24 October - 15 November 2000
This will be my last letter written about Japan and is mostly about my four-day "leaf-peeper" trip.
The Tohoku region is made up of the six northern Prefectures of the main island of Honshu; this is approximately the northern 1/3rd of the island. Fukushima-ken where I lived is the southern most of those six. Historically in Japan this was the last part of the main island to be "civilized" and has always been considered the "out back" or the "Wild West' of Japan. A spine of mountains separate the Pacific side of the Region from the Sea of Japan, and as in Bulgaria, travel along the mountains is relatively quick, but to cross them is more time consuming, I started my trip by doing just such a crossing.
I left Taira at 7:20 by bus for Aizu-Wakamatsu via the Ban-Etsu Expressway, a toll road to Niigata. This parallels the Natsui River to some extent but is in a different canyon until they join at the headwaters near Ono. The day was very cloudy and raining part of the time so the higher mountains were obscured but the lower hills were covered with what appeared to be rust on a green background. The colors were not vivid but rather muted yellows, golds and browns. The town of Aizu-Wakamatsu is a railroad and truck distribution center for the central mountain area in the same way that Reno is and it reminded me very much of Reno. It sits in a large valley with a lake near by and the mountains rising above on all sides; the highest peaks to the north offer skiing and support a ski tourist industry, as does Reno. It was here that I had my only problem in buying a ticket for the bus or trains on my trip. When I went to the ticket window and said Niigata I received a response from the ticket clerk that I understood not at all. As I was trying to sort out what was the problem I was holding up the line and a man in his 20's stepped out of line and asked if he could help me. He then inquired about a ticket to Niigata in Japanese and it seemed that I did not need to buy a ticket: I simply would get on the bus and then pay the driver when I got off. I was then wait for about a 30 minute for the bus. We climbed out of the valley and then passed through more than a dozen tunnels, the longest being 3,360 meters long, as we dropped down to the Sea of Japan side of the island. The mountains were much steeper and more jagged on the western slope with more vivid fall colors. The train to Niigata may offer a better view of the mountains than the bus did but is was raining so the upper reaches of the mountains were in clouds either way. I got into Niigata around 12:30 and had about an hour before my connection to Sakata so I went to a Key Coffee Shop near the station and had a very good clam sauce with spaghetti. I took a Limited Express from Niigat to Sakata - about three hours, or two hours less than the Local but at about twice the price, so that I could arrive in time to meet Ron Hemenway, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer with me in Bulgaria. I had run across an e-mail message that he had sent to Friends of Bulgaria e-Group and sent him an e-mail prior to my trip and we arranged a meeting, dinner, talk and a few drinks. All of that happened in the order planned and we ended up the evening in a very small Japanese bar near Ron's apartment. Ron has a very good deal here in Japan; he teaches English at a Jr. High School for just over 1/2 the hours that Nova requires you to be in the class room for just less than 1 1/2 times the total compensation. In addition, he gets to plan his lessons, works in a pleasant physical work space and the Japanese staff that he works for appreciates his work and treats him like a human being - all qualities that Nova either totally disregards or is at the opposite end of the scale! He would like to stay more than his 2-year contract; I don't blame him and can see why.
First day of travel: 400 Km cost 9,430 Yen.
Left Sakata at 7:53, and a little hung over, on a Local train for which I had bought a special Sunday ticket that allowed all day travel within a prescribed area; always ask about these special tickets when you are traveling and are flexible enough to utilize them. It cost me almost as much for the final 1/4 of the trip as the special ticket cost. I also lucked into another good deal when I got to Akita where I was to transfer. The Local train that I was going to catch had been replace with a Touring Train that was mostly taken up by a tour group that was doing just what I was doing, "leaf peeping", and I was able to get onboard that train for an additional fare. About 60 Km north of Akita the tracks begin to parallel very close to the Sea of Japan and continue to do so for almost 100 Km; a very scenic area with the rocky shore line on the one side and towering mountains coming right down to the track on the other. When we turned inland toward Goshogawara and Hirosaki we were in some of the largest apple orchards in Japan and it was harvest season. There were huge boxes full of apples beside many of the orchards and pickers were busily at work. Arrived in Hirosaki at 14:15 and made inquiry at the information office in the station about a hotel that I had selected from Lonely Planet. They gave me a map and showed me were it would be; what they failed to tell me is the name had been changed but that caused only minor problems. Had a very nice dinner in one of the restaurant on top of the Nakasan Department Store (known as the colander building because of a very unique roof top). About a block away there is another building of some 10 stories that has a huge bowling pin on top of it which is advertising the bowling center on the 3rd through 5th floors; interesting downtown skyline in an interesting city.
