Monday, March 01, 2010

Japan/SoKor Day 10: Totally out of my element in Morioka

December 20, 2009
Japan Trip Day 10: Totally out of my element in Morioka

I started off today with a quick brekkie, nice and early at 8. Muesli again and some really good french toast to get me rollin'. I chatted with a family from Singapore and a family from Australia who were also staying at the lodge (the Aussies had been on the hill with me the day before).

I got all my crap together and packed up and rushed off to buy a gift for the staff (fancy packaged chocolate-filled rice balls), as I really wanted to show my appreciation for what I knew would be the best hostel of the trip and one of the greatest choices of locations to visit. Also I got out some money at the post office (one of the only English "speaking" ATMs which takes Cirrus or Plus or any one of the North American-friendly banking system cards). Then also headed off for a quick onsen. This time I had just a quick 20 min onsen, at the one super close to the hostel. It was sweet and a good way to chill out and relax my legs from all the exercising and partying the day before. :)

In the streets in Nozawa Onsen you can really hear the hot spring water, it runs through the street canals. Another interesting thing about this place is that the roads are HEATED?! Never heard of that before - apparently they can turn on heaters under the streets to melt the snow?! This unfortunately doesn't fix the crazy drivers though. :) Another funny thing this morning were all the old people of the village were on top of their roofs, shoveling show off their homes... while standing on the roof!! That seemed dangerous. I got a couple of photos of the crazy locals.

I got all my stuff packed up and caught the bus from a random stop, sortof marked, and only in Japanese. Thankfully the frickin' legends at my hostel were really helpful in pointing me in the right direction. I was waiting at the station, and then got help getting my stuff onto the train by a man who was standing there on the platform. We chatted a bit, and he said "Let's get a booth", meaning a 4-person sit down seat area so we could continue chatting. It turns out that this man, Sam, is a "legendary international auditory engineer!" He instantly recognized my ILM business card and actually worked for Sky Sound many years ago! Amazing, amazing coincidence. He is a contractor for sound stages, and has worked at many of the big London, England studios like Abbey Road Studio, Virgin Stage and more. Some legendary people have recorded on his stages: Phil Collins, Enya, The Beatles, Pink Floyd... it was truly amazing to hear his impressive work history. We chatted for about 60 min from TogariNozawaOnsen back to Nagano Station, and then he helped me with all my stuff and to make sure I was taking the right train to Omiya Station. Sam was going to Tokyo Station, so we were actually going to be on the same train.

We got onto the next train, and the swivel seats allowed us to make a 4-person seating area again so we could continue the conversation. It was an awesome conversation, and I found out that Sam is a Professor of Electrical/Auditory Engineering at a University near Nagoya. We chatted for ages on a variety of topics, and it was incredibly interesting to hear his point-of-view on many different things. I'd guess that he is about 60 years old or so, and he was keen to chat about a ton of different things. We talked about the difference between Japanese culture compared to US, Canada and England, the history of Japan, the language and the origin of the Japanese characters. We talked about Religious history of Japan, and how the Onsen came about in the Edo era/dynasty. He said the Onsen bath is "just like the Ancient Romans" and it's been around for so long in Japan that it is not uncomfortable for Japanese people in the current day to be in a public bath. I recognized some Japanese symbols like one called "Zaki", and when I asked Sam if that was the same "Zaki" from the 2nd half of director Miyazaki's last name, he was impressed. "You are very smart!" he said. Haha.

I showed Sam my absurdly-organized 46-page travel document, and we continued talking about South Korea, Food, Cultural Differences, the idea of "Beating around the bush" (he worked in England a lot, but he was first very surprised about the indirect-ness of the British culture). I told him I felt that many people in Japan had told me they could understand my accent well. He said he felt the Canadian accent is the "ideal accent" for Japanese people to hear the English language. He felt that Australian, English, US accents were too harsh or strong, and that the Canadian accent was the clearest for non-English speakers to understand. Very cool! I have heard that a bunch actually, from many people from different countries... maybe we Canadians just speak extra slowly when we think people might not understand us :)

We wrapped up the conversation with a discussion on direct vs. indirect cultures, and politeness/customs in general. We discussed email and he had a palm device of some sort and we discussed the pros and cons of a so-called "electronic leash". Finally, he showed me a set of PowerPoint slides for the lecture he was going to teach in the coming week on the Sound Room updating projects he'd done over the past 15 years! It was an enlightening conversation and just great to chat for another 90 min all the way from Nagano on the Shinkansen to Omiya! Finally, we said goodbye and he told me I should call next time I come to visit Japan, as he has friends who would happily take me on a tour of Mt. Fuji! He was very impressed that I had done my "Japanese cultural homework" in advance and I had business cards ready to give out, and that I handed my business card to him with both hands. He apologized for not having any business cards on him, and then proceeded to write out his full address, email and mobile phone number on a piece of paper. Very funny and very Japanese!

