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road trip

Last month, I made plans. The first weekend of this month, I was to go skiing. The last weekend of this month, I was to go to an onsen. Skiing was fun but mostly unremarkable; I took a train there, skiied for a day and a half, and took a train back. There was some enjoyable socializing with some of my students, but overall it was a ski trip.

The last weekend of this month has come and gone, and I can say with certainty that this is not a trip I will forget soon.

It started with a rental car. One of the strongest guidelines when planning this trip was that it was to be cheap; neither my friend nor I wanted to spend more than was absolutely necessary, because near the end of the month both our budgets were stretching. There was a cheap ryokan with an onsen* (~$40 per person per night) a reasonable distance out, but it would cost $80 per person for a five hour train ride on the local trains, or $120 for a shorter ride on the shinkansen. Luckily, I discovered that it’s possible to rent a car for the weekend for only $80, so in theory we could actually pull off the entire trip for under $100 per person, which seemed reasonable.

Driving in Japan, in general, is not actually as big a transition as I had expected. It’s not very difficult to stay on the proper side of the road, and road signs are generally easy to understand, at least on such issues as the speed limit, one way roads, and general traffic control. The biggest issue is that the blinker lever and the windshield wiper lever are on opposite sides of the steering wheel; all too often, I would attempt to signal a turn and set the wipers in motion instead.

The car rental place with the good deal, however, was located in the middle of Tokyo. Driving in Tokyo is not pleasant. It’s got the congestion of New York, the street layout of Boston, and it occupies a larger area than either of those. Furthermore, the signage with respect to major roads is ambiguous and confusing, even though major words are listed in roman characters. After about 90 minutes of general confusion trying to find the proper highway out of the city, we pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant to program the car’s GPS route-planner for us**. Luckily enough, the attendant there was very helpful and friendly, and after about five minutes of fiddling with the controls he had the GPS displaying a dotted line of arrows along the intended route. He conveyed that he hadn’t put in our exact destination, but an approximation which should serve until we were closer to the destination and could get someone else to reprogram the GPS for us.

With the help of the GPS and its associated software, we soon made it out of the city and on our way. By 2pm, we arrived at the end point of the GPS’ programmed route, and sought out another person to reprogram the GPS. To our great dismay, we discovered that we were in Niigata–on the coast of the Japan sea, about twice as far as the ryokan. We had assumed that the gas station man had programmed an intermediate destination; he had instead sent us to the endpoint of the correct highway.

There wasn’t much to do at that point except curse the gas station man soundly, play in the ocean a bit, and turn around. After another four hours of scenic Japanese highway***, we finally made it to the ryokan, where we were delighted to be greeted in person by the proprietor, who spoke quite good English. After we were checked in and settled, we headed to a nearby izakaya**** for dinner, and maybe drinks. As it turned out, gaijin were a rarity in that place, and the locals were happy to buy us sake while we sang american songs at the karaoke machine and chatted with them in whatever combination of English and Japanese we could muster between the lot of us.

The next day, we headed out to the nearby wildlife park to see the snow monkeys cavorting in the natural hot springs. While there was a large colony of monkeys in the park, they seemed reluctant to enter the water until the park attendant threw some food in, at which point there was a mob.

The monkey park was at the end of a path of decent length up the side of a mountain. Across a small valley, there was an onsen for people based on the same hot springs. I must say it was much more enjoyable than the artificial onsen at the ski place, in large part because there was almost nobody else there. The indoor bath was comfortable, but what really made this onsen memorable was the outdoor bath. Apparently, though the practice becomes rarer as time passes and as population densities increase, it was common at one point for onsen to be mixed-gender installations. This practice has not entirely died out. Though the indoor baths were segregated at the baths near the monkey park, both indoor baths had doors leading to the same outdoor bath. That would have been easy for me to deal with, particularly as the mixing of genders was entirely theoretical while I was there; there were no women in attendance. What made the experience hair-raising was the fact that the outdoor bath was situated such that one had a magnificent view of the mountain across the valley, and the path up it–and all the people on the path had an equally unobstructed view of the bathers.

I did try the outdoor bath, reasoning that this was not a chance that would present itself to many people, and I would rather preserve my adventurousness than my modesty. That said, I watched carefully and made sure that there was nobody on the path before venturing between the indoor bath and the outdoor. There was one guy, however, who had no such qualms. He was standing outside the outdoor bath, stretching, relaxing, and enjoying the view. When I first ventured out, he said in decent English that the water there was too hot for him; apparently, he was not going to let this spoil his enjoyment of the outdoor scenery. At one point, he waved to someone on the path, standing tall so as not to be missed.

I didn’t stay in the outdoor bath for very long.

After walking back from the onsen, it was time for us to head back to Tokyo. We would have had a pretty smooth time of it, as it was simplistic to tell the GPS “lead us home.” However, traffic on the way into the city was inexplicably dense for a Sunday evening, and we lost an hour and a half in the jams.

Last weekend was an adventure of the sort that I’ve grown up reading about and wishing to have. Yes, we were lost most of the time, spent four times as much as we meant to*****, and had an itinerary meager enough that just reading about it is undoubtedly making the more planning-oriented members of my family cringe. At the same time, it was time spent in enjoyable company, doing interesting things (at least while we weren’t driving). It felt full, and satisfying. In particular, the whole thing felt like a more authentic experience than I expect most people have. I’ve stayed in high-class hotels in both the western and the japanese style, and I’ve done most of the touristy things to do in Japan. I’m not going to complain about comfort, luxury, or style, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a sanitized vision of Japan presented to tourists. Going on this trip, I feel like I’ve peeked behind the curtain, and seen the sort of thing that I would as a native. Being able to say that is immensely satisfying.

* ryokan: japanese-style inn. onsen: public bath. While artificial ones are common, the idea originated in natural hot springs. Onsen tend to have both indoor and outdoor sections; the indoor ones are designed for comfort, while the outdoor ones tend to recall the hot spring experience more; they are lined with stone and are often situated to take advantage of some natural view. The purity of the water is taken seriously; one must wash before one enters the bath, and the only foreign matter allowed in are human bodies. Bathing suits are not worn.
** Cars in Japan tend to have dashboard screens and integrated GPS systems which can plan routes for you, which is great if you can get through the interface. Our rental car had no English options at all, and neither of us on this trip were proficient enough in Kanji to figure out how to get the system to do anything useful.
*** One thing about all of our driving: it really was incredibly scenic. My friend was enthusing for large portions of the trip about how nice the countryside was. I personally don’t appreciate the rural scenery as much, but I was much more impressed by the flock of skydivers coasting down the side of a mountain, and the glider weaving through the thermals. I think we were both impressed by the frequency and length of the tunnels we encountered in the more mountainous areas; I counted at least five distinct tunnels over 4km in length, and there was one whose exact length I didn’t check, but which lasted over 15 minutes at full highway speed.
**** izakaya: japanese-style tavern
***** In particular, tolls are insane on the Japanese highways. We spent over $150 on tolls, plus another $75 for gas…

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