Second day of travel: 300 Km cost 4,170 Yen, Hotel 5,040 Yen.
The Touring Train that I caught at Akita. The Nakasan Department Store.
I was up early this morning and walked in a light rain, almost a mist, to the Hirosaki-jo Castle or maybe I should say the castle grounds. The castle was built in 1611 but burnt down in 1627; what remains is a corner tower that was rebuilt in 1810. However the grounds, now a large park, still have the moats in place and the high earthen ramparts are planted with cherry trees that provide a spectacular show in the spring. However I was very impressed with the Japanese maples that were putting on their fall show. From there I continued on to the Chosho-ji Temple; a large temple complex at the end of a cedar lined avenue that has another 25 or more other temples along it. My final stop was at the Saisho-in Temple that features the five-storied Goju-no-to Pagoda; this is just across a small river near downtown and if nothing else is visited in Hirosaki this should be. I then caught a bus to Morioka and saw some of the most beautiful fall displays of the trip as we crossed the spine of mountains again, this time from the west toward the east. The tops of the mountains appeared to be mostly oak and had lost all of their leaves but the lower elevations continued to show good color. There was one tree that I didn't recognize that was a brilliant yellow and gave the appearance of candle flames against the dark green of the surrounding pines or the browns and rusts of the oaks. In Morioka I bought a train ticket to Hirizumi for today and bus/train tickets to Iwaki for tomorrow at the Japanese Railroad Travel Service Center. Most larger stations have these Travel Service Centers and they are excellent; they have employees that speak passable English and they do in fact offer SERVICE! Do not try to get the same kind of help from your regular ticket clerk it won't happen. In both cases it is best to have a copy of the Japan Road Atlas that you can show them exactly where you want to travel so there isn't any confusion about what route you want to take. The Atlas saved me a lot of explaining and saved me some grief when I was buying tickets to Hirosaki and noted that they were routing me via a way that I did not want to go. Arrived in Hiraizumi around 15:30 and walked from the station to where I thought the Minshuku Yoshitsune-so was. A Minshuku is what we would call a bed a breakfast that I had read about in Lonely Planet and although they recommend that you call for reservations I thought I would take my chances. My first problem was that I could not recognize it when I went by it; there were no signs that I could read. I approached a cleaning supplies sales/delivery girl at a nearby restaurant and asked her if she knew where it was and she got the restaurant owner out to point to it some 100 meters away. I continued to be unsure what they were pointing at so the girl drove me to it and talked to the Minshuku owner. She didn't want me, for whatever reason, but called the Hostel in town and verified that there was room for me; the girl then drove me the some 2 Km to the Hostel. The luck of this crazy American holds once more! I took a nice hot bath and then started looking for a place for dinner; there are not a lot of places near the hostel, the closest was closed. I finally went into a Okonomiyaki (cook it yourself) restaurant near the train station and cooked up some sliced pork, small shrimp and 4 very big ones on a gas grill that sat flush with the table top. Washed that and a couple of bowls of rice down with some very cold Sapporo beer and all was well with the world, or at least my part of it.
Third day of travel 200 Km cost 4,380 Yen, Hostel 4,410.
The three photos above and the two on the left in the second row are what remains of Hirosaki-jo Castle - the entry gate, one of the corner towers and the wall foundations plus moat. The picture on the right is of what I call the Avenue of the Temples.
In the three pictures above is the impressive Chosho-ji Temple; here you see the main entrance, a bull fountain, the massive temple bell and the temple buildings that form a sort of courtyard. On the left and right is the five-storied Goju-no-to Pagoda at the Saisho-in Temple.
