Just a Little Road Trip

So recently we had an event in Japan known as Golden Week. I mentioned it last time I was in Japan, but at that point I was more worried about failing a Japanese language exam for university (which I did later fail, but managed to pass a resit). Anyway, since I’m no longer a student (and do hang in there Leeds University students who have that exam coming up soon), it meant that I could enjoy the string of national holidays known as Golden Week.

The plan was simple. I’ve always wanted to visit a village in Gifu prefecture called Shirakawa-go. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for it’s historical buildings with steeply pitched thatched roofs. For me however, my main purpose of visit was motivation. You might remember when I was in Tokyo I took a trip to a shrine because it popped up in an anime opening theme, well this time the series was called Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni (translated into English as When They Cry).

Shirakawa-go provides the location for the story, though the fictional village is instead called Hinamizawa. Though I won’t be pinpointing similarities between factual and fictional locations for you (for one reason you’ll discover later on), I wanted to reinspire my desire to draw and hence wanted to visit a visibly inspirational location. If you want to see how much the fictional village resembles the real one, I strongly urge you to check out ‘Shirakawa-go, Japan The Real Hinamizawa’ by Punyari for some fantastic comparison pictures.

The journey began at my local train station, Takibe, where I picked up a friend. For the first half of the journey I had a buddy to chat to. We headed north-east along the coastal roads until, with the exception for stopping for food and a crack at a batting center in Hagi, we arrived in Tottori. Ever the cheap-skates economically-minded individuals, we slept in the car between a raging river and the foot of a mountain.

The next day we carried on driving from early morning, observing the differences in driving style across the various cities and prefectures that we travelled through. One city. which shall remain nameless, did fill me with road rage (and McDonald’s queue rage) never felt before. Don’t think I’ll be venturing up there too often. Eventually we made it to our destination, Shirakawa-go.

I made it to Shirakawa-go ... kinda
I made it to Shirakawa-go ... kinda

We arrived at the Shirakawa-go service station just as the shops were closing. However the staff were kind enough to let me run in and buy a few souvenirs. My friend and I left the car there and went for a walk around the village. Now, remember when I said I wouldn’t be pointing out similarities? This is why.

It turns out there are two sections of Shirakawa-go, and anyone with a tourist map would have known that instantly. As we all know I try to avoid the tourist scope altogether (as pointed often in my blog of Tokyo). So rather than going to the famed area of the village with the … umm … rooves, we went around the regular area where many people live. There were three thatch-rooved buildings so we thought non-the wiser. It was only when we were in the car, leaving, and by shear fluke decided to make a left turn (the iPhone map was not too reliableon this trip) that were saw the area I wanted to see. Not only saw, we were driving through it! We couldn’t stop though, it was already quite late and the buildings were all closed, not to mention the lack of lighting made it difficult to see anyway. We carried on, but I promised to myself that I would return.

We slept for a few hours in a karaoke bar (remember Japanese style karaoke places generally give you a private booth), then moved onward toward Kansai.

Breakfast in Osaka
Breakfast in Osaka

After enjoying some of the nostalgic scenes of Osaka that almost brought me to tears, my friend and I parted ways. While he made his way to Fukuoka on a Shinkansen, I oogled about the city I lived in as an exchange student a few years ago, visiting old haunts, new haunts, and of course (supposedly) haunted places.

Pancakes and coffee at Juicy Trump
Pancakes and coffee at Juicy Trump

When I was living there I always went past a batting center (baseball, or fake-rounders for my Brit readers), but now that I’d had some batting experience I went with my head held high … and went to the slowest machine of course. They didn’t only have baseball, but other sporty games aswell, including football and frisbee Flying Disc. Did you know that the F word was copyrighted?

The cola keychain I won with my novelty flying disc skills
The cola keychain I won with my novelty flying disc skills

I headed towards Kobe the next day, fighting back the tears that I was leaving my beloved city once again, to visit my old University. I stopped off at Nishinomiya Gardens, where I’d once met singer-songwriter and artist Rie Fu.

The Konan University Cube Campus at Nishinomiya Gardens
The Konan University Cube Campus at Nishinomiya Gardens

So onwards I went to the Okamoto area of Kobe to visit my old university, Konan University. There I met up with some old friends and met a Leeds student studying for the very test I’d failed (scroll up if you forgot). I then went on to Sannomiya where I met two friends. We enjoyed a coffee and talked a bit aboutold times and new times.

