Monday, August 2, 2010

Hey Akita, is it cold?

(no, it definitely isn't)
Or, 'SweatyBack'.

The blog drought is over, I'm back! Today is in fact something of a milestone, as exactly 365 days ago I was arriving, tired and apprehensive, at Narita International Airport to begin my new life. But rather than getting all misty-eyed and introspective about that, let me tell you about my holiday. I imagine this will run to several posts.

The week prior to my friends' arrival was a busy one, involving a couple of mornings at kindergarten and a mid-week boozing session with the Rotary Club. I had also been trying to ready my house for its imminent 500% increase in occupancy. Due to my profound aversion to doing housework, I called this effort off as soon as I reckoned I'd raised the place to a kind of minimal standard for human habitation, stopping well short of any reasonable definition of 'tidy'.

The party of five arrived more-or-less on schedule on thursday evening. Pleasingly, the group contained one representative from each nation of the UK, plus one from Ireland proper, so that whenever we walked into a bar it felt like the set-up to a joke. They came bearing gifts of various unobtainable goodies from home, including a bag of Sweet Chili flavour Nobby's Nuts - surely the most addictive snack ever conceived by humankind - and a couple of slightly dehydrated-looking macaroni pies from my former workplace Greggs. These carb-laden monstrosities were my signature lunch back in my postgrad days. They also brought a box of less perishable Scottish treats (including tinned haggis) on behalf of Jude - thank you Jude! After a dinner of assorted supermarket convenience foods and some light squabbling over how best to arrange futons in the limited space available, we called it a night.

Friday was a fairly low-wattage day of looking around the modest sights of Akayu. After a satisfying breakfast of intercontinental pies, I took them to the temple, the shrine, and the park. The temperature was somewhere around the 30deg mark, necessitating frequent drink stops. They were impressed by the ubiquitous vending machines and the novelty of cans of ice coffee. 'Boss' coffee quickly emerged as the favourite on account of its name; there is something undeniably enjoyable about drinking coffee like a bawss. Lunch was of course at Kappa Sushi, and I'm pleased to say they were just as taken with the touchscreen / shinkansen system as I was. My guests were disappointingly unfazed by all the weird and mostly raw food on offer. Incredibly, most of them even pronounced natto to be tolerable. The only thing I successfully grossed them out with was uni, or raw sea urchin, which is a kind of slimy orange paste.

That evening Marie et al had very kindly thrown a welcoming party. I was a little stressed out, experiencing the particular anxiety that comes with being the lone inhabitant of the intersection of two otherwise disjoint social groups. However, I think we got through it without causing too much offence, the hairiest moment being when Joy went on a baffling conversational sojourn about how out hosts' light-coloured dog would almost certainly die of skin cancer. The hospitality was typically Japanese, by which I mean almost embarrassingly over the top, with an amazing spread of dishes. I realised that I have learned to deliberately hold back in these situations, pacing myself for the inevitable second and third waves of food and the hurt looks on people's faces when you tell them you are full. My inexperienced guests were also surprised by the endless drink refills and polite but persistent nagging to keep drinking. As I suspected they might, our hostesses (not that kind of hostesses) wheeled out their secret gaijin-surprising weapon: the grasshoppers. 80% of the newcomers manned up and tried them, with Graham flatly refusing. The big wuss.

The next day we set out to the mountain temple Yamadera, probably Yamagata Prefecture's premium tourist spot. Because of the faffing about that inevitably occurs when you try to mobilise six people to do anything, we were a little late in setting out for the station (my car struggles to accommodate four people; six was out of the question). As a result, I ended up marching the group in brisk single file through the baking heat to the station, running ahead alone to buy tickets when we got within a hundred metres or so. We must have looked quite strange - it's not every day you see six Caucasians charging down the street in Akayu. Anyway, we made it.

The ascent of the 1000+ steps to the temple complex was fairly taxing in the heat, and we were soon marvelling at the Rorschach-like sweat patches blossoming on each other's T-shirts. This then became a sweatiest back competition, which was a close battle between Graham and myself, but I pipped him in the end. My companions seemed suitably impressed by the temple complex and its views of the steep-sided valley below. As we finished our descent we felt a few spots of rain and heard a distant rumble of thunder. We made it back to the shelter of the station just in time to see the oppressive heat and humidity give way to one of the most torrential thunderstorms I've ever seen. On the way home we experienced the rarity of a delayed Japanese train; I'm guessing lightning must have hit something important.