Hiraizumi was the cultural center of the Tohoku region as is Kyoto in the south. It was here that the Fujiwara family held sway from 1089 to 1189 until destroyed by Minamoto Yoritomo. This is the period that all the Japanese "samurai dramas" on Japanese TV use as a historical backdrop. What exist today is a small town with a couple of small remnants of surviving and reconstructed temples that cater to large Japanese bus tour groups; very busy and crowded in the summer months. I started the tour around 7:00 by walking first to Takadachi Gikei-do Hall which is a memorial honoring Yashitsune, brother of Yoritomo, that grew up in the Fujiwara family but helped his brother battle the Taira family. When the two brothers had a falling out Yashitsune returned to the Fujiwara family and Yoritomo encouraged them to kill him; he was attacked and seeing no way out killed his family and then himself to escape the shame of capture. Very much the stuff of Japanese TV drama! The Hall is on a small hill that overlooks the Kitakami River, famous fields of battle and a mountain beyond. My next stop was at the Chuson-ji Temple, and a complex of other temples, that was originally established in 850, expanded in the 12th century and destroyed by fire in 1337. I did not go through the rebuilt Chuson-ji but did spend some time in the Golden Hall, built in 1124, which survived the fire. There was a large chrysanthemum and bonsai display/competition in and around the Hall that captured my attention more than the temples. I continued my counterclockwise walk through the hills to the west of town and then back down to my starting point - the Motsu-ji Temple, it's grounds and the hostel where I had spent the night. The hostel is in the temple complex and is run by Buddhist monks. The original temple was built in 850 and rivaled Chuson-ji, it was also destroyed over the years, however the existing building is worth a look and the gardens are very nice. I left Hiraizumi around 10:00 by bus to Ichinoseki, only about 10 Km, where I caught a Local train to Kogota, transferred to another Local and into Sendai in time for lunch. I went to the same Italian restaurant that I had eaten at when I was there in August; they still had the 1,000 Yen special and I was again very pleased. Then it was a Limited Express from there back to Taira arriving at about 5:15 pm, already dark because of the time of the year but still plenty of time for me to get some dinner and get ready for another day/week/month of work.
Fourth day of travel 250 Km cost 6,720 Yen.
On the left is a picture of my sleeping accommodations at the temple. On the right in the foreground of the picture is the Kitakami River and under the early morning ground fog is the plain on which a historic battle took place. This cedar lined path leads up the hill to Chuson-ji Temple and the many others.
The five pictures are some of the chrysanthemums on display in the Golden Halland; two pictures of the bonsai display - there were a lot more.
Pictures of my overnight hostel, the Motsu-ji Temple, and its very nice grounds.
My next Long Letter will catch you up on my travels in Vietnam on the way back to Reno.
I want to tell you now about my decision to leave Japan about 5 weeks earlier than originally anticipated. Upon completion of my Tohoku trip I came back thinking that I would leave Japan on or about 1 March. This would have been at the completion of my one-year contract with Nova; I had no desire to stay for a second year and they probably didn't want me either. However, on 20 November Nova Accommodations sent a fax to Brendon, Head Teacher, which said another teacher was assigned to my apartment. Both Dave and I promptly complained to Brendon and I said I would quit if they continued with the assignment. The teacher from NY, Barbara, was leaving on 1 December for her transfer site nearer to Tokyo and her apartment would be empty at that time. Dave submitted a request to Accommodations to move to that apartment. The response from Accommodations was that he could not move because that was a woman apartment and they could not change the new roommate assignment. I quit on 30 November giving 1 month and 8 days notice to comply with the contracts 1-month notice requirement. (Dave is staying as an employee but gave Accommodations his 2 months notice that he is vacating the apartment on 12 December. Therefore, because of their greed they have managed to loose one teacher 5 weeks early and have lost Dave as a tenant.)
Since then I have been trying to get everything discontinued (internet server as of 31 January), buy a one way ticket to the US that would coordinate with my Vietnam trip, pack and get rid of the few things that I can't take back. My schedule for the next month looks like this. Nova is closed from 27 December to 3 January. I will then work 4-6 January, travel by bus from Iwaki to Narita Airport on the 7th, overnight at Narita, fly to Hanoi, Vietnam on the 8th, bicycle in Vietnam 9-24 January, fly to Narita from Ho Chin Ming City, Vietnam on the 25th, overnight there again and then fly to San Francisco on the 26th. I should be in Reno by the 29th and hopefully get a place to live, telephone connection, server and a job by early February.
I hope everyone had a great Holiday Season; best wishes from your intrepid traveler. I will be back with more news and my experiences in 2001, the first year of the new Millennium and a new start for me.