Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Golden Week '06

Keiko’s small and utterly Japanese car was well packed with gear by the time I had stuffed my guitar, backpack, futons and pillows inside. We set out from Fukuroi at around 3:00 pm and headed for the highway, which we knew was going to be pretty bad since the entire length of the major roads in this country become a traffic jam during Golden Week. Once we got outside of the city proper it was pretty much bumper to bumper until we were past Toyohashi, which takes only about 45 minutes to get to by train. It took us 4 hours.

Once we were past the majority of the traffic I took over at the wheel and we had a fairly uneventful ride until we got to the outskirts of Osaka. Keiko switched back with me since driving in the sprawling metropolis of Osaka can be daunting even for the locals. We worked our way right across the whole city and onto the highway heading for Kobe and beyond. Somehow we took the wrong fork at some point and ended up on Rokko island, which is the middle of nowhere, especially near 10:00 pm on a Sunday night. Once we got ourselves turned around and pointed in the right direction it was only another two hours or so until we were in Himeji.

We met Christian right smack downtown and stopped at the Sports Bar, owned by Matt, the friendly anti-semite. Christian is a quasi-celebrity in these parts, evidenced by many digital photographs containing his likeness in rotation on Matt’s computer screen, facing the bar for all to see. We didn’t stay for long because it was after 1:00 am at this point and we had just completed a 9 hour drive to get there. We made one more stop at this other watering hole, whose name I happen to forget, but the purpose of which I remember well: absinthe. We had a drink or two with a few of Christian’s other friends while the gentle lad behind the bar, with glasses similar to my own, mixed Beatles songs on his CD turntable and Kaos pad. After this we packed it in and soon enough we were back at Christian’s apartment and he and I jammed out on our guitars until about 5 in the morning while Keiko attempted to sleep. Sorry Keiko!

We all finally awoke and breakfasted, or I suppose lunched might be more appropriate, sometime in the early afternoon, and Keiko packed up and left for Osaka to visit a friend of hers for a few days, leaving Christian and I to our own devices. Those devices turned out to be an afternoon spent on the grounds in front of Himeji castle with our guitars and a frisbee. After some jamming out and some sweat build up we trundled over to the nearby sento (public bath) and had a leisurely soak before we continued on our merry way. Eventually we sauntered over to the Sports Bar, and instead of ducking in and out so that we could catch the last train, we ended up hooking up with a couple of older Japanese dudes, one of which Christian had known for a few weeks, and their two accompanying lovely ladies. Unfortunately names of all four happen to escape me now. This is disappointing to me, especially considering their generosity. First of all, the gents didn’t seem to be too taken with the ladies, so they were bidden to sit with Christian and I. We talked for a while in the Sports Bar and then had our tab paid for before being carted off to a late-night okonomiyaki restaurant, which was also taken care of by our gracious hosts. Sufficed to say it was probably for the best that we missed the last train.

The next day we took our time getting up and out, but once we did we caught a bus from the downtown terminal over to Mt. Shosha, which is a famous spot which houses many Buddhist temples, and perhaps one of the oldest religious buildings in Japan, built in 922 A.D. This place was made famous recently by being used as one of the locales in the movie The Last Samurai. In fact we even caught a glimpse of one of the resident monks who had a role in the film. The special treat here, other than the spectacular architecture and beautiful natural setting was the fact that they had an interesting shrine set up in the main hall that had been hidden behind one of the larger statuaries for the past 800 years. One very kind monk, whose English skills were quite impressive, gave us the low down on the hidden shrine as well as the rest of the statuary. After we toured around the top of the mountain, visiting the other buildings and seeing the 700 year old tree, we decided to walk down instead of taking the ropeway we had used to ascend. The walk down was beautiful as Himeji city grew larger and larger the further down we went.

The following night it took forever for Keiko to get back to Himeji from Osaka. Something like 6 hours of ridiculousness. Poor thing. So that night we took it relatively easy and just got nice and glowing on a few bottles of red wine. Christian and I got into a nice rhythm with the guitars, working on a few of my old songs, and eventually we all passed out, satisfied. Oh… at some point during my time with Christian we took a trip into Osaka for some shopping and people watching. Somehow my chronology concerning that time is a little off, but I’m sure it did happen. There are pictures to prove it. Damn you, red wine!

