Thursday, May 5, 2011


I wasn't feeling up for taking my trip to Shikoku, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  Maybe I enjoyed it more.  I looked around at the world and thought, I have everything that makes life beautiful.  It's true.  I do.  But the external does not bring contentment.  That comes from within.  Everybody knows that.

Between Kyushu and Shikoku in Japan

I took a girl's trip to the littlest big island of Japan with my friend M.  All of my friends in Japan are new, which is hard for me because I'm a person who needs deep relationships to feel comfortable.  I can navigate through strangers and acquaintances well enough, but I would much rather be with people who have known me for 10 or 15 years.  Luckily, I have a good number of people in my life who fit that description.  I was happy to deepen the bond with my new friend. 

We took a 3 hour ferry ride from Beppu city, just north of where I live in Oita city.  The landscape in Japan is beautiful just about wherever you are.  Watching the bay and the mountains recede from view as we talked, freezing from the wind... it was beautiful.  We went inside - I was shivering - and I could taste salt water on my lips.  Inside I found a unique Japanese sight:  They had carpeted sections of floor separated by isles for people to relax in.  You remove your shoes, of course, and then step into the carpeted area.  We could still enjoy the views out of large windows.  We talked, read Time magazine for a while (which I found really stimulating and I want to get a subscription, maybe), had some snacks, and then went outside to take some pictures as we neared the port.

The Gas Station Guys and Tiffany in Shikoku Japan
We found our friend, P, who was also spending some of Golden week in Shikoku and we took lots of pictures of the three of us with the tiered mountains of Shikoku behind us.  P had driven onto the ship and had to go get her car.  M and I took a bus to the train station, but we had some time so we had a little adventure.  We didn't have many plans for our time in Shikoku, but somehow we had a very full trip of chance encounters.  The people we met along the way were interesting and inspiring (but not necessarily both).  As we went to look for a place to get lunch, some men at the gas station called us over to take pictures with them.  In the US this would be really creepy, but in Japan it was fun.  We saw a staircase leading up and away to a place we imagined we would like to eat our lunch, but we couldn't figure out how to get to the stairs.  After gallivanting through several peoples private gardens and back alleys, we gave up and walked back to the station to eat our lunches on the curb.

Tiffany and M on the ferry
I walked through to the train and didn't realize that I was supposed to show my ticket, so I was called back... I think he called me gaijin-san.  That would be like, "Ms. Foreigner."  Funny.  A few minutes after getting started on our train trip, we started talking to some high school girls across from us who wanted to practice their English.  They were pretty good.  We found out that they were on a dance team and had a competition the next day, and that they were on their way to a flower festival.  As the train neared their stop, we could see the festivities in full force with mud wrestling, animals, a giant woolly mammoth made from hay, a stage with music and dancing, and giant koi flags flying for children's day.  So, we got off the train and went to the festival.  Having no plans is great.  It affords spontaneity, which I love.

We had a great time at the flower festival, although there were not many flowers.  We tried to play in the mud, but alas, the mud pit was closing.  We were given presents of food, met lots of nice people, got to know our high school dance team escorts a little better.  There was a disturbing sight, though.  They were giving bull rides to small children - which was not the disturbing sight.  When they tied up the bull they would just string the rope through it's nose and hook it there like that.  I don't know if the animal was disturbed by it, but it was a sickening sight for us.  We got back on the train eventually and continued on to our intended destination:  Uwajima.

M and I made reservations for green tourism.  That basically means that people offer up their homes for travelers to stay.  Often times these places are farms, and you can do farm experiences and such.  The couple we were staying with lived way up in the mountains.  While we were waiting for the man to pick us up at the train station, we had a great conversation with a little old lady dressed in yellow who had traveled all over the world.  She was 84, and three years ago she took a trip to the south pole.  She saw penguins.  We took pictures together there in front of the train station and she gave us her address so we could send some to her.  She was fun.  And inspiring. 

Our host showed up, T-san, and joined in the conversation and picture taking.  Then we thought we were going to get in the car and go to the house, but instead he walked us across the street and showed us his cram school. (A cram school is a place where students do extra studying after school in various subjects so that they can get into college.  Japanese kids study way too much.)  He took pictures of us in front of the sign to the school.  He said he was going to use the pictures for promotion of the school.  Even in Japan - a little creepy.  His school was one tight floor.  Downstairs he had another floor that was ready to be opened as a gallery and study space.  The room smelled strongly of wood from the display shelves.  I love that smell.

