Monday, July 16, 2007

Typhoons, Earthquakes and Hotsprings...

Well, it has been entirely too long since I put anything on here.

First let me say that I survived all of the natural phenomena that Japan was subjected to over the weekend. In fact, I didn't even feel the quake. I actually didn't experience the typhoon either. And that is where our story begins.....

Monday (it is Tuesday morning here now as I write this) was a national holiday here in Japan, which means three day weekend in my book. I had some plans to go to a huge temple complex in the mountains outside of Tokyo, but those plans fell through for whatever reasons. On Friday, I was considering my options. It was supposed to be rainy (=typhoon). There were some offers to go to Tokyo and do some stuff like museum hopping and the like, but I have spent a couple of weekends in Tokyo now and was feeling like something a little more adventurous. During lunch I was mulling all this over, when I chanced to look at the TV set in the cafeteria and noticed that in spite of the impending typhoon, there were some spots on the map that showed at least a little sunshine. That was all it took. Upon returning to my office I started researching destinations. For a brief moment or two I was considering going to Niigata, the site of the earthquake, but instead decided that my destination should be the little town of Tazawako, nestled in the mountains of Akita prefecture.

And so I left, right then. Backpack full of nothing but the bare minimum, which for me means that I left my toothbrush back at the house. I swear, I could document my travels by all the various toothbrushes I have bought after setting out. "Here is my toothbrush from Hawaii. I bought this one after I got to Chicago. And this one here, this is the first one that I bought in Japan. I like it better than the second and third."

I arrived in Tazawako around 8:00 after a three hour Shinkansen ride. Took a taxi to the youth hostel and had an amazing home cooked meal for dinner. The following morning at breakfast I dinned with a couple from Yokohama that spoke English. They asked me to accompany them as they biked around the lake. An invitation I was glad to accept. Lake Tazawako is the deepest in Japan, -423m. This puts it right up there next to Crater Lake, and similar to Crater Lake, the water is a radiant blue color.

After that little adventure, it was back on the Shinkansen, destination: Kakunodate. Because the Shinkansen is just plain fast this little jaunt, that is a hour long bus ride, took all of about 20 minutes. Kakunodate is a town that formerly had a very large samurai population, prior to the start of the Meiji period (1868ish). Because of this, the town is full of some very old, stately homes, with amazing traditional style gardens surrounding them. These aren't like the places that you see in the southern US, the plantation homes with the ostentatious gardens, bursting with color. This is Japan after all. These homes exuded a quiet opulence, very refined, and seemingly self assured. In short, what I would expect a samurai to be like. In fact, the mood of the city here is described as being similar to Kyoto, which is a high compliment indeed (Kyoto is next on the list, if I can find the time.... but I digress). There is also the usual smattering of touristy shops and over priced food, but amongst these there is one of the most unique folk crafts I have seen. Household wares that have been covered in cherry bark. It really creates a stunning effect.

After I had finished having my way with the samurai, it was on to Akita city, the prefectural capital. My hopes weren't high, since the guide book describes it as an industrial city, but it was also noted as having a busy nightlife district, and is fairly close to the ocean. It was also only 30min away on the Shinkansen, so why not? Well, it really just isn't that great, that's why. The night life scene is definitely there, but not quite what I wanted. By that I mean I wasn't interested in strip joints, maid cafes (I won't bother to describe this unique phenomena here, google it or something) or gimicky looking bars full of businessmen. I ended up at a place called "Cell Block" which I though might be a hangout for biologists, but it turns out the wasn't the right kind of "cell". They were playing hip hop music and I thought maybe there would be dancing or something, a chance to mingle with some people a little closer to my age. Wrong. It was me, the bartender and two girls over by the window talking to themselves. Fortunately the bartender was super cool, although he spoke less english than I speak Japanese, which means he didn't speak any. It ended up with just me and him, throwing darts (and loosing badly, but he had the home court advantage) and drinking for free. Maybe Akita isn't so bad after all.

The next morning, after sleeping in a little bit (well, I was partying with a bartender after all) I set out in search of the Sea of Japan (or East Sea if you ask a Korean. Kind of a touchy subject). Wrong again. Don't misunderstand, the sea is still there, there just isn't an easy way to get there and all of the beaches are still closed. That was it. Time to leave Akita and find some hotsprings, or onsen.

And so I did. Another shinkansen ride back to Tazawako, a bus ride up into the mountains and then nothing but blistering hot water. This was in the Nyuto area, which has a ton of onsen all over the place. These resorts are very nice, but the only problem is they are kinda expensive, at least if you want to spend the night. I was starting to feel a little over extended in the pocketbook, so I inquired at the hostel back down the mountain again. Full. Thought about going to the campsite a little ways down the mountain, ahhhh but no tent, and for the amount it would cost to rent a tent there I could just about stay at the onsen. Hmmmmmm.....

Well I had a sleeping bag. And is that an old shed over there? Problem solved. And so I spent the night listening to the wind spun off from the typhoon whipping through the trees, lying in an old tool shed up in the mountains of Japan. The next morning I awoke with the sun to hear birds singing (and some little critter rummaging around), the wind had died down, and I took a little stroll through the forests before catching the first bus back down the mountain. The views from the bus of Lake Tazawako were stunning, since the clouds had broken up and the sun was shinning through. And while I was chatting with some Finnish backpackers in front of the train station, sun bearing down, hearty breeze sweeping away the last of the clouds, there was a major earthquake about 200km away or so. I had no idea about the details of which until I saw the reports this morning. It feels like a small world sometimes, but don't be fooled.


Marieke said...

Wow, Ry, quite an epic journey! I'm glad you found a natural disaster-proof shed to stay in. That beats all! And wow, those hot springs sound nice. The closest hot springs to here are probably in Iceland.

Tazawako Tourism Association said...

Hello. I'm Kozue from Tazawako Tourism Association. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your experience in Tazawako here. Your writing is one of the most interesting blogpost on Tazawako, so I appreciate. Please come back to Tazawako again, perhaps in different season! Anyways, I'm looking forwared to reading more. Thanks, again.