Honshu in 1 Week: If there’s one thing I learned…

…about Japan during this whole trip – or so Kimmy said as we were finally en route to Tokyo – it’s that this country is extremely mountainous.

This was after the hundredth dozen set of tunnels we’d passed through. As beautiful of a scenery as we experienced in the early days of the trip, the second half was marked with progressively longer stretches of inter-mountain tunnels, one after another. This was the last leg. Really, I’ve been blessed with such amazing, adventurous friends. This is our short tale of one last hurrah on the open road, our last 7 days as partners in crime…

DAY 1: On the Road Again

Load the car with a year’s worth of luggage, blast a deafening amount of music through the speakers, and drive for as long as humanly possible, or twelve straight hours to be more exact. Mix in an unhealthy dose of Lawson’s coffee and stir liberally.

Oh, conbinis. How you shall be missed. They practically ensured that we could continue driving well past bed time. Sadly, it was the lack of 24 hour gas stations that finally grounded us at 2am in Niigata City at a Michi no Eki (roadside station). Otherwise we would’ve driven until reaching Fukui.

DAY 2: There Be Dinosaurs in Fukui

Having driven the entire length of the first day, I was relegated the duty of morning rest in the backseat while Kim and Elena sped past prefectures until early afternoon, after which I was much recovered from the caffeine crash.

We managed to make it past Kanazawa in record time, well after the lunch rush and the timing worked out like a charm.

Travel Tip 1: Start early in the morning. We left Imabetsu by 5pm because of work obligations earlier in the day but we would have covered so much more ground if we’d started early morning.

But don’t be fooled, this type of travel is not for the finicky or faint of heart. Michi no Eki are fluorescent lit and bug infested. Cicadas in the toilets, Aragogs in the ceilings of the bathrooms… and then there’s the little matter of what was once known as the Circadian Rhythm. Curtains and modernity have largely made it possible for humanity to ignore the call of nature, or rather the call to awake at the wee hours of 4am by summer standards. If I could do it all over again, I would have invested in a sleeping mask.

Travel Tip 2: However, when it can’t be helped or for the late night to early morning drivers there is a sizeable toll road discount if the car is equipped with an ETC and so long as drivers manage to exit by 4am.

For every stop we made, be it for gas or bathroom breaks (or as became more frequently: for both), we were set back anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Factor in breaks and switches if you’ll be on a particularly tight schedule, otherwise if time is of little to no consequences: carpe diem!

Fukui is known for potatoes, mackerel, and dinosaurs. Home to the adorable Fukuisaurus (a legitimate dinosaur, I assure you), there is a science center and dinosaur museum with enough exhibits to keep adults and children occupied all day.

We had only a couple of hours to kill. BUT IT WAS THE BEST!!!!

Not only were “traditional” dinosaurs (the ones we all knew and studied as children) represented, but the museum had a special exhibit for dinosaurs found and dug up on the Asian continent and Pacific. Fukuisaurus was among them, that adorable if derpy hadrosaur.

From the museum and our well-deserved rest, we hastened ourselves back onto the road. Time was of the essence. We had already set back for an extra night, a unanimous decision in a bid to see more of Shimane by the next day.

And it was well worth our sacrifice for an extra night in Tokyo.

DAY 3: The Land of 8 Million Gods and 1 Bunny Rabbit

Izumo Taisha, Matsue Castle… of the list of possibilities, including a possible seaside excursion or trip to a lighthouse, we narrowed down on the two closest. Kyushu had to happen that same night – or never, the hostel was kind enough to let us arrive a day late and we didn’t want to be unreasonably mucha.

Travel Tip 3: For a more luxurious experience, and given enough time, camp your way across Japan. Michi no Eki are a last resort and for the purposes of this trip, given our particular situational parameters, there were our only resort. But a nature resort (no pun intended), is a gorgeous way to get the woodsy back roads experience of Honshu. Make reservations a month in advance.

By the time we crossed the bridge into Kyushu, we were weathered a little worse for wear but still spirited enough to freak out for a hour later as we drove to our little hell-side hostel in Oita Prefecture. Also, the humidity was working wonders for our skin.

