Morning Bike Ride

I had a nice, long bike ride this morning — part of my ongoing effort to minimize the flab I am slowly but surely accumulating during this summer vacation. Today’s ride took me in a giant, two-and-a-half hour loop during which I passed numerous, tantalizing roads to nowhere…

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…through sun-speckled cedar forests…

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…under sagging canopies of bamboo…

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…along very random but beautiful rolling, grassy fields…

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…and eventually out to the foot of a relatively remote valley in which I wouldn’t particularly mind living.

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One thing I really like about Kanazawa, though it’s a feature of many regions in Japan, is that although the area around the city is unsurprisingly cemented over and hideous to be around, there are numerous towns/villages like this only 20 minutes or so away. The transition from sprawl to countryside happens very rapidly in this country, and he effect is that you can end up living in a very green, natural place while still being within a reasonable distance of ‘civilization.’ The only drawback (it’s a drawback in my mind, at least) is that these places are often devoid of people within 30 years of my age in either direction.

(Just as a side note, when I opened up the Flickr editing software today it had all sorts of fancy new tools and effects to play with. I used the vignette feature on the second photo.)

The big news, however, is that we dropped some yen on a new car last weekend. We bought a Toyota Voxy, which was the car I first had my eye on. It’s a mini-van, but a pretty slick one as far as these things go. To spice things up, we splurged for twin moon roofs, which was the one thing I was pretty hard-line about having. I don’t know why Japanese people (and maybe other nationalities?) have such an aversion to them, but for the life of her Chieko couldn’t understand why I wanted them so bad, and even the salesman was trying to talk us out of them. Almost every car I have owned has had a moon roof or sunroof, and given that the Voxy has not one, but two, I was hell-bent on getting them if it was at all possible.

Chieko wanted a back up camera to help when parking, since she’s not used to driving such a big car (and everyone in Japan backs into parking spaces, myself included at this point). If you want a camera, you need to get a navigation system that includes one as you can’t just get the camera, so we sprung for one of those as well.

The model we bought is a bit of a sportier one, so it has 16″ wheels that are a pretty good looking, push button start, xenon-type headlights (the cool, bright, white ones), fog lights, and some aero-ish body moldings. We got the seven seater, as opposed to the eight seater, so the second row is captains chairs that can be rotated 180 degrees, allowing passenger in the back to face each other a la the shinkansen seats. We opted for black despite the fact that Japan is crawling with black Voxies. White costs an extra $300, dark violet (or something along those lines) was tempting but we weren’t sure we’d like it in a year, and silver was just not cool looking. It’s pretty pimpy, I must say. I’m excited.

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All told, after some haggling and the salesman eventually just wanting to get my wife the hell out of face, we ended up spending right around what we had initially determined our budget to be. The only downside is that we have to wait until the beginning of October to take delivery. We could have it sooner if not for those pesky moon roofs — ha!

I think that’s about it from me. Time to do something productive. Stay well.

 

Distraction

I’ve been toiling away at my summer homework, trying to get it done so I can kick my feet up as summer vacation slowly winds to a close. But I need a break, and since it’s raining out I’m stuck inside, so a blog post is as good an escape as any.

I went out to my favorite yakitori joint with a friend last night for a few pops and some tasty food. Chieko and I used to go here before the days of Ray and when we lived within walking distance of it. Now, we don’t get there as much. It was early and not crowded, and thankfully not as smokey and loud as it gets later on in the evening when usually fills up with college students and other locals.

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I took the train home only to find the local station inundated with little frogs. They were all over the windows and walls of the small station building, no doubt feasting on the mosquitos and other insects that had flocked to the lights. This frog is actually between to panes of window glass, to the likely relief of the small bug walking by on the sill.

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And finally, Ray, dreaming about Elvis?

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We did a bunch of car shopping over the weekend and have found a car that we like. Now we just need to make sure we really want to take the plunge into new car ownership, and then try haggling the price down substantially. We are looking at a Toyota, and were told that there is a three month backlog because many of the companies that supply parts to Toyota were located in the Tohoku region and were damaged by the earthquake/tsunami in March. We dragged the boy around with us the whole time, which was trying at times. One great feature of car dealerships here is that they all have play areas for kids in the showroom. Unfortunately, Ray kept wanting to run out the front doors while we were sitting with the salesman, so we ended up having to devote half of our attention to Ray and half  to the dude talking about cars. We’ll probably make a move next week if we decide to do anything. I’ll certainly keep you all posted!