Sunday was the first day of our road trip. We picked up the rental car (a 7-seater Toyota Exiga) with surprisingly little hassle; they didn't even object to Aoife's almost-certainly-expired international permit. Thankfully there was sufficient room for all our stuff (we made sure to travel light), and after a little confusion as to whether the car was in fact automatic (it had a semi-automatic mode that Joy accidentally engaged), we were soon on the road, with yours truly at the wheel. It was enjoyable but a little frightening to drive a powerful car after a year in the Wagon R. Boy, were the brakes responsive.

Like any modern Japanese car, our vehicle had a big fancy touchscreen panel for GPS navigation, which would switch to a view from a rear-mounted camera when in reverse. Adam (in the passenger seat) was quite taken with this technology and spent a long time wrestling with the Japanese controls. His random prodding managed to activate the navigation program, and the voice cutting in over the music to issue directions in Japanese to some unknown destination got on my wick so much that I pulled over and refused to drive any further until we found a way to turn it off.

The first leg of our trip was the longest, a five-hour slog on non-toll roads to Lake Tazawa, in Akita prefecture, Yamagata's northern neighbour. Much to our delight, the GPS emitted a cheery little jingle and splashed up a welcoming graphic whenever we crossed a prefecture border. As I mentioned previously, Akita has the dubious distinction of being the part of Japan that is depopulating faster that any other. Sure enough, it did seem like quite a bleak place, appearing to consist of endless rice fields and run-down little towns. However, that all changed as we neared our destination. Though the GPS was telling us we were mere kilometres away, there was no sign of a lake, just steep tree-covered mountains. Graham casually informed us that it was a caldera, as if 'caldera' was a word anyone had ever heard outside of an episode of Call my bluff or QI. After we berated him for being a ponce and demanded that he explain himself, we understood that the lake was inside a large volcanic crater. Thus, it was almost perfectly circular and completely enclosed within steep slopes. It was very fetching; in fact I would say that in terms of natural beauty it was probably the high-water mark of the whole holiday - we peaked early.

Some of us went for an early-evening dip in the lake, hanging our clothes on a sign that I'm pretty sure said 'No swimming'. Oh well, I'm not above the occasional gaijin smash. I am a woeful swimmer, and I can't actually recall the last time I swam prior to that occasion. But thrashing around in my ungainly breast stoke in the pleasantly warm water as the sun set - in an honest-to-goodness caldera, no less! - was a memorable experience. Even the knowledge that I was swimming in my boxers, meaning that I would have to go commando for the rest of the evening, couldn't dent my contentment.

There only seemed to be one place selling food in the immediate vicinity, so we went there. It turned out to be a microbrewery with an attached restaurant vaguely themed as a German bierkeller. We got off to a bad start as the menu was in Japanese with no pictures. Neither my friends nor my family when they came to visit me seemed to understand the difficulty this causes me. Given my Archos and a couple of minutes I can probably decipher any given menu item, but when one reads a menu one wants an overview of everything that's available, which is a big ask. In the end we ordered more or less at random, and the results were pretty disappointing. The worst of a bad bunch was a kind of proto-stew consisting of a nasty gnarled hunk of ham and a handful of vegetables in a watery broth. The restaurant's saving grace was the beer, which was of course brewed on the premises. We got a couple of pitchers of their 'dunkel' variety, and it was delicious. The bottled product was apparently 5.5%, but based on our surprisingly fast inebriation we all reckoned the stuff fresh from the source must have been closer to 8%. I don't know enough about brewing to judge whether that is at all feasible. At any rate, I had successfully organised a piss-up in a brewery.

We were staying at the oddly named 'That sounds good' - that's not a translation, it actually has an English name - which was somewhere between a hostel and a hotel. I believe that's called a pension, at least in Europe. It's USP was that the owners were jazz nuts, so everything was jazz themed. There were jazz posters on every wall and jazz mags (tee hee) in every toilet. The mini-onsen that the place had was shaped like a piano, making it ideal for a couple with a large height discrepancy. We hung out in the lounge for a while in the evening, and the owner asked if it was ok for him to have a jamming session with his friend, and whether we would like to join in. We declined the invitation but urged him to go ahead, and we were treated to some highly noodly guitar and drum stylings. I'm not a huge jazz fan, and I realise that on paper (or more likely, on liquid crystal) that might sound fairly excruciating, but the atmosphere was actually very laid back and enjoyable. A little later some other guests came down, including a four year old girl who adorably joined in on a toy drum. I have come to the conclusion that Japanese children are at least 80% cuter than their European equivalents. As it was jazz music, the fact that she was miles off the beat actually seemed to enhance her performance.

Ok, I'll hang up my blogging gloves for the night. Stay tuned for our road trip taking a turn for the rubbisher, one of our number throwing up, and - in an unrelated incident - us eating something that was still moving.