DAY 4: The Hells of Beppu

Never been so glad to find myself in hell before, in a manner of speaking. To have made it safely to our primary goal, exhilarating in its own right, received a further energy boost as we appreciated the natural geysers and mineral hot spring waters known as the Hells of Beppu.  Japan’s small scale version of Yellowstone NP, is impressive in its variety of geologic activity if not land masse. The colors were brilliant from milk white to blood red and crystalline stained glass blue.

There was one hell that got away, pressed for time we had to leave for Fukuoka City where Kim was able to partake of some second to last minute Pokemon Center shopping. Once we were all done with omiyage and merchandise, it was yet again time to hit the long road to Miyajima for a night and early morning exploring the geology and scenery of the island.

DAY 5: 1945

Hiroshima is a beautiful city. Lovely riverside walks wind you through a cityscape of modernity and to the vestiges of a fateful day in 1945. The past and the present merge perfectly into each other in Hiroshima and there is no better place to witness it than at the Peace Memorial Park and the attached museum which chronicles a single day of infamy: August 6, 1945.

The museum packs an emotional and psychological punch so be prepared to spend an hour or so sitting on a a quiet bench in the park after your visit. Educational in its history and uplifting in its message of eternal hope, I highly advise all Americans to pay the 50 yen to enter.

Travel Tip 4: The museum has free parking.

DAY 6: Nagoya

 From Hiroshima we made our way to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. Yet again, we were attempting to tick off another Pokemon Center off of Kim’s list, all the while oblivious to the fact that much like the hell that got away there was a Pokemon Center that got away as well: Hiroshima’s. Sigh. But, it gives us reason to go back some day, right?

Travel Tip 5: THROW OUT ALL YOUR TRASH AT EVERY REST STOP! And remember: that which you buy, yes even that deliciously chocolatey Parm bar, you will have to trash later.

Nagoya is the center of technological advances, Japan’s Silicon Valley but specifically in robotics. However, we didn’t have much time to explore at this point. Kim had a plane to catch early the next morning and we still had to find a suitable place to ditch the car in Yokohama (wherein there was yet another Pokemon Center that needed to be crossed off the list).

But after a lovely breakfast as Denny’s, we hit the city mall for clothes shopping and the last Pokemon Center.

Travel Tip 6: Pack for an appropriate number of days. Otherwise you’ll be living out of collectible prefecture T-shirts.

Nagoya reminded me of a less crowded and slightly shinier version of Tokyo. Reminded myself to try living there sometime in the future if possible.

Something must be said about Michi no Eko on the East Side of Honshu though. Where on the Sea of Japan side they’re few and far between, not to mention run down, the Pacific side has some amazing rest stops. Food courts, Starbucks, more gas stations… in short a luxury compared to driving on the west side.

DAY 7: Haneda Airport and Aomori Bound

Dropped Kim off at the airport early in the morning and stayed with her until she went through customs.

Travel Tip 7: Ignore Siri once you’re sure you’re on the highway Tohoku-bound/back to wherever you’re going. She attempted to be helpful by rerouting us through Tokyo. It took us THREE HOURS to find our way though traffic and back on the toll.

In case you missed it from Travel Tip 7, this is where the nightmares began. Not only did Siri seem to think driving on the mean streets of Tokyo would mean a faster exit from the city (I assure you, it was quite the contrary), she also somehow had the bright idea that driving straight through Fukushima’s SEASIDE was somehow okay.

For those of you who do not recall, Fukushima Prefecture’s coast was the site of the failed nuclear reactor. So at this point Elena and I had to create our own custom route, constantly looking ahead to make sure that Siri would not derail us from our path.

It’s an eerie experience driving in the dead of night through a prefecture that’s been the sight of a disaster. There were few lights in the towns and cities. We even cut the air conditioning early to make sure we didn’t breath any of the outside air, a precaution we took because of genetic predispositions to cancer and an unwillingness to tempt fate. Once we were past the line separating Fukushima from Miyagi, we resumed our air conditioning and relaxed.

By the time we rolled up to the hills of Gonohe, it was dawn. We watched the sun break it’s watery red glow across the horizon at the local park and then crashed from the physical and mental exhaustion for a good couple of hours.

Adventures in Shimane Prefecture

   
    
    
    
    
    
 

Yesterday. Shimane in one day. No rest for the adventurous……

Edit: okay now that I’ve had time to sleep and process everything, time for some explanations.