I got out of the train at Omiya and had a little time to spend there before my next Shinkansen train. Omiya Station had a huge mall of freshly made food stalls, I got an amazing chicken chowder soup and a "Mango and 'Grapefluit'" custard/cheesecake. :) It was really funny and Japanese cause it came in a very cute carrying container with an ice pack to keep it cold for "up to 2 hours!" I then jumped on the train from Omiya to Morioka, which was a 550km distance... total time... 2 HOURS. Yep, that's an average speed of 225 km/h!

Part of my aim for the 14-day JR Rail Pass I bought was to do exactly this - travel long distances across the country and see as much as possible, and a lot of varied scenery. The snow had disappeared when I was at Omiya, but then it came back again as we traveled much farther north. There was lots of farming, presumably rice. The coolest part of the landscape was that the farming areas looked just like farms in Southwestern Ontario, (with different crops)... but the huge difference was the farm houses. They all looked SO typically Japanese. It was really funny and AWESOME to see a farm with fields and fields of crops, and then instead of a barn, each farm had an immaculately designed Japanese-style farm house with really cool roof tiles and architecture.

Another funny and very endearing part of Japanese culture is the bowing on the train, every time a train employee walks either in or out of every train car. This is just hilarious. When people come to take your ticket, when they wheel the cart to sell food, everytime they stop completely, pause, bow, straighten, and smile at everyone. It's AMAZING. They have a look of pride for their employer, and I feel like they are personally thanking me for being a customer on behalf of their employer. Man, so awesome. I love Japan.

A couple hours later after traveling almost the entire east coast of Japan's main island, I arrived in Morioka. My first thought on arrival at the train station: "Man, this place looks big for a small town!" And then... I realized NOTHING was in English. I was definitely not in Kansas (or Nagano, for that matter), anymore.

It was snowing, but I schlepped myself and all of my baggage down the road and found Kumagai Ryokan pretty easily (thank you, overplanning). I arrived and dropped my ton of stuff down and as I was wiping the snow from my eyebrow and older man (roughly 75 or 80, I'd guess) walks out as if I've disturbed him from his slumber (which I think I had, honestly). He immediately started asking me stuff in Japanese only - he had no English at all. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me, and it seemed like he was saying they had no rooms. I'd been able to piece together what people were asking me in other cities, but I guess in Tokyo or Nagano they were better at sign-language-ing out what they were saying... and since this was a small town with basically no tourists ever, I guess there isn't a lot of opportunity for practice. :) I wasn't too nervous because I'd seen a Tokoyo Inn coming in from the train station, and although it was a 15 min walk back to the station, I knew that place was huge and would definitely have vacancies if I couldn't figure out how to communicate. I tried to say "I'm a guest" and when he made a phone sign with his hands ("did you call for a reservation" maybe?), I made a typing signal and said, "I emailed for a reservation." Now I was failing in both cross-language AND cross-generational conversation. Haha, ah craaaap.

I heard the word "Singuro" i.e. "Single Room", there seemed to be some sort of problem. I tried to find my email reservation but couldn't find it, and he kept getting more agitated and old man-y. I looked outside and thought, "Oh crap, am I gonna have to head back to the JR Station and stay at the Railway Hotel?" It was snowing like crazy now, and I could tell the old man's basic question was "Who are you, and why the crap you here?!"

After locating my Japanese phrasebook and fumbling around for a bit, I finally figured out that the problem was they didn't have any single rooms left, they only had a double room available. In between my 1 million "sumimasens" I must have said "No problem" about the room. I said it was fine (or something roughly Japanese) and more awkwardness arrived as he went up the stairs and I think wanted me to follow him. He came back down and motioned for me to come up the stairs. We then got to my VERY cool and VERY Japanese tatami mat room. A tatami mat looks roughly like a human-sized sushi roller mat, but you sleep on it. I again let my country down by stepping with my indoor sandals onto the tatami mat. Haha. This was my first time on a tatami mat and I didn't realize that the complex Japanese customs of constant shoe-changing required me to remove my indoor sandals when on the tatami floor. The man uttered his only English-y phrase of the night: "No... sand-eru!!!!!" (I.e. take off your sandals). And that's how I learned that you don't wear sandals on tatami mat floors. As we went back downstairs I think he had some problem with my snowy clothes or shoes or something?! I was so confused and soooo amazingly not Japanese at all, no clue what was going on. Wow.