On the 4th we bid Christian a fond farewell and a thanks for all his hospitality before setting off for the Sea of Japan and the city of Fukui where my friend Chris was awaiting our arrival. Keiko was still pretty out of it from the previous night so I took the wheel and drove us the entire 4 hours from Himeji to Fukui through the breathtaking, mountainous back roads of central Japan. We arrived at Chris’ place in the mid to late evening and just spent the evening in listening to music and chatting with him and his lovely girlfriend Yukari, whom I had met on my previous trip to Fukui. Before we slept we ended up watching the movie Constantine, which I had reservations about not only due to the presence of Keanu Reeves, but also because of the admonitions of friends, although I did end up being pleasantly surprised.

Our first day in Fukui we spent well. The first stop on our tour was Maruoka castle, which despite its meager size is the oldest original castle in Japan. It wasn’t very impressive for me, especially having just come from Himeji, which has the nicest and one of the largest original castles in Japan. Two nice things about it were its collection of photographs of most of the other castles throughout the country, and the views from the top level of the main building. Next, we continued down the road to Tojinbo which is hailed as one of the three most beautiful natural settings in Japan. Right on the coast of the Sea of Japan are these volcanic cliffs, all hexagonal and pentagonal formations created by rapidly cooling magma meeting cold ocean water. As we walked down towards the water we stopped and bought a whole barbequed squid on a stick, which Keiko and I shared, while Chris enjoyed a freshly ‘cued corn on the cob. Once we made our way out to the rock formations we found dozens of people there all waiting for the sunset, which was slowly happening right in front of us over the water. We clambered out onto the rocks and sat for a while until it got a little too chilly to remain. That and we decided the sunset wasn’t going to be overly spectacular due to cloud cover. Once we found our way back into the city we stopped at the bowling alley where we were rejoined by Yukari for a couple rounds on the lanes. Chris turned out being the big winner of the night, and although it is usually a close race between Keiko and I, that night I had somewhat of a groove and unfortunately she did not.

On Sunday Yukari had the day off so she took Chris and I to Eiheiji temple, which is a famous Buddhist temple and monastery in the woods just south of Fukui city. And what a place it was. By far the most amazing and gorgeous temple and wooded setting for a temple that I have seen so far in my travels. There are plenty of pictures that I posted to my site, and I can only hope that they convey the slightest understanding of what I claim here. The ceiling of one of the rooms in the interior, the Sanshokaku, is filled with 230 paintings of birds and flowers created by 144 different, leading Japanese artists. There were just so many different rooms and buildings, all connected with old wooden walkways and built on several levels right into the hillside. The giant redwood-like trees surrounding the temple were so impressive. I could easily imagine shaving my head every 5 days and generally living the life of a monk surrounded by such natural beauty. This was by far one of my favorite parts of the whole week.

When Monday finally rolled around I was ready to get back home. Keiko and I bid Chris and Yukari a fond farewell and a big thanks before we set off again through the Japanese countryside. This time we drove down through Gifu prefecture and it was absolutely spectacular once we got into the mountains proper. We had the road pretty much to ourselves as we wound in and around the base of mountain after mountain, around streams and rivers, past lakes and by snow-covered mountain tops. It will be hard to leave this wonderful land once that time rolls around. And with that I will leave you to picture its beauty for yourselves. Of course you can get a hand with that by checking my photo website, (link above and to the right, as always.) There are LOTS of new pics, so be sure to check the new folders as well as the old, especially the Himeji and Fukui folders. Enjoy!

So cheers to Golden week, and cheers to my upcoming, so-called “Silver Week” because starting this Saturday I have another 10 days off… paid! My friend Krystene is coming from Toronto for a holiday, and I’m going to take her around to a bunch of great spots throughout the country, so be on the lookout for a forthcoming update in early June. I hope everyone is doing well and keeping their respective chins up. I love and miss you all. Apologies for the lack of posts lately, but I’m sure you’d all rather just get the tastiest parts of my adventure. I’ll save the longer ramblings for the novel. (Yeah… right.)


Anonymous your best girl said...

Hi There: I finally got around to your latest blog. Pfew. Took me long enough to get there, but I'm so glad I did. I feel like I was right there with you in the car! Travelling right along. Thanks for sharing. I also saw all your pics. I'm feeling like I know Japan myself just through your pix. They're great, but not enough of you! Hmmm. Wonder why???

8:26 AM  

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