Shimane Prefecture is known for Izumo Taisha, a grand shrine dedicated to the god Okuninushi and is the seat of the gods’ meeting for one month of the year. 

According to legend, Okuninushi is the deity of good relationships and marriage, a status he achieved after helping out an adorable white bunny with a bad skin condition and winning the hand of the princess of Inaba.

The castle is well worth a visit as it is one of the twelve original castles that have gone through little renovations or alterations. 

And lastly, the tree trunk. It saw 320 years of history before being chopped down in 2007. 

   
    
   

Road Trip Reactions

It’s a lovely, commitment-free city hall day in June. My notebooks are out, the coffee liberally poured, and The Google is running like a champ. It’s really quite a miracle – not completely lost on me – that the world of navigation has been simplified since the advent of the interwebs. As the Queen of Getting Lost in my family, I used to have to mapquest directions for something as close as the mall two cities over in a country where the streets have names (a.k.a Anywhere But Japan). Albeit street names are practically rendered obsolete and useless in Japan, mostly because of the Things Have Always Been Done This Way tradition of We Will Only Ever Take The Same Route Taken By Our Forefathers, Naming Streets Be Damned 😀 I love Japan. It’s a quirky, beautiful country full of gumption and character, which I wish everyone could see first hand.

By now word has gone round the office that I’m planning a suicidal road trip mission impossible: from Aomori Prefecture to Fukuoka then up to Tokyo to drop off a friend at the airport and back up to Aomori with just enough time to clock in at work by 8 am. It’s a standing tradition by now that whenever anyone comes to refill their coffee (machine of which is just behind my work station), said person stops to comment on the weather and chat me up about my recent inaka experiences. Quick, painless interactions that have now since come to mean this:

“So. You’re planning on going to Fukuoka?” Long pause. Coffee sip. “What are you: a college student or a shakaijin?”

Real knee slapper. Big grin from me and a joking, “Ohohohohoho.”

“But seriously, take it easy. Take a train! Or a camper van. Anything but a kei car.”

Kei cars are karui jidousha (lighter, fuel efficient versions of the white plate car and they are a pain to rev up past 80 kmph, though not impossible).

“Just… don’t.” Coworker shakes head, walks away.

“Ehhhh… why?” I ask after them.

“Traffic,” was the grim response. Apparently despite the fact that southern Japan is at 70-90% humid, no one seems to have qualms about travelling down there by car.

Another coworker comments, “I once went from Osaka to Tottori to Izumo to Hiroshima to Yamaguchi. I gave up at Yamaguchi. At that point Fukuoka seemed too far. Also, I wasn’t an adult like you, I was still an idiot college student. But I hear there’s a shrine that’s famous for housing a god of study. Is that why you’re going?”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like studying. I love learning new things. I’m a shameless nerd. Some might consider this statement condescending. I assure you it’s not. I just didn’t have much else to do growing up in a household where going out or visiting friends was Out Of The Question. Basically it was classical music CDs (the only thing lying around the house apart from mariachi) and unhealthy amounts of Discovery, History, and Bill Nye. I’m starting to realize that most of my social anxiety came from not being allowed to socialize normally with other kids. Bleh.

“Trust me, you won’t make it to Fukuoka. You should quit now,” lovingly said, I assure you. They’re worried I’ll get myself into an accident, or worse yet into an early grave. Suzu-chan, I believe in you! For those of you who do not know, Suzu-chan is my kei car (who’s gotten me through the thick and thin of Akita and Sendai road trips but nothing quite like a 21 hour drive down to Kyushu).

One of the special ed teachers though understands exactly where I’m coming from. He owns a camper van and frequently goes off on weekend adventures. It’s just him, his camper van, and the great outdoors. As soon as he heard that a noob like me was planning a trip of doom he had one of his kids whip out a map of Japan and turned it into a geography lesson for the kid and an Introduction to the Road Trip of Doom 101 with a 3 unit Lab lesson for me. I will have to thank him profusely again next time I see him because it’s quite the advice!