I think that’s about it from here. Nothing exciting really. Hoping to get some bike riding/picture taking in over the weekend if the weather ever clears up. Stay tuned. Back to the (other) computer.

If You Don’t Like Shrines Go Here

We’re back in Kanazawa, but on our last full day in Niigata Chieko’s parents told us to scoot and go do whatever we wanted while they took care of the boy. We mulled heading to nearby Nagaoka, a city relative to Chieko’s hometown, to have lunch and catch a movie. In the end we decided to drive off into neighboring Nagano Prefecture in search of delights.

Our choices were heading to a mountainous area with nothing but a tram to the top of the mountain where there was a horticultural garden (my choice), or going to a temple that would most certainly be mobbed with tourists (Chieko’s choice). I have absolutely zero interest in temples, shrines, or any other religious old shit anywhere. But you know where we went.

The drive to Togakushi shrine was a nightmare that should have been a picture-taking bonanza — winding roads up and over mountains, through valleys and along rivers. Instead, it was a comically slow procession along recently mud-slid roads behind giant trucks going absurdly slow, followed by old people in K trucks going absurdly slow, followed by a train of tour buses going absurdly slow, followed by a little relief through some mundane, dying old Japanese town, followed by sitting at a temporary traffic light in the middle of fucking nowhere where there was some construction work going on, followed, finally, by a smog-belching bus going 15 kph up a damn mountain for 10 kilometers to the as-predicted tourist-infested parking lot of the shrine that I didn’t want to go to.

I find temples boring, as I mentioned — little interest in the history or mythology that lies behind them, how long they’ve been there, what famous ancient dude visited or founded the place, what gods are said to dwell there, what mystical powers or rumored to be present, where it ranks on the Japanese scale of important religious places. Togakushi was no different, and were I actually interested in these things I would have been disappointed because the structures themselves are nothing special, even by my low standards, because the saving grace of Togakushi (as far as I’m concerned) is that you have to trek about a mile into the forest to get to it.

There are two selling points to Togakushi that attract people to it. One is that it has been designated a ‘power energy spot,’ where one can tap into universal energy flows on cosmic levels. The other is that it has giant, beautiful cedar trees lining the path to the shrine. Put the two together and you lots of people touching and hugging the trees, and stacking symbolic piles of rocks (taken from the very un-cosmic walkway) around them.

The cedar-lined portion of the walk doesn’t really start until you get about 20 minutes into the woods, when you come upon a temple gate. After that, it sort of makes visiting another boring shrine worthwhile.

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As mundane as the temple was, the trees were stunning. I had flashbacks of Ladybird Johnson Redwood Forest (or whatever it’s really called) in northern California — big trees have a way of making me feel small.

Shortly after we started heading back down from the shrine — the last 10 or 15 minutes is a pretty decent climb up to the shrine complex — it started to rain. Fortunately the cover from the trees kept up fairly dry until, just before we reached the gate, it started absolutely pissing rain. Our timing was impeccable and we scurried the last 20 feet to the safety of the gate roof along with 10 or 15 other well-timed people.

The forest took on a different beauty with the mist and raindrops mixing with hints of sun, thunder rumbling in the background and a slow but steady stream of non-umbrella wielding fellow tourists reaching the gate to escape the rain.

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So in the end it worked out — Chieko and I had a lovely, Ray-less day even though she had to put up with a bunch of my huffing an puffing, but the shrine wasn’t such a bad idea after all. And I have to say that Nagano is the shit — if I packed up and shipped off to any place in Japan, it would be there, although it is the biggest prefecture in the country so that threat needs to be honed down. But really, big mountains, rolling hills, green green green…the only thing it’s missing is a bit of ocean.

We’re going to drive new cars this weekend and try to find something we deem worthy. More on that to come…

Over Analysis?

