the surrounding mountains. However, by the time we descended into it through the mountain pass (my girlfriend had passed out in the passenger seat), it was already evening. So, it was back out of the village again, and into a “nearby” town to find a place to sleep.
The next morning, we got to have a good look at the town we had stayed in – Takayama. This is known as the charming “Little Kyoto”, but since we both live in Big Kyoto, we had no real desire to visit it. In the sunlight, though, it was charming and full of people, and full of Saru-Bobo, weird little doll things with no faces that are supposed to bring good luck. However, it was also very full of people doing their best tourist impressions, so we got out as soon as we could, and headed back to Shirakawa.
Shirakawa, like I said, is nestled in between mountains on every side, and was so insulated from the progress of the world that it refused to change its houses from the old traditional thatched-roof style for long enough that it actually became profitable not to do so. Now it is known as the best example of old-style Japanese village life anywhere in Japan. Of course, the thousands of tourists somewhat mar this image, but at least we were there on a weekday, so probably didn’t have it so bad. It was all very quaint and lovely, but alot of it was very similar to aspects of my life back in Goma, when I used to live in an insanely remote mountain village last year.
One interesting thing about Shirakawa, and probably the source of a large jump in recent tourism, is the series Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni – a Japanese game which also spawned an animated TV series, comics, and real-life movies. The series, which is a spooky one all about murder and insanity in a small village (and of which I am a fan), takes place in a village called Hinamizawa – which is, in fact, Shirakawa. The town in the series is modelled exactly after the real-life village, and many of the real-life counterparts of the locations can be found here. This has meant a large number of huge fans have made pilgrimages to this town to check it out. It was one reason I was interested in going, but while we were there we saw several other people there for that reason.
At the village (Furude) shrine, was the greatest evidence. Shrines traditionally have a place to hang “ema” – wooden boards where visitors can write their prayers or wishes and hang for the deity of the shrine to read and hopefully, make come true. However, the ema at this shrine were entirely – entirely – made of Higurashi references and pictures. There were no real heartfelt wishes to be found here, just so many pictures by fans that they were literally bulging from the walls. It was kind of funny, and kind of creepy. Adding to the creepy was the fact that here I got my first glimpse into a real “otaku” kind of behaviour – a nerdy-looking guy came up to the ema and started chortling away to himself, and completely disregarding my girlfriend and I, he started fingering through and fondling the ema, hunched over and snorting, muttering away to himself words of praise and wonder. Only the words weren’t under his breath, they were plenty loud enough for us to hear, and intermingled with random outbursts of laughter as he saw an ema which particuarly took his fancy. He was just so enraptured with the whole thing that he couldn’t contain himself. My girlfriend was freaked right the hell out, and I was pretty unsettled too, so we slipped away. He didn’t notice.
Before leaving, we took a nice relaxing bath at the local onsen, which also had a nice outdoor section. I was surprised to see that if you went to the edge of the outdoor boys’ section, you could actually see into the edge of the girls’, and they could see back. I was not surprised to notice that the boys’ outdoor section was full of people, and the girls’, empty. We took the expressway out of there, for the first time, as we wanted to get to Gifu city in time to see the cormorant fishing on the river. This is an old style of fishing, where the men piloting the boats are holding ropes tied around the necks of trained cormorants. They also have large flaming torches, probably to attract the fish. When the fish get close, the cormorants grab them. However, they can’t swallow because of the rope, so they spit the fish back out into the boat. It’s a very old form of fishing, and I am assured that the cormorants are very well cared for, fed and loved by the fishermen. So, wanting to see that, we dashed at high speed all the way to the city, parked in the first empty space we could see, and raced to the river.
And saw the boat gliding away. I had the departure time wrong by half an hour. So, we went and tried to watch from the bridge where, really, we couldn’t see a thing. So the man in charge gave us a fan and a postcard.
By now it was pretty late, and we still had a long drive back to Kyoto before my girlfriend had work the next day, so after checking out a nice little light display in the park, we headed back to the car. And someone had parked behind us. Directly behind us. Lengthways. There was absolutely no way to get out. After dinner at a local place, they still hadn’t moved. Dammit. We noticed a big sign up in the carpark for a shop across the road – Salada-kan. So, we went across to Salada-kan to ask if they knew what was up. The woman glared up at us as we entered the shop. And as soon as we asked her if she knew whose car it was, she started yelling. “That has nothing to do with me! Not my problem! Rarararara!” So, we said that the sign said “Salada-kan”, and it sure seemed like her carpark, so we were just asking. To which she replied, “Not my carpark! Nothing to do with me! But you kids have some damn nerve, coming in here to ask me for help! If you thought it was my carpark, how dare you park there and not come into my shop! What’s wrong with you?? You think people’s carparks are just for anybody to use?! If you’re not going to visit somebody’s shop, don’t park in their carpark!” We apologised and said that we were in a rush, and hadn’t realised it was anybody’s special carpark, but now we had noticed, was there anything she knew that could help us? “Oh, so now you need my help, you’ll come into my shop?! Well, maybe you should have thought of that before parking there! Well, doesn’t matter, not my carpark anyway! Can’t help you! But you should be ashamed of yourself! Get out of my shop!”
