Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dango breaking my heart

Or, "This town is 'coming like a ghost town"

I wonder how long I can keep using Elton John songs...

Road trip day 2:

After a jazz breakfast, we set out to take in the sights around Lake Tazawa. With Joy at the wheel, we completed a quick circuit of the lake, then headed for the Daikannon, a big golden statue of a Buddhist goddess. It was mentioned in my guidebook but there was surprisingly little in the way of signposting on the ground alerting one to its presence. Surely if you had a 35m tall Kannon in your locker you'd want to shout about it, we thought.

When we found it, we realised why they had been keeping it on the DL. The statue was clearly decades rather than centuries old, and the whole thing had more the atmosphere of a clapped-out third-rate theme park than a sacred site. They were asking 800 yen for admission, which seemed rather steep for the privilege of looking at a statue covered in flaking gold paint. We peered at it from the gate (it's pretty hard to hide a 35m goddess), and were about to get back in the car when the man at the booth must have sensed that there was no way he was getting 4800 yen out of us, so waved us in for free. In addition to the Kannon there were some gardens that had long since fallen to the ravages of entropy, and a strange tacky visitor centre that literally had smoke and mirrors accompanying various idols for one to worship. I particularly liked a weird fluffy cloudy display, presumably supposed to evoke heaven. As its centrepiece it had a little old CRT TV inside a reflective orb, which was displaying static. I suspect that this wasn't intended, but for my money it was easily the most Zen thing in the whole place.

The whole experience was fairly depressing, but there is something I like about this kind of crass commercialisation of religion. It is as if they are acknowledging the whole thing is just a big crowd-pleasing scam, which is a kind of candour that I would like to see more of in Christianity.

The bleakness continued with the next leg of our journey, on which we crossed the Hachimantai plateau into Iwate prefecture (cue another GPS jingle). I am assured by my guidebook that the views from the summit are spectacular, but unfortunately I'll have to take their word for that since it was a right old pea-souper (guv'nor), with visibility down to about 10m at times. We got out at the top anyway, and though we couldn't see the other end of the car park, we could revel in the fact that the temperature was only 18deg at that altitude. It was the first time I've felt cold in about three months.

We stopped off at a roadside visitor centre / market / noodle bar for lunch. We made a massive hash of ordering, as there was once again no English or pictures, and you had to buy coupons from a machine and then present them at the counter to get your food. They would then call out your number (in Japanese, naturally) when your meal was ready. I could just about handle all of this myself - I've eaten in plenty of places like this before - but trying to herd the whole group through these admittedly confusing hoops made me feel a bit like a single parent with five unruly children. Anyway, Graham ended up with the cold soba that I've described previously, and he loved it. I should have known that a man who lives on muesli would enjoy the spartan austerity of cold wholemeal noodles and soy sauce.

After that we went to an onsen town. Graham didn't fancy it, fending off accusations of prudery by insisting that it was the heat rather than the nudity that bothered him. So, he visited a geothermal power plant while the rest of us took a dip in a sulphurous outdoor pool, or rotenburo. (Or more accurately, two outdoor pools, although this place did seem to play things fairly fast and loose with the gender segregation. I'm pretty sure the male pool was technically mixed, and by simply standing in the right place one could easily see through to the ladies-only pool.) It started to rain a little while we were bathing, which was gloriously refreshing, though they did have conical straw hats you could wear to rather pointlessly keep your head dry. Kicking back in the rotenburo whilst looking like Rayden was a good moment.

We then headed to our hostel, but we had a little trouble finding it. Exactly in line with hackneyed gender stereotypes, Joy favours the entirely sensible policy of asking for directions in such a contingency, whereas I will go to fairly insane lengths to solve problems like these without troubling another human, like the undiagnosed-Asperger's weirdo that I am. This caused some slight friction, as I was the only one who had the linguistic capability to ask. We eventually got directed to the place, and 'That sounds good' seemed very far away.

To be fair, if it was just a no-frills hostel that would have been ok. The trouble was that said hostel turned out to be in a ski resort, and it was July. Consequently, the place was a full-on ghost town. No restaurants were open, so we had to resort to buying bento from a convenience store. We ate these back in the hostel common room, with the owner creepily watching us. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to find his long-dead mother in a rocking chair in the basement. Then we repaired to one of our rooms, and Tim taught us a card game at which he then clearly cheated and tried to justify his actions, to fierce and widespread condemnation. And there was no aircon. All in all, quite a bum day.

We set out on day three with high hopes of turning around our fortunes. Graham blasted down the expressway to Hiraizumi, a famous historical district. First on our hit-list was Chuumon-ji temple. It was pretty impressive as temples go, but having lived in Japan for a year - and having visited Kyoto - I've become a bit desensitised to temples. I need bigger and bigger hits; to really get me excited now a temple has to have a pretty special gimmick, like being made entirely of ice or floating six inches above the ground.

