Gaijin Roam the Countryside
I just spent four crrrrazy days on the tiny island of Shikoku, driving through the Japanese countryside. We had a car for most of our trip, and I can't praise Max enough for his driving skills. He drives almost as crazy as the locals, which made things much easier (and more rollercoaster-like) on the tiny, one-lane roads that wind through Shikoku's mountainous interior.
Our first day of driving found us in Ikeda, which I quickly declared the armpit of Japan. There is nothing interesting here; we only stopped because it was getting dark and we had no idea where else to find a hotel for the night. It took us half an hour of driving down random streets through town (sometimes the wrong way) before we found the train station and, eventually, a woman who spoke a few words of English.
The big problem with travelling on Shikoku is that they just aren't equipped to handle foreigners. There are no foreign tourists that we've seen. As hard as this makes things for us, it also works to our advantage: we are exotic visitors, an exception to the rule of everyday life. I stopped counting the number of bug-eyed stares I've gotten from locals.
As we pulled into Ikeda's small train station, a local bus driver waved us into the bus parking spot and let us know (in rapid Japanese) that we could stay parked there while we talked to the lady at the tourist information desk. The tourist lady made an extra effort to help us, translating three or four hotel names into romaji so we could look for a place to stay.
When we got to the business hotel we were looking for, the lady was so amazed to see us, she spent five minutes rattling on about the fabulous tourist attractions the town had to offer (supermarket, ice cream stand, 99 cent store). Max busted a simple Japanese phrase from the phrasebook which earned him a 30-second reply that went over both our heads. It was all good in the end, though, because the supermarket had green Asahi.
When we got to Japan we found out that there are not one, but SIX kinds of Asahi here: silver, black, blue, gold, red, and the ever-elusive green, which we were overjoyed to finally find! We bought a six pack to celebrate, and drank it all in our room along with skewers of deep-fried quail eggs, deep-fried pork patties, rice balls filled with mystery goo, mochi bean paste balls, and Fig Newton pancake bun discs.
I should mention two salient facts at this point:
- we bought groceries to feed ourselves for the three nights we were on Shikoku, and
- none of the food in the stores here is labeled in English, except for snacky thingies.
Shopping for groceries in Japan is like entering a lottery to win possibly delicious, possibly disgusting food. We got really lucky though, because pretty much everything we bought was tasty - even the quail eggs. (Then again, after not eating for most of the day and downing 1.5 liters of Asahi, maybe anything is bound to taste good.)
The next morning we left Ikeda with great relish to drive through the winding the Iya valley, known to the Japanese as the "lost" Japan. This is where nostalgic Japanese old timers come on vacation to imagine what life might have been like for their ancestors. Sapphire rivers tumble through craggy gorges hundreds of feet deep, crossed by vine bridges that were used by ancient rogue warriors to defend their villages from rival clans. Twisty one-lane roads wind through steep mountain passes passing through tiny one-streetlight villages that have maybe a dozen residents.
It was magnificent, some of the most gorgeous scenery I've ever had the privilege of seeing with my own eyes, and possibly the most remote place I've ever been. It's all rather touristy these days: hot springs and B&B's are sprinkled carefully throughout the valley, the vine bridges are all reinforced by steel cable, and the villages receive three or four tour buses every day. We ate lunch at Soba no Dojo (school of soba) where an old lady has been making buckwheat noodles in the Iya valley style for upward of 50 years.
If you're willing to drive far enough into the valley, you can reach some truly remote spots. Max and I found the oldest vine bridges in the valley, so high up that the ground was still covered in snow, and spent an hour hiking through an icy, snowy wonderland. It was much more agreeable than Nikko, because it was warm enough to wear a t-shirt but we could still have snowball fights.
After we'd seen virtually everything in the valley and driven down all the roads, we headed across the island to its largest city, Matsuyama. After having dinner with Leslie and Jeremy (Americans whom we met in Kyoto), Max and I retired to our capsule hotel where we each had a miniature "room" to sleep in, slightly larger than a coffin, but really quite comfy. The idea behind the capsule hotel is that businessmen who have missed the last train home can find a cheap place to stay with a moderate amount of privacy. As with the rest of the island, they weren't exactly prepared for foreigners, but like most Japanese business establishments, they were willing to put forth the effort to accomodate us because courtesy is a natural part of doing business here.
We had a particularly amusing run-in with some schoolgirls whom Leslie charmed by talking to them using classroom English, who were delighted to have a conversation with real live foreigners outside the classroom. We all did "picture club" together, which is a sort of photo booth on steroids where everyone poses, and then gets a chance to add things digitally to the photo before it's printed. If you've ever wanted to see Max with a tiger bow tie on his head, or myself with butterflies coming out of my mouth, I'll have to show you the pictures when we get back.
Now we're in Osaka, one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Japan. I must say, I miss being the exotic and exciting foreigner; I miss the startled looks as we drive past people who haven't seen a foreigner in years, and I miss being able to show off my meagre Japanese skills to close the communication gap with people who speak no more than a dozen words of English. I miss people asking us excitedly "do you like Japan?" "What do you think of us?" "Why did you come to our island?!?"