It’s been pouring for a couple of days, and everyone said the rainy season has begun. When I left my room this morning, prepared for a 3 1/2 mile walk to the Kintai Bridge, I brought my umbrella expecting rain. I ended up using it for shade, since it never occurred to me that I would need sunscreen today!!
Good news: sun! It made the views, the photos, the whole experience way better I am sure. It took me two hours to get to the bridge (long ass walk+getting lost multiple times), then it was a whirlwind of fun and sights and craziness for another couple hours (I accidentally joined a Japanese tour group….ha ha!!)
So. How did I accidentally get in a tour group? By not understanding Japanese, that’s how. I read beforehand that it was 300 yen to cross the Kintai Bridge. So I’m all over that. I walk up to the ticket booth with three, hundred-yen coins, all ready to go. She says blabbity blabbity blabbity bridge? Or blabbity blabbity castle and museum and bridge? I could see the castle from where I stood. I’ve always wanted to see a Japanese castle. She’s holding the tickets: 300 yen for bridge, 930 yen (about $12) for several things. I bought the bigger ticket. She smiles, makes change then blabbity blabbity something or other, question mark? I smile and bow and say arigato gozaimasu. She points at the bridge and I bow and thank her again and I’m on my way, smiling, tucking the tickets into the cat bag. But a guy in a reflector vest is trying to get my attention, and points out a tour group just beginning, and calls to the tour guide. The tour guide is a super friendly woman about 4 1/2 feet tall, with short hair under her bright blue cap with buttons all over it. She has a neon green reflector vest and a microphone hooked up to herself, and gestures me to scurry and join the group. She’s doing the tour guide talk: a mile a minute. Apparently, that’s what I bought: a tour.
I missed a whole huge bunch of information today, while the sweet, 50-something mini-lady talked in Japanese and got everyone laughing. I laughed too, but it was because everyone looked so happy, not because I understood the jokes. She tried to include me many times. I practiced my deer-in-the-headlights look. But eventually we all made friends and I had a very good time despite pretty much never knowing what was going on. She went out of her way to find stuff written in English for me. Once we passed a tour booth of some kind, and she stopped the whole group and went inside and came out with two brochures written in English for me.
We crossed the Kintai Bridge, then went to one of the very few Samurai houses left in existence. I didn’t realize they were rare. I was able to recall scenes from The Last Samurai, set in a Samurai house. It was one of those traditional Japanese places with beautiful patterned floors and nothing else in the room, with sliding paper walls between rooms.
Next we saw a statue of Hiroyoshi Kikkawa (the Kikkawa family built the castle), a park with lots of water features, the famous Iwakuni White Snakes. Just one couple and I agreed to pay the 100 yen ($1.25) to go into the snake house. There, I saw a tangle of about 5 albino snakes. The brochure claims that these white snakes are found nowhere else in the whole world. Apparently, it’s a form of albinoism (white snake, red eyes) that has stabilized, and all of the offspring are white. I was very lucky to see a rather active snake – you know that snakes in glass houses typically doze – moving quite a bit.
Then we boarded a cable car. A cable car! I had no idea that was coming up. Mostly likely it was explained to me in Japanese at the time I purchased my ticket. The cable car took us to the top of the very steep mountain on which the castle is built. We had a deliciously cool walk from the cable car to the castle, where our guide talked on and on about…um, stuff. Then we reached the castle grounds. There is the original foundation, still in place. The castle was built in 1603. Then (the brochures are vague on this…) it appears that the castle had to be destroyed due to enforcement of a “Law of One Castle Per Province.” That’s all it says, I’ll have to look it up.
The current one was rebuilt in 1962 (about the same time the Shinkansen started business), and is now a museum. In the museum, as we went up the four flights of stairs to get to the top of the castle, I finally began getting more at ease with my Japanese tour group. I wanted to know how to hold the weapons that I saw. Some of them knew a couple of words of English. I was looking at this gigantic curved sword, about six feet long, and asking “How do you hold this thing?” And they managed to explain to me that it was only a gift, this one was too big to be used as a weapon. too heavy. So then, they pointed out the smaller ones, used as swords. They mimed how they would be used, how held, how carried on the belt. Then, we had a talking point. Each new weapon, they tried to mime for me how it was used.
At one neat display, a series of things was laid out in a row. Some rocks at one end, a sword at the other. It turned out to be the stages of creating a sword, heat and hammer, till the sword was the final result. Cool. The museum also had a full samurai suit.
Back at the bottom of the hill, we went into a traditional Japanese garden and heard a concert of people playing instruments like big zithers. My guide told me the name, but I don’t recall it. We crossed a creek with not only koi, but also soft-shelled turtles. An older gentleman in my group kept saying suppon nabe, which I found out is turtle soup. He gestured to me that I must eat soft-shelled turtle soup to get big muscles!
In the garden, there were people dressed in traditional kimonos having picnic lunches. Japanese dress in traditional clothes sometimes when visiting a special place, particularly on holidays, to make it more of an event. I overcame my resistance to photograph people obviously (it’s not in good taste to stare, or even to hold eye contact, so I am reluctant to obviously photograph people), and snapped two of people in kimonos. I also saw my first Torii.
