How do we cross the language barrier?
We take the train to Mishima, a city two hours and forty five minutes away from Tokyo and close to the Japanese icon: Mount Fuji. We had a reservation for a car (much cheaper and available, contrasting with anything in Tokyo). We enter the office, and the lady, understanding from our looks and presence what we are looking for, made signs to follow her. The renting part is on the other side of the train station, so she drives us, for five minutes in the 6 seats minivan. We will have to return the car to her office.
The man in charge of renting is a little bit stressed: maybe he understands some English, but he can’t speak. Mihai doesn’t understand Japanese, still, he fills the paperwork. With my limited vocabulary I ask what is the name of the car that has a particular sign (we recognize Nissan, Toyota, Honda, but this one, like a fancy capital D, we don’t know). It seems to be Daihatsu. Cars in Japan are a different species all-together: they are small on the outside, and spacious inside. Some of them look like toys, still they are fully functional.
We drive toward Fuji and we enter the clouds: it is so cold and humid, that when we arrive at the visiting station, first thing we do is to put every piece of clothing on us. We have fun climbing on the crumbling lava path and admire the shape of the trees that still manage to survive at 2400 m (7847 ft.).
We study the map, there are two ways to climb the mountain, and there is a third point, just for the view. OK, we had enough, time to warm ourselves in the omiyagi (the gift store). Candy, postcards, more sweets, key-chains, dolls, little things, that seem inexpensive and have no utility. No thank you.
We drive downward, and we feel relieved when we get under the clouds. By the time we are almost to the sea level, Fuji starts clearing up.
The region around Mount Fuji includes five lakes on which we could take a cruise, or visit the little towns on their shores, take hikes in the nature, et caetaera. We stop at Mototsu for a break and from a sign we learn that the picture that is on the 5000 yen bill was taken from this lake.
Short detour on a secondary road, we find the place, but there is nowhere to park, and after some more bends, the road moves away from the lake. We return, park next to a service shed, and walk to the spot. Maybe, on a windless day, mount Fuji would reflect in the water. Today, clouds are chasing around like flies. No chance.
Ioan is fast asleep in the car. What should we do? Let him sleep, he will see it later, or wake him up? There is no time like the present, he can decide if he chooses to sleep or to see Mount Fuji. Yes, definitely.
After numerous photo sessions we drive to the view point, where we have a true visual spread of the clouds. They form a blanket that blocks the view of the mortals of what we can see: glorious, perfectly conic, the iconic Mount Fuji! We’re so close, we can touch it (the fact that we are stepping on it does not count). We have a giddy feeling, like we have done something out of ordinary! We step on a concrete stump that holds chains and take picture after picture (how else could we get to the 15,000 pictures in one month?). In our fun we forgot that there are other people who want to do the same, so we are chased away. We don’t want to leave, but we have to arrive to Hakone tonight.
Climbing down is a succession of serpentines, giving us the possibility to experience the change of vegetation and view. We don’t know that this is how it is going to be: rush hour, one lane, maximum possible driving speed 40 km/h. We arrive at our Bed&Breakfast tired and hungry. Being a gated community, we look around until we find a parking spot. Then we spend some time in the lobby until the receptionist, with a very serious figure, sorts it out with Booking.com: the hotel wants to charge more than our reservation. In the end we settle for a sum in between. The room is cold for our taste. Under the two large bay windows that make out a whole wall, are two squatty heating elements. They seem to serve a central heating… Well, if we can’t raise the room’s temperature, we have other solutions: a hot soup, some sake (we start to like it) and an onsen will take care of the feeling, plus we have sleeping bags!
Morning comes with different little chores, we pack and then enjoy a breakfast with eight different kind of pastries, two breads, tea, coffee and apple juice with some pulp.
We drive through Hakone, but we can’t see a thing, because the road snakes around wooded hills. We stop at another lake where we enjoy the view with Mount Fuji as a backdrop, until we realize that we will miss our train. Our Americanized mind tells us we have 15 miles, there should be no problem to arrive with time to spare, but the Japanese GPS says one hour. Come on, how come? One lane and works (with cones with happy or sad faces; on Mt.Fuji they were painted in blue with a “snowed” top)…Ten more minutes to the train and we have to fill the tank and, as in Murphy’s laws, the self-serve does not work, the attendants move slowly so they will not break, they serve the customers in the order of arrival. When the person comes to our car, the credit card is not accepted, we have to put bills, one by one, then he carefully opens the tank and pumps. Where are the attendants from Hokkaido?
Ioan was not in the army, but his parents were, it must be in his genes, because he executed everything perfectly, unloading the car and running toward the train, even recuperating his flying iPod, while Mihai left the keys and signed the papers with the renting agency. We step in the train while the doors are buzzing: close call!
Though we change the train once, it is no hassle; being on the train is the same with being in the airport or on the airplane, a second home, but no work, only a limited choice of fun. The boys play chess and I write, and while I’m searching for words I observe the different things. For a while it was a puzzle how does the conductor know whom to ask for the tickets, but today I notice: he enters the car, bows to everybody, then he walks to the person who needs to present its ticket, bows again while asking for the ticket, receives it with both hands, verifies that it is for this car and this seat, takes a tiny pencil and checks on a squarish paper that he holds in his left hand (I presume the seat and the station where the person gets off), puts the pencil back, takes something that looks like pliers and punches the ticket, puts the tool back, and presents the ticket to the owner with his right hand, bows again. And so for every new person.