FINALLY, a younger girl came to save me. Of course since Morioka is roughly the Japanese equivalent of Thunder Bay, Ontario, she knew only slightly more Japanese than the old man! But within a minute I could figure out that "the boss" was out. The girl found my reservation and offered to show me to a different Ryokan if this wasn't up to my liking! I said no problem and I was very happy to stay here. She seemed very concerned and asked if I needed dinner or breakfast, since they offer it to you for an extra fee, but they had not expected me so they didn't make it. I had arrived maybe 7pm or so... but I knew (thank you, overplanning) that this place had dinner but it was extra, and I wanted to explore, so I had decided in advance not to stay for it. I said I didn't need dinner or breakfast and the girl breathed a sign of relief! She said welcome and they were happy to have me here. She told me some details, and I busted out the Lonely Planet Phrasebook again... which didn't have the phrase "Is there a curfew?" anywhere?!!!! Man! That was something that you needed to ask a lot in Japan as sometimes the front door is locked after a certain time. I eventually pointed downstairs and said "door" and lock -> "rock". She finally understood what I was trying to say and she said, "Yes, reception 24 hours!"

I unpacked and walked downstairs to find that "the boss" was back! She was a very smiley happy Grandma, and she seemed like she was probably the wife of the old man who was impatient with me. He came out again to berate me about something else and was saying something about who the heck knows what... and the lady shushed him away!! Haha. She then welcomed me in English (wahoo!) and told me it would be ¥4000 for 1 night. (This was cheaper than the original quote, maybe due to the mix-up.) Then I signed a sheet for check-in and and she brought me the Japanese equivalent of milk and cookies: rice cakes and green tea! They had a HILARIOUS 4 month old puppy which was SO cute. The girl came back out to play with the puppy and the puppy was trying to eat my sandals while I was wearing them!! Hilarious. The Grandma gave me a few little kimono toothpick holders and said "A gift! My friend made them!" Very, very sweet. Then I headed off with my camera for dinner and to wander.

As I left the hostel, I laughed like crazy to myself about how confused I was, how impatient the old man had been with me, and I said out loud, "MAN, I'm TOTALLY out of my element!" Needless to say, I took my Japanese phrasebook to dinner. Also in my mind was the Edna from The Incredibles phrase "Luck favours the prepared!"

Based on the becoming-a-trend no-english-anywhere situation in Morioka, I decided to dump Lonely Planet's tiny map with street names and just wander around. I had heard the legend of ordering "Wanko-soba" here in Morioka, a sort of food duel you have with your waiter, and you try to slurp up a small bowl of soba noodles before they can refill it for you. The goal is to eat as many of these small bowl portions as possible, the record being 400 bowls or something. This is a very old tradition in Morioka and I was keen to try it, but I didn't dare try to locate the specific Lonely Planet recommendation on the map. Instead, I planned to just pick a cool-looking spot. I saw what looked to be an awesome dinner spot, and then kept wandering, went into 2 ski stores, and came back to that same cool-looking place for dinner.

I've gotten used to bowing to everyone on the street, and one thing I noticed right away was that in Tokyo, everyone bows back. In Morioka, you just get raised eyebrows. :) I got the feeling that most people were thinking "What the crap are you doing here?!" Most people I'd talked to in Japan and said I was going to Morioka had a similar reaction... "WHY?!" My response was always "For the Wanko-soba!" and they would laugh and shake their head at the crazy Canadian.

So the Wanko-soba was not to be, but I picked a really excellent dinner place. For dinner I had a beef and garlic stir fry that was beautifully cooked and super tasty. I had a Mango drink, and curry Belgian french fries, then a cassis & oolong drink, and then Norwegian Salmon Sashimi which was quite literally the most fresh and fantastic sushi I've EVER had.

After dinner I found a Mr. Donut and grabbed a nice donut to eat while walking in the snow outside. I was pretty tired from a long day on the train and it was almost a blizzard out there... but I had my SLR already and pulled up myself by my bootstraps, gave myself a "why did you come all the way up here to this freezing place... to explore!" lecture, and decided I shouldn't be a spoil-sport and just chill out in the hostel and sit around or watch TV or something stupid... I should GO EXPLORE! So off I went to go wander aimlessly in a blizzard... and as usual, it totally paid off.