The rest of the group waved sayonara and took off then. The tour guide asked me something. A lot of words. I don’t know what she was saying. I said warkarimasen a few times (I don’t understand), shook my head, nodded. Whatever. I understood that it was over and I was trying to give my acquiescence. The guide kept trying to get me to respond and I had no idea. So she pulled a brochure of a flower show featuring irises, out of her bag. I made appreciative sounds. I love irises. So, she promptly waved goodbye to the rest of them, and took me under her wing for some more tour. It was just the two of us.
I guess I showed up during peak iris blooming season. And wouldn’t you know it, that very weekend was the main advertised iris show! There were people there with gigantic cameras and tripods and lenses right out of Hollywood. Holy cow. Many of the tourists had cameras that made my Nikon D5000 look like a point-and-shoot. I was now the sole tourist in the group, and my guide led me to two different iris gardens. The first, she explained, had 90 colours and contained 10,000 plants. The second, only 50 colours but 100,000 plants. They were both remarkable and I was very grateful that I had done whatever it is I did to get this personal tour. After that, she showed me the statue of Kojiro Kikkawa, and finally she said sayonara for good, and I was released.
That’s when I walked into the very first restaurant I found. It was tiny, and beautiful. They handed me a menu, and the entire top section of drinks was translated into English. I ordered iced tea. It came with lots of ice, and a little glass container with liquid sweetener. I was happily drinking my iced tea and NOT WALKING (my feet were singing my praises for the decision to sit down), when the table next to me had their meal delivered. It looked like Indian dal. I could smell the curry. I was practically swooning from the delicious smells drifting over to my table.
I shot covetous glances at the table next to me until I could get one of the staff over to me again. I asked if I could have “that” (pointing but trying not to point, because it’s not polite). She didn’t understand. I tried several times. Blatantly, I pointed directly at a woman’s plate, and then pointed to the empty table in front of me, “Please, I want some of what they are eating.” Still, she didn’t understand. I rubbed my hand over my belly in a circle. “I am so hungry and that smells so good,” I moaned. She laughed (and so did the poor woman whose plate I had been pointing to) and asked, “You want menu?” I pointed to the Japanese characters on the menu that looked most promising, and I did receive the same large plate of dal and rice and tomatoes, with the side salad, that my neighbors were eating. I wished I could apologize for my behavior, but I didn’t know how, other than bowing and saying sumimasen– excuse me.
With my meal, I received a spoon and fork! It was the craziest thing, looking at the spoon and fork, and having to think through what to do with them. That is hilarious. It was incredibly delicious. I had two glasses of iced tea and two glasses of water. Wow, was I thirsty, hot, tired and hungry. I was in a few minutes of ecstasy while I tasted my meal. I think I actually moaned out loud. 🙂
I found something like a rose garden, with a few other flowers in it, and couldn’t read any signs except one in front of a dogwood. The sign explained that the dogwood was a gift from the U.S., in exchange for all the cherry trees sent to Washington, D.C. It said dogwoods are rare in Japan. Funny, they are so common in the U.S. Then I went to a market that was perfect because no one was screaming “one dolla! one dolla!” like in the last couple of countries I’ve visited. Just pleasant vendors, happy to explain their wares, give small samples, and answers questions as best they can. Up to that point, the only other non-Japanese I had seen were Germans. But there at the market were Americans in their easy manner of moving, and speaking. We Americans have a lower tone, and softer edges on our consonants than Japanese. Anyway, the sounds relaxed me a little.
The respite was so rejuvenating that I resolved to walk all the way home. In no time, I was sorry about that decision, but had left the tourist= taxis part of the town. My cat bag began feeling as though I had filled it with volcanic rocks from the mountain.
I learned some lessons about the trip that will make it easier the next time. And also, in case I get a chance to climb Mt. Fuji, I want a little practice wearing my body out. I want to walk it again, because you see SO MUCH of regular Japanese life. Like beautiful vegetable gardens, everywhere! I found a place where people swim in the river, totally by accident. I saw how, for example, every morning bed mattresses and clothes are hung over the porch railings. To air out, I assume. How nearly everyone dries their clothes on racks outside. Japanese dryers must be rare. How the houses have what look like plastic replicas of ceramic tile roofs. How the houses with actual ceramic tiles also have frosted glass tiles in little groups that make skylights. How many houses have solar panels. How the adults politely avoid eye contact, but the kids say, in English, “Hello! How are you?” with total delight.
How I finally learned that there are different levels of greetings in Japan. Acceptable is to avoid eye contact, but if you make eye contact and want to quickly break away (or if you’re too far away for words), you can bow your head and it’s totally friendly and respectful. Then, if both people are really looking, you should probably toss out an ohayo gozaimasu (good morning sir or ma’am), or konnichiwa with a bow. And, if the greeting needs to be a little stiffer (because of personality maybe?), then just gozaimasu (sir or ma’am) will do. Always with a bow. And the friendlier and more genuine the eye contact and greeting, the deeper the bow. It’s actually very similar to our own greetings, once I just let myself get used to it.