Last time in Japan, one of these two friends and I went to a darts bar in Osaka every Wednesday ( … to … try and improve our Japanese, of course). So we wanted to do that again, the only difference being that I was driving so alcohol was out of the question, and we were in Kobe. We found a place and both ordered Red Bulls before getting on to a few (semi) serious games of darts. Later on the barman came over with a raffle-box. There was a promotion on Red Bull. We both took a ticket to see if we’d won. My friend hadn’t won. Just as I was looking at mine it was soon whisked away in excitement. Apparently I’d won the top prize! Nice one! Two days, two prizes!

I won a 16GB Red Bull USB Drive
I won a 16GB Red Bull USB Drive

I left Kobe with the intention of going to Hiroshima, but en route was captivated by a huge bridge and a ferris wheel. The bridge led from Honshu (Japan’s largest island) to Shikoku, another of Japan’s four largest islands, a place I’d never been. My target changed and I was soon zipping across the bridge, stopping at Awaji service area. This is the equivalent of a motorway service station (though seemed to lack fuel pumps). Welcome Break and all you other British stations can learn a thing or two here … for one thing, they have this …

The big ferris wheel in Awaji Service Area, Welcome Break need to get a move on
The big ferris wheel in Awaji Service Area, Welcome Break need to get a move on!

I drove through a town called Naruto that night, and slept on another mountain road.

I have some friends who live on the east coast of the island so decided to pay them a visit. Rather than use the big fast highways, I drove across the center of the island along tiny mountain roads barely big enough for two motorbikes. It was pissing down, that didn’t help. Eventually I was forced to give up and make my way to a highway, though on the way I did see some interesting sights.

What a big goon.
What a big goon.

The last day of my trip saw me take … sorry … saw me try and take a ferry from Matsuyama (Ehime … Shikoku) to Yanai (Yamaguchi). Generally, I don’t like taking busses. Not just Japan, anywhere! You never know where the stops are unless you live there. Trying to take the ferry was terrifying. I drove up to what I thought was the carpark and was greeted by a man.

(in Japanese)
Me: Hi, I want to take a ferry, but don’t know how.
Him: No problem, just go and drive into lane 1.

Lane 1 had other cars parked, waiting. Further down the line I could see other cars in lane one handing a ticket to an attendant, I had no ticket, I had no clue. I looked around frantically and saw a notice on the side of a building; “you can buy tickets here”. I abandonned the car and ran for the building. In panic I lost most of my Japanese language ability when I found the ticket window.

(in Japanese)
Me: Hi. I left my car in lane 1. I need a ticket.
Her: {something in Japanese}
Me: Yes.
Her: {something in Japanese}
Me: Yes.
Her: {something in Japanese}
Me: Yes.
Her: 8000 yen please

I got my ticket and ran to the car. The attendant was stood waiting. The staff on the nearby ferry were stood waiting. Some passengers were stood on the top deck looking at me … waiting. I drove on quickly, trying to avoid the icy stares that may (or may not) have been bearing down me due to me holding up (or not, I really don’t know) the ferry. I’d noticed other cars reverse onto the ferry, but I was asked to drive straight on.

I turned on the maps application on the iPhone to see that there were several ferry routes from where I departed, heading to some very tiny islands. I sat there in hope that my misunderstandings at the ticket office hadn’t led me to a one way trip to an even longer trip back. I gave a sigh of relief with every passing island. That is until we reached the port I wanted to get off at.

I was hoping to get off at Oshima and visit a friends house before driving on home. When we arrived at Oshima I soon discovered why some cars were facing the other way, leaving me stuck on the ferry as it pulled out of port.

I couldn't get off the ferrry at Oshima.
I couldn't get off the ferrry at Oshima.

Thankfully the next port, in an area of Yamaguchi prefecture called Yanai, didn’t leave me too far out of the way, though as I was now a little nearer to home I decided to skip Oshima and head back to Takibe. Of course I stopped at many recycle shops on the way.

So that was the end of my road trip. Many days and many miles (even more if you use kilometers). The next day I went down to Kokura, on the north side of the island of Kyushu, where I saw this cat waiting outside McDonalds. And that’s where I’ll leave you for now.

Every McDonalds needs a cat.
Every McDonalds needs a cat.