March 30th, 2008


29. Mountains and Valleys

The trip west into the mountains was spectacular. (It’ll be great to get the photos up, but I’m currently more than three months behind on photos!)

The road to get there was really interesting. First, there was the Tokushima Expressway. Picture the two-lane portions of Highway 101 but with a centre median, periodic tunnels, and some elevated sections, and you’ll get the idea. There are also service centres, parking areas, toll gates – all for a two lane freeway. It’s really quite something. Although I guess it doesn’t matter much if they do it this way since if they need to build another carriageway they’ll have to build new tunnels and bridges anyway – the landscape isn’t readily comparable to Nova Scotia, nor should the construction methods be.

We get up there, and woah was it gorgeous. And high – F. and I briefly clambered up some trails near the first place we stopped, and I found myself short of breath with alarming speed.

Our next stop was the vine bridge at Kazura-bashi, in Iya Valley. We’d be going to another set of bridges later, so some of us saved our ¥500 and watched the proceedings from the road. F. dropped a water bottle into the river, and I was tempted to try and get it, but I was discouraged by one participant’s patriarchal attitude and the concurrent steep drop – it might have been doable, but it wasn’t worth the risk. (We all like to feel that we’re making our own decisions, and I know my own record is far from perfect in allowing others to do so. Adulthood is complicated.)

So we drive on to see some more rope bridges – although not before we fail to take a detour, dead-end ourselves on the construction zone, take a third road for a few minutes before we realize it won’t get us anywhere, then double back to find the proper detour (the only significant part of the journey that was unpaved), and then, at length, rejoin the “main” road.

We finally reached the Oku-Iya Double Vine Bridges. By now we’re quite a long way off the beaten path. (Wikipedia: “Oku-Iya is still relatively difficult to access and thus the natural beauty is largely undisturbed.” Tokushima Tourist Map: “Access: 2 hours and 20 minutes by bus to Nagora from JR Awa-Ikeda Station (so named as to prevent confusion with other stations named "Ikeda," – Awa is the name of the old province that once covered this area), then a 1 hour walk.”) Now this little park was really something. First of all, it was still officially closed for the winter (but due to open in a week or so) – the area was all but deserted, and even the drink machine on the other side of the street was shut off.

The closure didn’t stop us, and we gaily hopped over the ropes and signs and went down the path towards the large bridge. We gingerly crossed; the bridge was in a state of mid-repair, which was probably why, or part of the reason why, the park was still closed.

On the other side there was a metal staircase to take people down to the river level where you could set on some big rocks at a confluence with a falling stream.

Wow. Bar none, seeing that was my highlight of the trip.

Back up in the woods on the far side there was a little picnic area, as well as a mini-ropeway crossing – you basically climb in a box and haul yourself across with the rope. The “ride” was still there to be used, totally free and totally unsupervised. (Awesome.) So we had fun with that for a bit.

K., one of the Australians, also found a little bit of snow still surviving in the forest shade – it was pretty icy and grainy, but she still had a blast picking up chunks and throwing them at people. It took a while for her to realize that that actually hurt. (In fact, I think it took M. winging a few chunks back at her.)

After having our bag lunches there, we got back on the road and headed east. We were planning to head NE and rejoin the expressway and civilization in general a bit closer to the capital than we had left – we were going to make a loop, in other words.

We climbed and climbed – the snow that before was only on the mountain tops was now on the sides of the road. We got to this tiny mountain hamlet on the north face of Mt. Tsurugi where there was actually an intersection. The first way took us through the hamlet and to a tunnel, but the tunnel was unplowed and a sign said that the route wasn’t recommended.

Okay, so we turned around and tried the other option, which would take us north. We even stopped the van so K. could get out and play in the snow, and most of us joined in.

We climbed for a bit, but then the ploughed portion of the road ended abruptly – the road ahead, a steep downhill stretch leading to who knows where, was covered with several inches of thick, slushy, wet snow.

We could have done it with snow chains, or we could have done it with four-wheel drive. But in a rear-wheel drive minivan with summer tires, there was no way we could go on with a reasonable expectation of getting out again. (And gingerly sliding down a hill is one thing – coming back up is quite another.)

[In fact, today, more than a week later, Mt. said, “Geez, I’m glad we didn’t go down there – we’d still be stuck up there!”]

We backed up until we found a corner where we could do an “eighty-point turn” and get turned around. On our way back to the intersection outside the hamlet, we told some folks in another car that the road was impassable, with K. forwarding the key Japanese words to Mt.

Let’s take a second to talk about these roads. Many Canadians reading this and thinking about mountain roads might think of roads like the Cabot Trail or the Icefields Parkway. Well, those are like the autobahn compared to the mountain roads in Tokushima prefecture. These roads are narrow, twisty, and one-lane, excepting a few places where they’re widening the road by building a big concrete ledge further out onto the river. There is no visibility around the (innumerable) corners due to the terrain. You use well-placed mirrors to see around the corners, except for the corners where the mirrors are broken or have fallen, in which case you use prayer.

There’s certainly enough traffic up there – many people live there. We saw lots of little hamlets and villages, and even some moderately-sized towns – all connected by these one-lane roads. The infrastructure was amazing; how some people can sleep at night in their houses with six or seven stories worth of concrete and/or steel holding them up against the side of the road above a river hundreds of feet below is a mystery to me. There were tunnels, bridges, schools… we thought about what it would be like to be a JET participant in this area and wondered if they’d spend more time teaching or looking out the windows. The schools were adorably nestled in the most interesting little nooks and crannies, complete with their baseball diamonds and play areas.