For lunch we went to a place, recommended by my guidebook, that sold 'dumplings'. Its special gimmick was that it overlooked a gorge, and one could buy dumplings from the other side by putting money in a basket which would be reeled in and then zip-lined back out with a payload of tasty treats.

Now, we made a couple of errors. Firstly, we went to the side of the gorge where they make the dumplings, denying us the pleasure of using the basket. Secondly, we had assumed that dumplings were savoury, but it turns out that dango (as they are called) are like marshmallow kebabs, served with three difference sauces: the ubiquitous red bean jelly, the delicious but ominously coloured sesame (it's black), and a weirdly salty orange one that I reckon must have been soy based. Aoife couldn't stomach the things at all, and while I quite enjoyed them, they weren't really the hearty lunch we were after. The owner of the dango shop - an old gentleman missing most of his teeth (too many dango, perhaps) - came and tried to have some banter with us. As the only person with any chance of communicating successfully with him, I took the brunt of it. It's fair to say that this guy was an eccentric. He said he was an amateur film-maker, and sure enough, the whole place was decked out with antique-looking video-editing equipment, the big reel-to-reel recorders with their chunky buttons giving the place the look of the villain's lair from a Roger Moore-era Bond moive.

He invited me upstairs to what turned out to be his basket dispatching nerve-centre, and thankfully Tim decided to tag along and see what was up. The little room was covered in Polaroid photos of people like us posing with him, and he had a wide selection of flags. Learning that we were British, he stuck a Union Jack (yes, I know that's technically incorrect; I don't care) on the basket, and when some punters ordered dumplings from across the gorge (he had a camera with a zoom lens trained on the spot) he let us do the honours, while blasting out God save the Queen. There was also a young woman there, and it's still not clear to me whether she was a friend of his or just a hapless customer who was too polite to leave. Tim was backing towards the door, but dango-man wouldn't let us go without a whole lot of picture taking and guestbook signing.

By this point the sightseeing day was essentially over, so we went to our hotel in the unremarkable town of Ichinoseki. City centre business hotels are the way to go - they're convenient, clean and cheap as chips. Team GB (minus the free-spirited Joy) went to a soulless but pleasant chain izakaya for dinner. They were heavily promoting a beverage called 'Hoppy', claiming in English that it was 'a modern drink'. After unwittingly burning some serious yen on a round of premium draft beers, our curiosity got the better of us and we ordered the mysterious drink. It turned out to be non-alcoholic beer that came with a shot of shochu (Japanese vodka analog) for you to add. I can only assume that this is some kind of tax dodge, because far from being the future of drinking, this was every bit as rubbish as it sounds.

The evening's entertainment was to be our first karaoke session of the holiday. I had found a place by the station with a stupidly cheap deal, so we went there. The guy at the desk was quite surly, which would be unremarkable in any other country, but having grown accustomed to hyper-polite Japanese customer service, I felt as though he had just questioned my mother's romantic propriety whilst teabagging me. Undaunted, I got us a couple of hours of the very cheapest nomihodai (all you can drink) deal, which meant that we couldn't drink anything nice, only dubious cocktails.

For those of you wondering, the way you order drinks from a private karaoke room is by picking up a phone receiver that puts you through to the front desk, and yelling Japanese in a bid to be heard over Hotel California. I invariably take a back seat and let a Japanese person, or failing that, a more experienced gaijin, take care of this. But now I had to step up. Thankfully, cocktails all have phonetically written foreign names like sukuruudoraibaa and mosuko myuru, so I was able to make educated guesses as to what I was ordering. Not that it really mattered, since it was all free, but it strikes me as rather churlish to leave undrunk a drink that you haven't specifically paid for, if you follow me. Joy, however, seemed unconcerned about these finer points of nomihodai etiquette.

We were having a great time. Graham and I joined forces for a memorable rendition of Katy Perry's Hot and Cold, and then overstayed our welcome at the mic with Paranoid Android, which was funny for the first minute and painful for the subsequent five.

Little did we realise the storm that was brewing inside the gut of someone, who at his or her request, shall remain nameless. It could even be me (it's not). I shall henceforth use gender-neutral pronouns. Looking back, we should have read the warning signs: when xe started holding xyr mic at an angle greater than 90 degrees we should have cut off xyr 'whisky on the rocks' supply line. But no, we didn't smell a rat until xe spent an abnormally long time in the toilet. Sure enough, xe was blowing chunks. Xe seemed lucid, so there was some hope that maybe xe'd nipped it in the bud with an early vom. Alas, this optimism was misplaced, as xe proceeded to spend the next several hours back in the room hugging the toilet. I dealt with this by putting in my earplugs and going to sleep.

Man, I need to be more concise. Covering just two days in a post this size, it's going to take an age to finish at this rate.


  1. These travel blogs are hilarious, Finlay!!

    Looking forward to the rest!!

    Mon :)