Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Back on the road

31st July 2012

MP3 track of the day: Riding along in my automobile - Chuck Berry

Weather: Sunny, bright and hoooot – at least 32 degrees all day (and the air-conditioning in my car doesn't work!)

It should have been a joyous occasion. With my bags packed I was off on another adventure only fifteen months after my last (though only for a week). It would have been, if it hadn't been for the weather. In the past week most of northern Japan has seen temperatures in the low thirties, with it barely dropping at night. This resulted in a, less than average nights sleep and a slight tiredness in my step this morning. Still my bags were packed, I was dressed and all of my departments electrical utilities (apart from my fridge) were unplugged. I did one last sweep of the house, picked up my bags and left remembering to lock the door. The time … 7:30am.

The first part of my journey I had done many times before, and yet it never becomes dull. Miyako – where I live – is on the east coast of Japan whereas my destination – Akita- is on the west coast. I therefore had to take 'route 106' to Morioka. The reason why 'route 106' is never dull is because of the terrain; as soon as you leave the limited flat area surrounding the eastern coast, you venture inland and are soon surrounded by huge mountains, covered in trees and vegetation. The road follows a meandering river and the whole area is very beautiful. Also, due to the time and the shadows caused by said mountains, it was quite cool … and yet my windows were fully open.

After two hours of driving I parked my car within the city of Morioka and did some 'jobs'. I went to the post office to check that I had been paid (I had). Then I went to a bookstore to spend my 'book vouchers' I'd received many moons ago. Finally, due to the heat, I popped into McDonald's for a milkshake. It had taken an hour to achieve these tasks and once back at my car, I opened the front door to be greeted by a wave of heat. I put my books in the back of my car, put my windows down and headed of as soon and as quickly as I could.

I was now in unfamiliar territory; all my other 'western exploration trips' had stopped at Morioka and here I was, heading along 'route 46' to Akita. The weather was blisteringly hot; in Morioka I had also purchased a few bottles of water but now, I wish I had purchased more.

I wasn't going straight to Akita; I had set off early so I could visit a town called Kakunodate, ninety minutes west of Morioka. My guidebook stated that, whereas Akita had lost all of it's ancient buildings, Kakunodate still had the feel of a feudal town (with it's samurai and merchant quarters). I had planned on getting there at around 10am (giving me a good six hours to sight-see) however, with a longer stop in Morioka than expected – and setting off from Miyako later than I had originally planned – I arrived at 1pm.

At first I missed the huge car park which filled acres of space to my right, as I was busy looking at the buildings on my left. I turned around, parked up (500 yen fee; £4) and picked up my camera. Being so hot, my first port of call was to find somewhere shady, purchase a drink and read my guidebook (I actually did one better and I found an air-conditioned building). Soon I was ready and I found myself within the old samurai quarter.

A long straight road – with continual wooden fences on either side – greeted me. Trees lined the streets and old traditional Japanese gates identified the entrance to each samurai house. As I walked up and down the street I peered through the gates, unsure if the house was open to the public or if it was a private residence. All buildings along the street had been kept to look authentic; wood was certainly the material of choice.

Each building was different, but followed a similar theme. First of all you would be greeted by a small wooden gate; once you had climbed over a small wooden step, you were greeted by a small garden with trees and purposefully placed rocks dotted around (some gardens had stone paths, others did not). The main building had a sliding wooden / paper door and the building looked more like an ancient Japanese shrine than a house. At the most northern end of the street was a strange building; it didn't really fit into the surroundings, and yet somehow it did. Firstly this building was made of stone, and it seemed to follow a more European design (with it's cathedral-like arches). It was secluded away from the samurai houses and I thought it was rather interesting. Once I had got to the northern end of the street I back-tracked back down it and crossed onto another, shorter, street full of samurai houses.

It wasn't until I got to Kakunodate that I realised that there were only two streets of ancient buildings, meaning that I had completed the 'samurai quarter' in an hour (not sure what my guidebook was on about when it said 'Kakunodate merits an over-night stay'). I soon found myself out of the samurai quarter and into the old merchants area; this area had all been redeveloped but, I believe, the feel of this ancient trading area was still present. Firstly, my guidebook stated that whereas the samurai had private gardens and space, the merchant dwellings would have been cramped. The area did feel cramped with narrow roads, no trees and the number of buildings (plus traffic) was significantly more dense than within the samurai quarter. Whats more, the samurai quarter had wide roads lined with trees, creating shade and peace; it felt altogether more grander. Anyway, at this point I wasn't too fussed about looking around; it was 2pm and I was hungry.

Well I looked around, and I looked around, but I couldn't find anything to eat. I stopped off at a convenience store and purchased some snacks, before deciding to leave. Kakunodate had been great, but like everything in Northern Honshu there wasn't much to it.

I got back to my car (noticing that I had a sun-burnt right arm … doh!) and opened the doors. As I drove off all my windows were down to allow the heat to escape. It was only 3pm and so I decided to head to Tazawa-ko (Japan's deepest lake) which was about a thirty minute drive from here.

After driving along a beautiful but meandering forest road, I came out into the light and saw my first glimpse of the lake. I also found out that the area closed at 5pm; I therefore drove around the perimeter, stopping at viewing points to get some photos. The lake was surrounded by a ring of mountains making it very beautiful and peaceful. There was an ancient red gate, positioned at the waterside, which made the perfect focal point for a photo or two. I finally stopped at a the statue of Tatsuko, to take a few photos of her over-looking the lake. Once there, two boys were sat around the base of the statue but, thankfully, they had positioned themselves as to not be in the way of my photo. By now the time was getting close to 5pm. I jumped back into my burning car and drove to Akita, which was about ninety minutes away.

Before starting my trip I had 'google mapped' and 'street viewed' my entry into Akita. Japan loves one-way streets (sometimes they put them in for no apparent reason) and so I made sure that I knew my way to my hotel. The buildings were getting bigger and the traffic more and more dense; arriving at 6pm didn't help matters but I managed to navigate my way to the 'Albert Hotel' without incident. The other thing that wasn't a problem was parking; I managed to secure one of the last parking spots within the hotel car park (for £4 per day; slightly annoying that I have to pay … but far cheaper than I feared).

The hotel was quite grand and I, ringing with sweat and wearing shorts and a t-shirt, stepped into the heavily air-conditioned reception a little embarrassed. Still the reception staff didn't seem to care and I was soon checked-in and within my air-conditioned room.

As I had skipped lunch I wasn't in my room for long, and soon I was on the streets of Akita. It was only 7pm and yet everything seemed shut; it was slightly bizarre but, within a city of this size, I was struggling to find somewhere to eat. I headed for the train station – as there is always somewhere to eat there – but it still took me an hour to find a small – but very atmospheric – Italian restaurant. I had a pizza and coke, which cost a little more than I wanted it too, but at least I was full.

I returned to my hotel for a quick shower before heading to sleep. After the rubbish nights sleep I had last night, I shall not be getting up early and I think tomorrow will be a chilled out day.

I just hope it's a bit cooler.

Toodle Pip!

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