 

In Japan, today is the day that everyone goes to the family grave and pays respects by lighting candles and incense, leaving some treats, and saying a prayer. People return to their hometowns from all over the country, so it’s a nightmare getting anywhere regardless of your mode of transportation. Thankfully we live on the quiet side of Japan, as do my in-laws, and we left a few days before the major rush.

If you aren’t familiar with Japanese graves, they usually consist of a large stone or marble headstone with the family name, and around that are smaller headstones for individual family members. Rather than grave yards like we have in the States, small family plots are scattered all over the place — in the middle of rice paddies, under a grove of trees, next to the parking lot at 7-11. They are everywhere, and probably one of the first things you notice when you come to Japan. This time of year, and especially today, the graves are adorned with fresh flowers and lit candles, and you can’t walk far without wafting in the scent of ‘grave’ incense.

It would’ve been really helpful if I’d taken some pictures of the Iguchi family plot to illustrate all I have just describe, eh? But I suppose taking pics of graves is a bit taboo, especially when the family is right there. Instead, I took a bunch of pictures of country roads.

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We had been out and about for while with Chieko’s parents and thing were, GASP, taking time. I was getting a bit of a hair across my ass because, dammit, I wanted to go for a bike ride and take pretty pictures. When we eventually made it home I promptly pumped up my bike tires, filled my water bottle, and was flying down the road like a gaijin possessed.

I knew Chieko’s family was planning their pilgrimage to the family grave and wanted to join them, and it didn’t take me long to start feeling guilty about buggering off so quickly. Within 5 minutes I was passing graves everywhere (like I said) with crowds of families paying their respects.

I had no particular destination in mind, I mostly wanted to get some exercise and perhaps some pictures. To my left was a swath of rice paddies tiered up to the foot of the mountains, so I took the nearest opportunity to head that way. I road around some very nice, old neighborhoods, doubly self-conscious because I was not only the very random foreigner riding around but also because there were flocks of families making their way to the family plot.

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There were some darkish clouds rolling down from the mountaintops with the occasional rumble of thunder. Very timely, given all the communicating with dead family members that was going on. I interpreted it as Chieko’s ancestors chiding me for keeping the family waiting, and threatening to soak me with rain at best and strike me down with lightning at worst if I didn’t get my priorities straight.

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So I cut my ride somewhat short and headed back home, more concerned with getting caught in the rain than actually pissing off any spirits.  Of course, once I got home my father in law was still out watering the yard, my mother in law was busy doing something in the kitchen, and there was no real rush to get to the family plot. Eventually we all wandered over, and respects were paid as the thunder continued in the background.

Cruising Uonuma

I was getting a bit stir-crazy late this morning so jumped in the car to take quick drive before lunch. I drove into the mountains on a narrow road that runs along the river. It’s one lane and is still showing signs of a winter under many feet of snow, and spring that brought with it avalanches and frost heaves. I drove to its terminus, where apparently whoever built the road deemed that they had gone far enough. At the end, there’s a campground next to the river, where whoever paved the riverbed also determined that they had gone far enough, as from that point on the river exists in its natural, rock-strewn state. The views along the way are beautiful, with Hakkaisan towering over you to the right, and the giant mountain whose name I can never remember lying dead ahead. It was cloudy and humid today so the view was cloaked in clouds and haze.

In the afternoon I again struck out, this time on my bike. I wanted to ride a cycling path that starts at the base of a small ski slope near here, but as it turned out the trail continues along the opposite of the river that I had driven along earlier in the day. I had noticed the trail on my drive this morning, but hadn’t realized it was a bike path. While the road takes a higher line into the mountains, the bike path weaves through rice paddies a bit lower before eventually gaining altitude. At one point there are signs in the middle of the path urging you not to continue any further, as the path is no longer maintained for one reason or another. Disregarding these I pedaled on. The path is still in good shape, just littered with stones and fallen branches and other natural debris. I navigated between several snakes before coming upon a pool of standing water, and figured between the signs, the snakes and imposing puddle in front of me that these were enough of a sign that I should probably not press my luck any further.

The scenery was pretty similar on both my drive and my bike ride, so here are pics from both, in no particular order.

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And one of the dude for good measure, in his super-gay Anpanman pajamas.

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I’ve been tabbed for some minimal farm work tomorrow — cleaning up the watermelon fields. Time to rest up.