There’s public transit up there too, as we found out when we rounded a corner and nearly plunged into a low-floor city bus, with its digital routesign on and everything. An hour or so later we drove by a poor gaijin backpacker waiting at a bus stop – “You missed your bus!” someone shouted, if I recall correctly.

There were a few of these, “BUS!” and “TRUCK!!” and “S**T!!!” incidents (and I’m quoting myself here), but for the most part we were quite safe.

The catch about living in this part of the prefecture, then, isn’t so much the roads, but the isolation. On the plus side, you’d learn Japanese quickly – you’d have to! On the other hand, you’d have to make the three-hour trip to Tokushima City (Kitajima, strictly speaking – a bedroom community) just to see a movie. I was doing a websearch the other day and I found a weblog by a JET participant who had lived in Miyoshi City. (I found it because I was looking for movie showtimes, and she had described a trip to the Fuji Grand to see one.) The title of her weblog? “This Isn’t Tokyo.”

And it’s not just movies – it’s real supermarkets, big box stores, entertainment, socializing – almost every facet of your life could be radically different living up there from what it would be down here. Now I realize why Masae, who lives in Narita, was so concerned about me coming to live down here. (Her “Why Japan?” was inquisitive; her “Why Tokushima?” was warmly but absolutely incredulous.) I knew I would be living in the city, but I didn’t realize that there was such a big disconnect between the city and the rest of the prefecture (excepting a narrow strip of civilization that exists along the expressway / major river). Take the difference between Sheet Harbour and downtown Halifax and add an order of magnitude and then you have it. Hey, at least Sheet Harbour is accessible by two-lane road from four directions!

We finally worked our way back to the road we had detoured onto – the sun was on its way down, casting a picturesque golden light on the trees and gravel. A flagman pulled us into a new queue behind a small truck. Construction. And the wait would be thirty-five minutes! (Which made sense, considering that there wasn’t another lane to divert traffic onto – with a one-lane road, a lane closure is a road closure.)

We weren’t mad or anything, though. We just simplified our plans: instead of going to a historic village, we’d just go to an onsen, and then home. F. got out and had a Yoga session with C. – the rest of us walked around, took pictures… some had a swordfight…

The last stop of our tour was the onsen, which overlooked a large town. This was the part that I had been secretly dreading – these baths are usually split, but they are in the nude.

Still, once I got adjusted to that idea, the rest was easy. Even the keystrap for your locker just wraps neatly around your wrist. There are little booths inside the bath area proper where you sit down and shower – soap and shampoo are even provided!

After washing and rinsing thoroughly, we went outside to the outdoor hot bath. We talked with a Japanese guy who spoke English not just fluently but comfortably - he knew a lot of our colloquialisms and canned expressions and how to use them. He had listened to Voice of America for many years and gotten a taste for the “living language,” as he put it. Cool.

We hung around a little while longer, but after a while at an onsen it just becomes time to go. (It’s not like there are swimming pools and waterslides – at least there weren’t at this one. =) And while an onsen isn’t the sort of place you’d go every day, it wasn’t expensive – it was only ¥1000 (about $10).

After the onsen, it was time for long trip back, punctuated by a convenience store stop and a lot of conversation. We settled up with Mt. for the gas and expressway tolls, and called it a night.

As beautiful as those mountain towns were, I thank my lucky stars we’re in the capital!

33. Barbeques and Movies

Oh, I’m the scholar with the full belly again. I just got back from a barbeque at Mt.’s. Ah, it was so good to have some meat that didn’t come out of a Styrofoam, cardboard container, or McDonald’s wrapper for a change.

I went to the post office again on Friday to mail a batch of postcards. This went well – very well compared to last time – and I even had time to go and rent a movie and then come home and have my lunch. Much better. Tomorrow I’m going to go to a home store that L. recommended to find some proper envelopes for mailing discs.

Mt. is leaving S.G. tomorrow, and leaving Japan later on in the week. He’ll have to leave his wife and children, but in Australia he’ll be making triple what he does here. In addition to the barbeque, we were at his place on Friday night to watch movies. We were going to watch Harry Potter – actually, we were going to watch that at my place, but then it got moved to his place and etc.. etc.. anyway, this has taught me that if there’s a movie I need to watch I’m just going to bloody well watch it myself, because it’s a heck of a lot easier! That’s also the last time I offer anyone the chance to watch the first movie before we watch the second together. I mean, it seemed like a good idea, but in execution – nah.

So at Mt.’s nobody really wanted to watch Harry Potter, and I was only watching them in sequence because I hadn’t before – I’d invited F. (and later D.) to watch with me, and this is what it turned into. Anyway, I can’t say that I blame them, because they’d all already seen it.

So I suggested, hey, we can watch Artifact!

So we did. It went okay – Artifact is able to keep the attention of people who really want to pay attention, but it’s not polished enough to consistently (though it can occasionally) draw people away from their side conversations. They were more impressed with the logistics of us having made the thing in 2000 than they were about the movie itself. And I can understand that.

Then we watched a movie that was very successful at keeping our attention: Babel. It was more “Babel” than its creators probably intended – the DVD only provided Japanese subtitles, so we only understood the English portions and were left to guess at the rest. But it was a powerful, viscerally-intense movie – even though you do have to be septlingual (or have subtitles) to understand it at a literal level.

And tonight M. has invited us over to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. (We watched Temple of Doom, its prequel, about a month ago.) Before long, we’ll be caught up and ready for all the big upcoming sequels! =)