Tiffany in Shikoku, Japan
Then he drove us around the town a little and took us to a castle.  We were just going to get out and look up at the castle and take a few pictures by the statue, but T-san got a phone call and told us that he would be back in a little over an hour.  Surprise!  So, we were left at the castle, which was great.  We walked up stone stairs lined with forest and stopped along the way at scenic areas, like a giant tree stump.  We got to talking with an old man who has two grand children in the US who he has never seen and a son who is a doctor at Johns Hopkins.  The man used to be the principal of a school and he wouldn't let us take a picture of his face, but he allowed me to stand with him and look up at the castle so M could take a picture of us from behind.  Another cool conversation with a stranger.  I enjoy picking out the words I understand and stringing a kind of meaning together.  I'm sure it helps my listening skills.  The views at the top of the ocean and the mountains and valleys were gorgeous, as was the castle.  We got lost on the way down, but we found our way back to the car and drove to T-san's house, with one more stop at a store where he bought us sake that we hardly drank.

This anecdote is already getting lengthy, but there is still so much to tell!!

Once we got to the house (which used to be part of a silk making village) and settled in, the drama started.  We sat down to a huge meal, with probably 15 plates for each of us.  The hostess wouldn't leave us alone and the meal had several shrimp dishes, which I am allergic to, apparently.  We were trying to wind down, M had the royal wedding on, and we wanted to just chat about the day or whatever... but the crazy lady wouldn't let us.  She came in and started jabbering to M, who is fluent in Japanese, about how she is not really the man's wife, how he is supposed to pay her to work there, but he doesn't, and how he farts a lot in his sleep.  She made sound effects.  She told M, who told me, all about his financial affairs and how he "falls in love too easily, and cries too easily."  So, I was creeped out after that and sat in the hall to protect M while she was taking a shower.  We locked all of the doors after they left and just had to hope for the best, at that point.  I was trying to flip my futon cover under my chilly feet around 2am when M and I were gossiping like girls should, and the cover hit the wood floor really hard.  It made a huge bang and M flew over to my futon, squeeling in fear.  It freaked me out, too, even though I knew I was the one who made the noise.  I said, "It was me, it was me!"  Exciting.

Me and M with the Crazy Lady
I woke up at 5-something in the morning... it seems as though I am incapable of sleeping through the night anymore, since I have a young child who rarely lets me.  T-san called for some ungodly reason around 7am.  We ignored it, and I fell back asleep from 7 to 8:30.

Then we had a huge, traditional Japanese breakfast complete with miso soup, raw egg over rice, cucumbers, and salmon.  The woman continued her crazy talk through out the morning, whenever T-san wasn't around.  We were given two options for the day's activities, besides running off to do what we wanted.  We didn't have any plans, so we declined the bamboo digging and went for the pottery making.  Yakimono.  やきもの。  Pottery.  The dynamic duo drove us to the studio, slapped some clay down for us, and left.  The man who's studio we were using showed up after a little while...  Gosh, each of these people were such characters... this super skinny Japanese pottery dude was about 65, had few teeth, smoked incessantly, and wore jeans that would give diesels a run for their money.  He was topped off by a bedazzled New York hat.  I don't know much about pottery, but he seemed to be talented.  We went over to his house later to use the bathroom and I couldn't believe that anyone actually lived there, it was so disheveled.  I made a ring dish that I fancied looked like ocean waves wrapping up to become a bowl.  That took me about 2 minutes.  I also made something that started out as a large plate, then morphed from a zen rock garden into a southwestern courtyard, complete with adobe style holes in the walls and an entrance.  I knew that the man wouldn't leave my work alone if I was making something useful, so everytime he tried to help me I shooed him away claiming that I was making "art."  I just wanted to have fun.  My pieces, which look like they were made by a five year old, reflect that.

The crazy lady showed up and started talkin' all her smack to the pottery guy!  We couldn't believe it.  But she did bring me an iced coffee beverage from the konbini.  I'll remember her for that.  Eventually we had to be a little rude and ask if she could leave her conversation to take us to the tuk tuk rental shop.  Our time was very limited and we were just sitting there listening to her complain about her life and everyone in it to a perfect stranger.  She continued her diarrhea of the mouth all the way to the place, where we practically jumped out of the moving vehicle to escape her.

Free Sample
The place where we were to get a tuk tuk- a man powered bike/passenger cart thingie- had an omiyage (souvenir) shop and a street food festival going on.  I love Japan!  They will have a festival for anything, and make it awesome.  A festival for the food that is commonly served at festivals.  Genius.  We had some delicious food, talked about the world and the people in ours, and then left on a tuk tuk.  The kid driving the tuk tuk was a very formal Japanese person who did his job with pride.  You would think he was a museum currator, the way he gestured and spoke to us.   He took us to "the biggest stone temple gateway in Japan."  You have to take these claims with a grain of salt.  I've already heard the same ones in different places.  We saw a big, beautiful temple, purchased our fortunes, and took a roundabout way to the train station, where we traveled back to the port city.  Rain had come and we took a rocky ferry back to Beppu.

From Japan,

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