All of this led me to asking The Googles if it was feasible to travel in a camper van and sifting through several forums I’ve come to one conclusion far too late in life: there area lot of idiots online. So many of the people commenting had either never gone on a road trip or had only done a day trip out of their town and were condemning the idea of even setting off for a cross country road trip because they’d had horrible experiences getting lost in the middle of a country where there are no street names and where they clearly didn’t speak the language. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten lost plenty but at least I speak the language. I’ll have to see how much I love or hate Japan after this road trip but for the time being, despite the strange roadways and inconvenient ETC routes (Japan is mountainous, folks. We’re not in flatter-than-a-pancake Kansas anymore), I don’t think this road trip will kill it for me just yet. More word on that when I get back… >.>

And my favorite:

“Oh my God. Just train there. Trains are comfy, kei cars are like Death.”

Over and out.

The Adventure to Sendai

As charming and picturesque as Aomori Prefecture has been these past few weeks, the need to hit the road for another grand adventure set in last weekend… again. Lately it feels as if there is no distance too long to drive for yet another new experience… or for Christmas shopping! We chose Sendai as last weekend’s prime adventure location for a variety of reasons, primarily because it is home to the Pokemon Center for the whole of Touhoku Region (shameless nerds ;D). Other factors that led to this decision: a) it’s south of the great cold in Aomori Prefecture, b) it’s the largest city in Touhoku, c) Sendai’s weather forecast balanced out at 0 degrees Celsius during the daytime (we were at -6 degrees Celsius up in Aomori).

With the best of company that any driver could desire, an ETA of four hours, snowy roads, and the navigation demon worshipped as  Siri, I think Sendai is going to be one of my more favorite road trips for 2014. I probably spent half my paycheck in gifts, tolls, and food but it was worth every last yen.

Things to prepare in advance if you are contemplating a spur of the moment trip to Sendai:

  • Tolls: ~11,000 yen round trip
  • Hotels: ~7,500 yen per night, breakfast included (the cheapest hostel is about ~2,000 yen)
  • Pokemon center: 10,000 – 20,000 yen, depending on number of gifts you will buy for friends and family (or yourself)
  • Shopping center: ~20,000 yen for gifts for friends and family (including omiyage)
  • Food: depends on your style! Cheapest will be convenience store purchase. Sit down restaurants and bakeries are slightly more expensive but more delicious alternatives.
  • Parking: fills up fast and it’s not going to be cheap. Plan to spend anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 yen in parking for the day.

Illumination fills the streets as the spirit of Christmas spreads across the nation; everything – from snowflakes patterns and globes made from lights to glowing orbs and icicles – can be found adorning shops, alleys, and department stores. Driving around the city is quite the experience as well: like every other highly densely populated location on the planet, Sendai is a pain to navigate simply because it’s so crowded (frighteningly enough, it didn’t have nearly as many people as Tokyo) and lacked cheap parking lots. We did not use mass transport that day as everything we needed or wanted to see was located within easy walking distance of the mall’s parking lot (Parco Mall, in case anyone wanted to know where they could hit two birds – Starbucks and Pokemon Center – in one go).

Childhood dreams aside, Pokemon Center was a blast! Despite having lived in Tokyo for a year, I never once stepped inside (a travesty, I know) but hopefully I will soon be able to remedy that (should New Year’s plans go through accordingly); I’m not as big a fan of the show or games as I was at age 8 but I’m still not too old to admit that there was a definite electric shock of 懐かしい feels that went through my spine as soon as I entered. Never before – or ever again, I suspect – will I ever be able to knock out so much Christmas shopping in a single aisle of a single store in a single anywhere. Huzzah!

And now to the interesting tale of the tomato cube lunch from Gontran Cherrier. It’s literally a cube of bread stuffed with mozzarella cheese and tomatoes. They are extremely satisfying to eat, delicious, and interesting. Kim and I probably ate more bread (two muffins, a cube of tomato and cheese per person, quiche, coffee rolls, and a berry tart) in that one meal than at any other time… ever. I have now made it my life’s mission to apprentice at this bakery sometime in the future. The meal in the cube practically sealed the deal for me 😉

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One final note before closing: the people of Sendai are always going somewhere. This place, though not quite as busy as Tokyo, is definitely a breeding ground for go-getters. The relaxed inaka lifestyle is nowhere to be found but it makes for an upbeat cross city journey. You’re more likely to see the latest fashions being paraded by members of both sexes than you would in the inaka towns since people actually doll themselves up for a day or night out in the city. That being said, bring your most comfortable pair of shoes because the sales are on and the stakes are high!