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Traveling in the Footsteps of Basho:
Finding Tohoku and Obon in August
In summer mountains
August 11th, Monday
I bow before his high clogs
My journey's just begun.
- Basho "The Narrow Road to Oku"
On Monday we woke up and proceeded to scurry about our entire apartment, trying to get in last minute packing and cleaning. I hate coming home to a messy apartment, and I want to tie up all the loose ends before leaving. The result was that we didn't leave until about 2:30 in the afternoon. We slammed Snowflake's long, white doors, and settled in to our adventure. We drove for many, many kilometers, and marveled at the things we saw. We passed a 'Red Lobster' restaurant on our way out of Chiba and saw all kinds of love hotels we'd never imagined before. One of them even had amusing English welcoming signs, with a painted man in a tuxedo murmuring endearments to his 'love'.
We drove for miles (or kilometers, as it were) and watched the scenery change. Justin picked a route following the coast, because he was pining for a view of the ocean. We are often amazed at how well Chiba and Tokyo are able to hide their coast from view. The beaches are always blocked by trees, rocks, fences, buildings… so we never feel like we're on an island, or anywhere near the ocean. One of our goals was to really get to know the Japanese coastline, and see places off the beaten tourist track. We also were desperate for open sky and any kind of horizon- sometimes Chiba makes us feel so claustrophobic with its endless cement apartment towers and high rise offices and shops. One of the things that struck us as we drove was that one city blended right into the next, with the same kinds of shops repeated over and over again. I got hungry, and we started counting the ramen shops- ramen is incredibly popular as an inexpensive and tasty meal, but unfortunately I can't eat there…
Finally we saw a huge bright and shiny sushi restaurant- of the 'Kaiten Zushi' variety. We went in and wrote our names on the waiting list, and sat down on benches. They were really busy! It wasn't fancy- fluorescent lighting with vinyl covered stools around a huge conveyer belt- but at that price, who cared! The waitress found our names on the list and hesitated over the katakana foreign name, before waving us to chairs. We sat down and grabbed some maguro- tuna sashimi on pressed rice (one of our favorites). We tried prawn sushi- and their kid friendly canned tuna with mayo rolls (a secret addiction of ours- well, ok, mine)- and a crab salad roll- but my favorite ended up being the sashimi salmon on pressed rice. It was so fresh and tasty! I enjoyed the sushi, and not having to worry about the price.
There was a family sitting next to us- with a dad, a mom, a little boy and little girl. I was amused when the little girl started complaining about her food (in Japanese) and begging for the yogurt dessert instead. 'You already had dessert, you had fruit,' said the Dad. 'But I want the yoooogurt' whined the little girl. I thought- yup, little kids are little kids, no matter where they are. I waved the waitress over and ordered some miso soup- she said, oh, but what kind do you want? There were two different types- and I couldn't read either of them, so I just asked her which she recommended.. She picked one, and I said, Ok, I'll have that. Later, after I'd gotten and eaten some of it (turned out to be a white miso with tasty fish, simmered off the bones) she came by to ask if I liked it. I had to say it was delicious- and actually, it was good! I ate my sushi and drank my tea and felt like we were really on an adventure. Sometimes the random stops on a trip are the best part.
We kept driving for a while after that. The sun had set, so the sky was black, but the bright unnatural lights of the karaoke parlors, pachinko parlors, restaurants… all kept our surroundings well lit. Karaoke places, love hotels, and pachinko parlors seem to be a universal feature of Japan. Wherever you go, there they are. Anyway, so on our trip, we saw pachinko parlor after pachinko parlor, sometimes in the most unexpectedly rural areas. The urban scenery seemed to be stuck in a loop- the same chains of restaurants and shops and types of things, repeated endlessly.
When the neon pachinko parlors became too much for us, we darted off the highway looking for a love hotel. Hidden in the trees, conveniently located, there were a cluster of them, all with long cement driveways hidden behind trees and bland wall fences. Justin said, "Ok, pick one." It was hard to do, though… you can't really get an idea of what a place is like until you go in it, because everything is closed off. I was amused by the first driveway that we drove in- it had catchy English 'phrases of love' all over the entranceway, but it looked a little run down. The love hotel across the street had Christmas twinkle lights up, but somehow it just didn't seem appealing. As we were driving around slowly, we saw other cars with couples doing the same thing. Finally, we randomly picked one called The Starlight, and chose one of the anonymous parking spots next to one of the trailer sized- houses.
'I think you can just go in,' said Justin, 'and then they collect the fee through the slot in the door.' I was skeptical, I kept thinking- but someone will catch us going in and we'll be arrested for not paying first. Of course, these places don't work that way- there really is no front office because the whole point is discretion. We walked in and the television was playing loudly- I felt like we were surely walking in on someone. We took off our shoes at the door and put on the slippers waiting for us and ducked through the curtains. There was a toilet room (with a rather grubby Japanese toilet) on our left and a dressing room sink area to our right, leading to the washroom. Of course the washroom was huge and pink tiled, with a shower and big square metal bathtub. We walked straight into the living area/ bedroom. I had to laugh. It felt like some 50 year old Japanese man's love pad- complete with black leather sofa, bed with a blue star comforter, microwave… There was a basket on the floor with fresh yukata robes, and towels. The entire place was decked out, actually- with charcoal briquettes to burn for atmosphere, a dorm style refrigerator (with snacks and drinks for a fee). When I tried to open what I thought was a window next to the bed, it turned out to be strategically placed mirrors.
We took a shower, hoping that the managers wouldn't chose that time to get the rent- and relaxed on the sofa in our yukata for a while. I found a 'confessions' notebook- where visitors write about their visit to the hotel. Perhaps it is a good thing my Japanese wasn't good enough to understand it all- I did find one amusing entry by a high school girl who talked about 'becoming a woman.' The manager never did come to get the rent, so I slept badly, imagining every time I heard a noise it was someone coming for money. The thing was, we arrived rather late, so I should have realized that they'd come later. The next morning we took showers and I sorted through the free service items by the sink. They offered ladies face cream, men's aftershave and cologne- and best of all, Bust Enhancing cream! Just what every hotel guest needs!
We were set to leave our room, but no one had come to collect money. We didn't know what to do. We didn't want to drive off and find ourselves being chased down by the Yakuza (Japanese gang) debt collectors at some later date! We drove around the cul-de-sac slowly, looking for a hidden office or something, to no avail. We went back to our hotel trailer, and Justin said, 'Oh, someone's in there cleaning! We can give them money! Here, you hop out and do it.' I said 'Oh no I'm not- you hop out and do it!' So he did. Apparently the cleaning man was surprised to see him (expecting us to have just taken off without paying?) but he took the money, after asking, 'Did you drink or eat anything?' Justin got back in the car, we heaved a collective sigh of relief and were off on a new adventure!
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