Within 20 minutes the snow had started to calm a bit, and I found myself in Iwate Park. I knew it was somewhere in the general direction I was walking but I was surprised to run right into it. It had a really cool fortress wall and some beautiful snowy scenes. There were some amazing shrines, all snow-covered. I took a lot of photos in the beautiful snow-covered park, and got some of the best photos of my entire trip, I think. I was SO happy that I didn't just stick around the hostel and that I went out to adventure. Great times. I then found the "Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree", a city mascot (of sorts), a tree with a complicated story and history.

I continued wandering the streets, guessed roughly how to get back and made the PERFECT choice, coming out of the street I was walking down, just 1 block from my hostel. Sweet. I went to the corner store and got a "Hotteh Cohii!" with a little Lamborghini Countach toy on it (I'm a sucker for cool toys) and went back to the Ryokan to warm up. I got back, put on my Yukata Robe, and relaxed. I was going to Onsen but I actually did that earlier in the morning in Nozawa Onsen (long day!!!), so instead I just wrote a couple of postcards and planned to go to sleep a little earlier.

The room was nice and unusual. The Tatami mat bed was very hard and had a lot of blankets on it, and the room was very hot (which was nice given the cold weather outside.) The pillow was super weird, was very heavy, and seemed like it had sand in it?! I tried to sleep in the Yukata robe, but I dumped it at 4am. :) I tossed and turned a lot but it was funny/cool to stay in a Tatami room. In Tokyo, I'll find out if they are supposed to be that uncomfortable!!

I have a long day on the train tomorrow, that will be fun too. It is so awesome here, and I really like the beautiful park photos with the freshly fallen snow. It's funny too how the blizzard stopped once I decided to venture on and investigate the town a little bit. :) Glad I had my camera and was ready to roll and explore. Luck favours the prepared. ;)

Goodbye Nozawa Onsen ski hill

Lodge Nagano, my home for the past 2 days

Old people shoveling snow off their roofs... while standing on their roofs!

The bus stop to take me back to the TogariNozawaOnsen train station

Another nice view from the bus stop

Sam came up to me at the Nozawa Onsen station and we started to chat... as it turns out we were on the train for 1 hour together, then another 90 min back to Omiya! We chatted for ages about Japanese culture and, he is a Professor and a world-renowned sound designer! He has done major work for the Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles recorded!!

Mountains as we leave the Nagano area

Snow starts to decrease as we get back to Tokyo area

Back to sunny 10 degree weather!

At the train station, tons and tons of food here. It was amazing!

More and more food choices

I ended up getting a sandwich and soup, as well as some interesting ice tea and other drinks

I also got a "to go" cheesecake from this really fancy place, it was immaculately wrapped (i.e., welcome to Japan) and came with a little ice pack inside to keep it cool for up to 3 hours! :)

Then the scenery turned more agricultural

And, as we got more and more north, the snow came back

A train arriving as I arrived at Morioka Station

The cute dog at my Ryokhan

The owner of the Ryokhan, and the funny dog

The front entrance to the Ryokan

Don't forget to take your shoes off!

Entrance to Ryokhan

Morioka Station

Lots of snow

Taxi Stand

Tasty menu at the place I went to eat

More menu photos


"Nothing" - i.e. "Not available"?!

Tasty looking sushi

Sake "Levels"?

I got one of these "Apricot Mango" things, it was frickin' good

Don't worry, "Calpis" is a soda, like Sprite

More tasty goodness

Fermented Turmeric: "Drink it before going drinking!"

Bomb-like bowl

Bomb-like bowl #2

Whale Bacon: "Goes perfectly with Japanese spirit"!

Yep, codfish stomach

More Japanesey stuff


Curry Potatoes and Mango Juice

Fantastic ginger stir-fried beef

The freshest salmon sashimi I've evveerrr had

Outside the restaurant

Some Canadian embassy place, Morioka has a sister-city in Canada

Snow-covered trees at the fortress

Fortress walls

Snow-covered walkway into the park

Old and new: shrine, temple... and cars :)

I love this shot

More snow-covered awesomeness

Very Japanese-looking trees :)


City park

More photos in the park

Loved the shadows here



The "Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree"

"Merry Xmas... from the Schmuck"

Back in my room, with the necessities: Japanese phrasebook, chocolate, chocolate-strawberry flavoured hi-chews, cookies and homemade Japanese toothpick holders, and my winter hat

Cool entrance to my room

My first Tatami Mat room!

Tiny TV with lots of insane shows on it

Comfortable futon beds on the floor

My Yukata Robe, and stretchy belt

"Arrigato Gozaimasu!"

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