This is not the only different thing about trains: we all know that there are toilets, but these ones have wet towelettes for sanitizing the seat, the button for flushing works like a magnet to hold the lid up, and it flushes only when the lid is down. And everywhere, over the toilet paper, water faucet, entrance, it is written in Japanese, Braille and English. In some shinkansens there are smoking rooms, where one enters and smokes by oneself. The door has a window, and you can see that it is occupied by the twirls of smoke that coils on itself with the person’s movement. I don’t know how it “flushes” smoke free for the next person. Add these to no delays and to the opening of the doors exactly where it is written on the platform (either on the concrete or on little metal plates above one’s head it specifies for the trains with so many cars, what car is going to be there) and one has a very pleasant and liberating experience. My childhood memories about trains in Romania are sometimes delays, not knowing if our car is going to be in front or in the back, tall steps difficult to climb for a 3-year old, being lifted and deposited in the train while a mob clamors and pushes to get in, compartments of 8 seats where some people talk, while other read or sleep, and if they want a smoke they go in the hallway where they can open windows, and most of the smoke ends in the compartment. Toilets beside being dirty, with no toilet paper, flushed on the tracks and sometimes that little piece of metal that separated visually the inside from the outside was missing: it was impossible to go! But now we have modern trains, what are they going to write about in the future?
We arrive in Matsumoto: we’re here to visit the castle. Mihai leads us on streets, some modern, some old, until we arrive in the park, and after a bend:
|These were real people. When we were leaving, there was a Ninja.|
It is a real castle, it has seen battle, but it is hard to believe: the wooden shutters are painted laquered black, they seem made of metal. Inside there are open wooden floors, wooden columns shaped with adze (a cutting tool), all polished by the human touch.
We climb the steep stairs (their angle varies between 55 and 61 degrees) to a new floor, look through the windows, try to imagine how it would look full of samurai donning a full armor, some shooting arrows through the Yazama (long rectangular windows) and some firing muskets through the Teppozama (square windows).
|We have to carry our shoes in a plastic bag.|
|Mind your head!|
There is a windowless third floor, used for depositing food, weapons and gunpowder, that is the only one that has two stairs for the upper floor. Because it has no windows it is not seen from the outside, and gives the Main Tower the appearance of having five stories instead of six. The fourth floor has fewer pillars, more windows and it has a higher ceiling, making it appearing wider. In the middle, using woven reeds, there is an enclosed space which is believed to be the Lord’s Chamber. From the outside you can’t see a thing inside, but reverse, and you know everything that happens around you.
The fifth floor is the “conference room” with windows on every wall, useful for grasping the battle situation. There is also an exhibition of firearms and the paraphernalia that comes with them. Interesting to see how they started from a roughly hewn wooden bed with a metal barrel and how they evolved.
|Publicity, the soul of commerce!|
The sixth floor is the most populated for several reasons: it’s the top floor, it’s the end and it has a shrine. The legend goes that on the night of January 26, 1618, in a vision, a young vassal on duty, saw a woman dressed in beautiful clothes. Handing him a brocade bag, she said: “If the lord of the castle enshrines me with 500 kg of rice on the 26th night of every month I will protect the castle from enemies and fire”. It is believed that because the bag was deified, the castle survived to be the oldest castle in its original form. We look around, there are two columns, two trees that come from the first floor, holding the structure around themselves.
It’s time to go back and make our way to the staircase. I see an elderly Japanese lady, almost bend in two, letting some people go in front of her. There is a short lull in the human stream and she moves toward the first step, then she sees us, moves back and makes motions inviting us to go in front of her. “Arigatō gozaimashta” and we make our way downward to the first floor, where we visit the moon wing, with vermilion balcony and vaulted ceiling, from where, in peaceful times, one could admire the moon reflected in the moat. We admire the bud shaped window, introduced from China in the 13th century, as a staple of Ch’an (Zen for the Japanese) Buddhist architecture.
And while we leave the grounds it dawns me why the old lady invited us to go in front of her: not because she was old and didn’t want to take our time or did not want to feel pressured, after all, she climbed to the sixth floor by herself…. it was because she was the perfect host, thinking of the enjoyment of her country’s visitor!
We walk back to the train station and pass the daimyō Otemon Ido well, one of the Japan’s 100 remarkable waters. The sign said the same thing in several languages: enjoy the pure water, let’s keep the place clean and orderly. Indeed: a driver is washing his tour bus!
We stop and shop for food (my favorites are rice triangles, wrapped in sea-weed), take the train to Omachi, then a taxi ride for 15 minutes to the land of hotels. Really, there was nothing in the town, beside houses and stores, and suddenly impersonal buildings, with large doors and parking spaces. We know from the guide book that our hotel is from the ‘70s, it is a little bit run down. The first impression says it is more than run down, it looks like it is going in renovation. We leave our shoes in the midst of a slippers sea (are we the only guests?) But the room, oh, the room, we love it instantly:
real shoji, high ceiling, large (five tatami) with an adjoining smoking room, with sofas. Actually it is an apartment, there is a hallway where the bedding is stacked up in the closet (the pillows have one side with buckwheat and the other with down) and the bathroom, with toilet separated from the shower/onsen. There is a real onsen in the hotel, the concierge offered us a private event for our family (for a small price), but we declined. We are tired and I can’t explain that what I presume is perfectly normal and accepted in a Japanese family, is not in mine: parental nudity in front of the children. We just stay in our room, eat, do laundry, catch up with things.
And so, after a very long and beautiful day, we go to sleep in a beautiful room, to prepare ourselves for another beautiful adventure. Oyasumi nasai! Good night!
|Perssimons in the train station.|