October 29, 2007

Life in limbo/Trip to Nagano-ken

Hello all, long time no see yada yada.

So since leaving school a month or so ago I have been staying in an old house belonging to a local family. Kind of friends of a friend. It turns out I have an internet connection after all (I'm leaching wireless) so I'm really sorry for not posting anything in so long.

I've been fairly comfortable here. It's pretty old, and I have no shower, but the family to whom the house belongs live next door and they let me use theirs. My only other real gripes are the insects. I've had more than my fair share of mosquito bites over the last month, I've encountered cockroaches on occasion, and on the first night I moved in the biggest [EXPLETIVE]ing spider I've ever seen in my life put in an appearance. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not particularly fond of such creatures (call me childish if you will, but it's a phobia, honest. I prefer to liken myself to Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes).

Aaaanyway, my work visa came through a lot (i.e. 3 weeks or so) quicker than I was expecting it to, so I am going to start my new job on Thursday (i.e. 3 day's time). I'm more than a little nervous about going into a Japanese-language workplace, but it'll be OK...right??

I had some free time while I was waiting for my visa, so I took the opportunity to take a much-needed break and get the hell out of Okazaki. For numerous reasons, I came up with a vague plan to tour several places in Nagano prefecture over the space of a week or so, going north-east on the train. And did exactly that. Details:

Tsumago and Magome

Heading north-east by train from Nagoya, I elected to first stop at the historic former post-town of Tsumago. I arrived in the evening and stayed in a minshuku (a kind of traditional Japanese lodging) which was jolly nice, and where I pondered my next moves, played DS games (I'd be doing a lot of that...I pwn at Famicom Wars DS!!!!11!one), booked hotels by phone, etc. After dragging my ass out of bed the next morning (why oh why do all hotels etc. have a check out time of 10pm??? I'm on holiday!! I want to lie in until at least midday you bastards!) I had a bit of a wander round the almost painfully historical and untouched town (which of course was lined with souvenir shops) and discovered that the bus to Magome (another post-town off to the east) left once every two hours, and that I had just missed it. So, I decided to walk some of the way down the Nakasendou (a 7.5km hiking route that links the two towns) and catch the bus half way along (this became necessary since there was no way I would be walking the whole thing with a back that heavy strapped to my back, believe you me. I'm impressed with myself for doing 4km).

Either way, I arrived in Magome with aching shoulders and had a bit of a butcher's. Magome somehow seemed a lot more touristy that Tsumago (read: there were more foreigners. Well more crowds in general really) and while nice, I didn't like it quite as much.

I stayed the night at a business hotel in nearby Nakatsugawa, which wasn't a particularly fascinating town (I felt like I might as well have been back in Okazaki). There are some sights but I didn't really have time to see them. What did strike me was the contrast between the minshuku I'd stayed in the night before (out in the middle of nowhere, run by a woman and her son, views of unspoilt wilderness) to staying in a clinical, sanitized big chain business hotel (piped-in muzak in the lobby, pay-per-view porn on the telly, views of an interchange). Needless to say, if you're going for the traditional Japanese experience over convenience, I recommend staying in a minshuku (or a ryokan, another type of traditional Japanese lodging...don't ask me what the difference is between the two).


Next up was two days in the city of Matsumoto, nestled in the ass-crack of the Japanese Alps (I really ought to come up with better analogies). Left we see "Alp-chan", the city mascot. You will notice she has alps on her head. I am dying to know what the violin-thing she's carrying is all about.

When I arrived it was raining it's ass off so I decided to head for the Matsumoto Museum of Art, which was jolly nice, and had a bit of a walk around the city center. Stayed the first night at another big-chain business hotel (overly polite people in the lobby, pay-per-view porn on the telly, view of a brick wall), next day headed to Matsumoto's main attraction, the castle (400 years old and one of four castles countrywide that survived ransacking and reconstruction over the years to become declared a national treasure).

Matsumoto castle is pretty fantastic and is apparently quite architecturally unique (it has 5 stories and an outer-keep-thing) and the city is justifiably proud of it, as it's a national treasure and all. I went through the tour of the inside of the castle but am afraid to say that I didn't make it quite as far as the 5th floor (there was a queue!).

Then it was on to...


Sports fans out there will probably recognize Nagano as the city that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. Now, if you mention the words "Winter Olympics" to many Brits my age, it will inevitably bring to mind the horror that was Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards making a complete and utter tit of himself in Calgary in 1988, and subsequently becoming famous for being a complete and utter tit.

Nonetheless, off I went.

The first day was spent being overcome at how jolly nice Nagano city is, finding my Ryokan (traditional Japanese lodging, remember?) and looking around the nearby, well-known temple Zenkouji. A volunteer group who give free tours in English noticed my white guy status and immediately offered me a tour of the temple. Sounded good to me, so off we took.

Numerous events on this day and the next caused me to notice, or at least imagine, how un-used Nagano was to foreigners in general, and especially those who could speak some semblance of Japanese. Maybe it comes from living for so long in a small town with a big freaking Japanese language school in it which has Japanese-capable gaijin bursting from the rafters. But still, this place hosted the Winter freaking Olympics! As I look back, it seemed to me to get worse the further north I went. But you will forgive your intrepid journalist's somewhat overactive imagination, I'm sure.

On day 2 in Nagano (after a lie-in!) I took an hour-long bus ride up into the mountains to visit the isolated town of Togakushi. Which is a fairly amazing unspoilt piece of traditional Japanese wilderness. It has amazing scenery, remote temples with ancient history (when I say remote...Okusha temple has an 1800m path lined with amazingly beautiful cedar trees...frankly the path leading to the temple is a lot more impressive than the temple itself), and, best of all, a former ninja school-cum-ninja museum. Oh my god it was freaking cool. I mean, come on here people! Real-life ninjas!!! Do you realize how cool ninjas are to the average western suburban twenty-something? So, needless to say, visiting a remote, mountainous ninja
academy was, well, jolly nice.

And they had a ninja house!!!! And the souvenir shop sold replica shuriken and katana!!!! And they had photos of dudes doing ninja stuff!!!! Honestly!!!!

And I walked from the ninja museum to a nearby shrine called Chuusha...and I stopped at a souvenir shop there...and the guy who ran it was a real-life ninja master!! And I totally chatted with him!!!!! (putting the adolescent enthusiasm on hold here...I'm honestly not kidding. He gave me his business card, he runs a local martial arts school called Genshinkan, and his name is Kazuho Matsuhashi, if I'm reading it correctly).

Anyway, complete photos of my trip are here, should you want to see them:
http://photozou.jp/photo/list/154073/415373 (I would like to point out by means of a disclaimer that my camera sucks major-league ass)


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