By now we had realised it was obviously this woman’s car, which she had parked behind us as revenge for parking in her park and not visitng her shitty shop. Seriously, the shop sucked. It was one of those junk shops with all kinds of random plastic crap that nobody ever buys except for joke presents. God knows why she was still open that late at night – not a single other shop in the area was open, and there was zero foot traffic. The place was dead. And she knew that we hadn’t been to her shop, because, as she said, she’d been there all day, and nobody had come in. I wasn’t surprised.
So, we went to the Police Box to try and get the car towed. After all, as far as I could see, it was parked pretty irresponsibly. The Police Box was empty, but there was a phone to call HQ. After backing and forthing a bit to check the number plate, colour, make and model of the car, the police said they’d ring the owner. When they rang back, they said that the owner was drunk, and so unable to move their car now. Also, we were told that it was in fact a private carpark, and so they couldn’t tow from it. My girlfriend was almost in tears, it was about 11pm, and so the police suggested we get a hotel somewhere in the area and wait till morning.
I was pissed off. The woman in Salada-kan was a being an unreasonable bitch, and the police were being completely unhelpful. The Japanese people are so damn unconfontational, it even extends to the police. So I asked for confirmation that it was in fact a private carpark, got it, and marched back to Salada-kan. The woman breathed fire at me as I entered, but I dodged it and started arguing with her again – not easy, in Japanese. I told her that we had rung the police and that they had said it was in fact her carpark, and so would she just help us? We were sorry that we didn’t shop here, but seriously, stop lying and can we just get on with it? She stuck to her guns about how it was not her carpark, that the giant sign in the carpark saying “Salada-kan” referred only to the single space in front of it, that there was nothing she could do, that she ate unborn fetuses for breakfast, and that even if she could help, there’s no way she’d do anything for punks who would park in her park without shopping and then have the gall to ask for help. Then she literally chased us out of her shop.
So, we were left in the carpark with not many options. The police were refusing to help, and the Salada-kan witch was refusing to help. A close look the cars showed that it was, in fact, entirely impossible to move. Just as we were contemplating what to do, a police car drove by. We flagged it down. Explained the situation. The cops hummed and hahhed for a while. Then the guy said he would go back to the Police Box and try calling the owner again. The woman stayed with us. I asked the woman if she could come and talk to the Salada-kan ogre with us, since even if the woman was lying to us, she couldn’t lie to the police or it’d be serious trouble. But, the woman refused to do so. She obviously didn’t want any trouble. Suggested we wait till morning. We told her that we had work in the morning, back in Kyoto, and the rentacar was due back. The Salada-kan woman started pottering about outside her store. What the hell was she still open for, anyway? Then we realised – if this was her car, she couldn’t go home! No wonder she was still keeping the shop open! Especially now the police had arrived, she was beginning to look a little nervous and kept glancing at us. But still the policewoman refused to speak to her. I began to salivate over fantasies of having her locked up and her shop robbed.
But just then, another woman came strolling into the carpark. “Yeah, got me a phonecall from the cops. Says I gotta move me car”. I was surprised. Everyone was surprised. What? “But I’m drunk though, one of youse guys gonna hafta do it”. The policeman returned. And then, like a Scooby-Doo episode, everything came to light. The parking spaces in the lot were individually owned. The one in front of the Salada-kan sign was owed by Salada-kan. The other, unmarked spots, were owned by local residents. And yet for some reason, this one woman frequently came home to find an empty parking lot, except for her one space which had some car parked in it. And tonight, she had come home from a shitty day at work, to find another car in her space, so she had decided to teach them a lesson by parking directly behind them, going home and getting drunk. The cop had explained to her that we were kids from out of town who had made an honest mistake (and also, I think, from what he said afterwards, played on the “foreigners are idiots and don’t understand these things anyway” card), so she had decided to come out eventually and help us out.
The worst part about it all was that the Salada-kan woman was totally uninvolved. I had really hoped she would be going down. If at first, she had have just listened to what we asked her, said, “Sorry, but that’s not actually my space. Mine is the one under the sign. Hope you can get it sorted out!”, then we would have left her alone. But since right off the bat, she was a totally unlikeable, angry, gravel-chewing bitch who kept raving about how we were getting our comeuppance for our evil ways of parking in people’s spaces, we automatically assumed that it was her fault. So, the moral of the story is, Salada-kan was not as fault, but I still sincerely hope it burns down in a fire.
So, the car was freed, and we got the nice 3 hour drive home down the expressway, getting back at about 4am. The End.
I also managed to pick up new Dinosaur Kitty from Fukui, and a Saru-bobo Kitty from Gifu. Would have picked up one from Ishikawa, but we never actually passed any stores. Apparently theres a hotel and a conveniece store if you go right to the coast, but we never went that far.