Monday, 5 August 2013

How many concrete mixers does Iwate need?

Date: 5th August 2013

MP3 track of the day: I drove all night – Roy Orbison

Weather: Its been cloudy all day with rain at the beginning, and end of the day.

I was supposed to get up at 5am however, due to a later than planned bed time, I hit my alarms snooze button three or four times. This resulted in me getting up around 5:30am. It mattered not; I was aiming for a 7am departure but that time was flexible. Again the more observant of you will notice that I set my alarm clock two hours before my departure time. I thought that an hour would be needed to get ready and the other hour could be used to watch the latest Top Gear; which should have been broadcast yesterday within the UK and therefore be on the BBC Iplayer by now. Getting ready took a little over an hour but it mattered not; once I'd powered up my laptop I went onto the BBC Iplayer website to find that the latest Top Gear had not been uploaded. Slightly annoyed I consoled myself with watching the thirty minute unravelling (the BBC do like to drag things out) of the next Dr Who; very interesting. Once finished I put my bags into the car, turned the water off and did a final check. Apart from the fridge, every other electrical appliance was unplugged and turned off. Satisfied I got into my car and drove out of my allotted parking space.

I didn't need to check the map; my journey should take around six hours and thirty minutes. 6 hours and 15 minutes of that time, I reckoned, would be spent on the same road. That's right; 'route 45' starts within walking distance of my apartment and ends within walking distance of the hostel I'm booked into in Sendai. All I had to do was follow the road and make sure my compass pointed south.

Route 45 took me along Japan's eastern coast. It's an extremely beautiful road with the sea always on my left and the forested mountain coastline to my right. It is also a very annoying road because, as I made my way around the '45's' many corners and bends, a truck would always be in front of me resulting in my pace dropping. Route 45 is the main road along Japan's north-eastern coast and yet, it is only a one-lane road with few passing points. Many choice words were said as I past a lorry through a 'passing lane', only for the lane to end and for me to find a concrete mixer in front of me. I mean; how many concrete mixers does Iwate need? I must have been stuck behind thousands of them and I soon gave up accelerating hard as I knew, five minutes down the road, I would just have to apply the breaks again. In order to calm me down I inserted a new CD into my cars CD player. It's the first album from a new Japanese band called 'The Perfect Blossom'. The albums title, 'A Wasted Life', did not, I think, reflect the music created. It mattered not; the album was excellent and so I played it a lot throughout my journey.

In a lot of ways I cannot begrudge this area too much for it's infinite amount of lorries and construction vehicles. Only two years ago the 'Great Eastern Tsunami' hit this region devastating most of the coastline. My city, five hours north of Sendai, was badly hit and has still not fully recovered. However the earthquake, which caused the tsunami, occurred off the coast of Sendai; therefore you can imagine that the level of damage got worse and worse the further I went south. At first I saw small patches of wasteland, buildings which looked as though they had been shelled and roads which lead to nowhere. Once I'd reached the Miyagi Prefecture (Sendai is the capital of the Miyagi prefecture) whole towns had been levelled with little repaired. I have lived in a city which was hit by the tsunami for over a year and therefore, you would have thought, I would have been used to tsunami damage. The towns within the north-east of the Miyagi prefecture were something else.

The time was now close to 10am and I was starving. I pulled into a 'seven-eleven' for a quick bite before continuing my journey. No sooner had I restarted my epic journey south when a woman, in a bright yellow Nissan Micra (called a 'March' here for some reason) pulled in front of me and then spent an age to get up to speed. This happens all the time in Japan. I don't mind people pulling out in front of me, as long as they put their foot hard to the floor and get up to speed, but no. I was still fuming when we stopped at a set of traffic lights. I peered through my windscreen and into her rear view mirror to look at the face of the person who had annoyed me so. Of course, she had no idea of the annoyance she had caused and soon I began to forget too; she was very good looking and she was playing with her long brown hair. For the next thirty minutes I stuck behind her not wishing to overtake and not letting another car in between me and her.

All too soon she turned off the '45'. With a heavy heart I proceeded onwards and it wasn't long before I made it to the first tourist stop of my nine day trip. Matsushima Bay is around twelve miles east of Sendai and is officially designated as one of Japan's top three scenic areas. With such a 'write up' I was looking forward to taking my guidebook's advice by boarding a tourist boat and sailing around the bay's 260 islands. I therefore did exactly what I was advised to do. As soon as I arrived in Matsushima I drove straight through the small town (which, without the Japanese shrines, would have looked like a cheap UK seaside resort town) and headed to Shiogama; the next town south. Apparently the tourist boat trip departing from Shiogama is better and much less crowded.

It took forever to reach Shiogama bay. The traffic was horrendous and even though Matsushima and Shiogama are only split by six miles of the '45', it took twenty-five minutes to get to the bay. Once I'd parked and got to the ferry ticket counter it was 1:30pm. The 'upshot' of my terrible road journey meant that I'd missed the 1pm departure and, to add insult to injury, that was the last 'round trip ferry'. The only ferry left to depart Shiogama was a 'one-way' to Matsushima. The ticket sales person said that I could take that ferry and then get the train back from Matsushima to my car in Shiogama. The plan seemed simple enough but the cost was around 4,000Y (£32.00), which was way too expensive. I therefore had only one choice; I said that I would drive back to Matsushima and catch the 3pm 'round-trip' ferry. In response the ticket salesman said that he would phone ahead and reserve me a space.

