I'm feeling jubilant after a highly successful day's sightseeing. But first, I'll briefly cover yesterday's middling efforts.
I took the train to Yonezawa, a mere 15 min journey to the opposite end of the mountain-locked plain where my town is situated. With a population of around 90,000, it's quite a bit more urbane than Nanyo. Maybe it's just because the sun was shining, but I liked the cut of Yonezawa's jib. It has a nice river running through it, with plenty of parkland by its banks. The steep mountains to the south provide a striking backdrop. And I found an impressive moated shrine, where there was some kind of festivity going on, with lots of stalls selling yakitori, takoyaki (octopus dumplings), bananas on sticks, and so on. Alas, konnyaku was also in evidence - a local speciality which I must say I'm not very keen on. It's a bland savoury substance with a texture I can only describe as being like hard jelly. If you ever have to eat some, I recommend dousing it in mustard.
I then met up with another JET based there, and went for steak. Proper steak is hard to come by here, and not cheap. A 150g (5.4oz) Yonezawa beef steak would set you back £20 at this restaurant. Needless to say, I went a little more downmarket. It was good to eat some proper bloody red meat - I think my rice, noodle and fish diet is causing me to crave iron a bit. The steak was served with wasabi, which I would heartily recommend as a steak sauce.
Ok, onto today. This morning I met up with another first year JET from a nearby town. We took a trip to Mount Zao, the ski resort where I intend to spend an obscene amount of time this winter. An exceptionally winding road took of up to 1600m (a good bit higher than Ben Nevis), my Wagon R's engine complaining all the way. We then ascended the last 250m to the summit on foot, on the way taking in some stunning views of the Okama crater lake - an active volcano! They say the lake can be five different colours depending on the weather, making my title pun all the more apt. Today it was a deep green. We actually strayed over the border into Miyagi prefecture, so that's four down, 43 to go, prefecture fans.
After that we went to the village at the foot of the ski slopes. Yamagata generally is famed for its hot springs (onsen) but this place, being up in the mountains, seems to have a particularly high density of them. The whole village had the slightly pungent smell of sulphur, and there was steaming water running through yellow-stained gutters by the side of the road. The resort has a big outdoor onsen in a forest, but we couldn't find that so we settled for a more traditional indoor one (bathing separately, since my travelling companion lacked a Y-chromosome). It was basic: it had no showers, and appeared to unmanned, having just an honesty box for you to put your 200yen into. The water was hotter than any onsen I've been to before, and so sulpherous that it stung if you got it in your eyes. I felt has if I had to make a conscious effort not to pass out. But despite all that, it was pleasant in a funny sort of way. Though I do still smell of sulphur.
After that it was a slow trip back to Akayu in the holiday traffic, then we went to my favourite conveyor belt sushi restaurant Kappa Sushi for dinner. I was pleased to find that the sushi bullet train filled my sightseeing buddy with the same childlike delight as it did me. Finally, to kill some time before her train arrived, we went to a pachinko parlour. Pachinko is an essentially random pinball/bagatelle sort of game that is hugely popular in Japan. My town has at least three huge pachinko halls, so I've been feeling for some time that I should really give it a try, but was too scared to venture in on my own.
I feel my misgivings were justified. It is astonishingly noisy in a pachinko parlour due to the clatter of thousands of little ball bearings and the frantic bleeping of the machines that accommodate them. This place was clean and modern and friendly, but for all that still had a pretty depressing air to it: there's no escaping the fact that it's just tawdry gambling. And fairly serious gambling at that - a ball bearing costs 4yen, and some people had box after box of the things: many thousands of balls. We burned through 1000yen pretty quickly, and promptly left. I can understand (from bitter experience) how people can get hooked on poker or playing the stock market, where there is an element of skill and you can convince yourself that you can beat the odds. But when it's just blind luck, and you know the house always wins, I don't see the attraction. So I don't think there will be much more pachinko for me.
Still, best Respect for the Aged Day ever.