The traffic was just as bad going the other way and I was starting to wonder whether this 'scenic area' was really worth the hassle and petrol. As I was crawling through Matsushima once more, I looked at the place with my 'backpackers eyes'. A year of travelling has taught me that, sometimes, I can tell if a place will be good just by looking at it for a couple of minutes and, I can tell you, I wasn't getting a great feeling.

I grudgingly found a car park and paid the 500 yen per day fee (£4.00; believe me; this was cheap) and walked the short distance to the ferry terminal. Not as grand as Shiogama's ferry terminal, Matsushima's consisted of a one-storey ticket office, plus a waiting room, and a bridge. As soon as I approached the ticket counter a Japanese man intercepted me and asked if I had a reservation. 'Maybe' was the most truthful answer I could give and then he asked if I was Matthew Otter. In a flash I handed over 1,260Yen (I got a 10% discount for some reason) and was given a sightseeing boat ticket in return. I had half an hour before boarding and so I went to look around the grounds of a local shrine (I didn't go in. It was 700 Yen to enter plus the building was under heavy renovation) before purchasing a drink and awaiting my boat.

Instead of the captain blowing his vessels horn, I was notified that my boat had arrived by a mother screaming at her adult child while her grandson screamed his head off. I felt sorry for the adult child. Her mother had seen people head over the bridge and panicked. In actual fact those people heading over the bridge were extremely early and so the adult child was, I think, right to look perplexed at her mother and shout back. After I'd heard enough of the 'domestic', I too headed to my boarding bay earlier than needed.

I didn't have to wait long; a 'ship mate' helped me board and directed me to the cheap seats. I was sat behind a tour guide; her tour group were inside the vessel occupying the more expensive seats whereas she was sitting in front of me. At first I didn't think it was fair however, I bet she's been on this journey many times and I bet she was glad to be away from her group for a while.

At 3pm the boat set sail on it's one hour loop around the bay. As if on queue, the clouds (which had threatened rain, mist and fog all day) closed in resulting in visibility being reduced to a 100 meters or so. Add to this that a lot of Japanese had purchased packets of crisps, just to feed the seagulls in the area where I was sitting, and the trip wasn't looking too promising. I mean; I've eaten those prawn crisps before and I agree, very are only fit for seagulls, however the tourists didn't have to buy them. Having seagulls swoop towards me every thirty seconds became hazardous.

Fortunately, as the boat gained speed the birds couldn't keep up and eventually they were left behind bobbing in a wave churned up by the vessel. With the birds gone I could get back to concentrating on the bay. I took a few photos but they were mostly 'tourist shots'; with the clouds giving me a blanket white background my hope of any excellent shots faded fast. Once I'd taken around twenty photos I sat back and enjoyed being out in the sea. As I sat their I thought about the many excellent boat journeys I'd taken all over the world (Alaska, inlet waters of America / Canada, Ha Long Bay etc) and this one would not join that golden list. I suppose once you've seen Ha Long Bay – one of the seven natural wonders of the world – nothing will ever come close. Sure the many rocky islands scattered within the bay were pretty in their own right. You could see that the rocky islands had been shaped by wind and water; you could also see the trees and other vegetation growing out of the rocks but still, due to their small size they were never going to beat the mighty cliffs of limestone at Ha Long Bay.

Once docked I left the boat feeling a little flat. The time was 4pm and so I still had time to cross the two famous red bridges Matsushima had left to offer. The first bridge went to a small island with a small shrine. The other bridge was much longer, cost 200 Yen to cross and went to a larger island which felt a little bit like a miniature jungle. As I walked around the islands perimeter I was getting hot and sweaty. Bird and insect sounds were always around me yet I saw nether. After an hour I left the island only gaining a very sweaty t-shirt and a few bug bites. I made my way back to my car where I turned the air-conditioning on to full and changed my shirt. The time was around 5pm.

The traffic was worse than before. Screaming at my petrol gage for going down when I had covered as much ground as an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, I crawled back into Shiogama at around 5:30pm. Having had enough of the traffic, and having not had lunch, I pulled into a restaurant to have an early tea and let the traffic die down. Having eaten rubbish all day I opted for a chicken meal with plenty of vegetables and rice. Once consumed I noticed that the traffic had got slightly lighter and so I jumped in my car and rejoined the queue.

I eventually arrived in Sendai one hour later. Having done my home work, finding my hostel wasn't too much of a problem and I parked my car outside a small and rather homely hostel. As I was being shown around I remembered why I loved hostelling. Yes the five-male dorm room was a mess, yes the lounge was a fully occupied and yes both the radio and TV were competing for dominance. Some people would call this a nightmare; I call it characterful. As soon as I walked in I was chatting to the owner and guests alike. Being on your own, hostelling is such a great experience and so much more fun than staying in a hotel. Only problem is there are no lockers; but I do have a car.

Tomorrow I plan to head into Sendai itself and search for new trainers plus watch Sendai's summer festival (Tanabata). Wish me luck!

Toodle Pip!

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