Saturday, 10 August 2013

North to Yamagata

Date: Saturday 10th August

Weather: Same old, same old. Hot, sunny and cloudy.

MP3 track of the day: I like driving in my car - Madness

The day started off as planned. I checked-out early, went to Mr Donuts for breakfast and afterwards headed to Aizu-Wakamatsu's castle; Tsuruga-jo. I arrived at about 9:40am and asked the car park attendant what the kanji meant. The up shot was that it would cost me 300 Yen to park here for two hours. I thanked him and parked up, but I was slightly annoyed as there was already an entrance fee to get inside the castle and now, on top of that, I had to pay to park. I got out of my car, applied bug spray and walked towards the castle. As I walked up the entrance path I wondered if there was a place, before the ticket office, where I could get a decent photo of the castle so that I wouldn't have to pay. The outside of buildings always holds more interest than the inside for me and so, having to pay for parking as well, I was a little reluctant to hand over another 500 Yen.

As it turned out there was a very good reason why there was a charge for parking. A part from the castle keep, the grounds were free to wander around. I therefore opted not to pay to go inside the keep and, instead, I walked around the well-kept lawns (which would have been buildings in the castles day) taking shots of the, very Japanese, keep. Walking along what was left of the walls was also free and so I went along them keeping one eye on the keep, and one eye on the town for any good photo opportunities. Finally I went across the red moat bridge before finding a monument which marked the castles karate 'training area'. Due to the sky being bleached white with clouds, it took me a while to do the above as I was constantly changing my camera's light settings. After around 45 minutes I found myself heading out of the car park and only being charged 200 Yen. Spending 200 Yen when it could have cost 800 Yen; I felt quite pleased with myself.

All of my good 'money saving' work was undone when I stopped at a convenience store to by ten bottles of Vanilla Coke. As I was moving into another prefecture today, I couldn't risk missing the opportunity to stock up my fridge back at home. Finally I visited a bank and then a drug store to buy anti-septic cream for my many bites. As I sat there, within the drugs store car park applying anti-septic cream, I drank some Vanilla Coke and planned my route north. Without much of a debate I decided to follow the most direct route, the '112', which went past the town of Kitakata

There wasn't much to see in Kitakata, according to my guidebook. The only thing of importance were these 'Kura' buildings which were used, in olden times, to keep sake, miso paste, rice and charcoal. Whereas Aizu-Wakamatsu rose to fame through it's opposition to the imperial army, Kitakata has always been an important commercial center creating the above items. My guidebook stated that, at one point, 'almost everyone in the town had a Kura' but, try as I might, I couldn't find one. What's more I couldn't find any parking (It's almost like this town wasn't expecting any visitors) and so, after getting bored driving around the streets I parked up at the town's post office which was designed to look like a Kura. That would have to do, I told myself. I then left the town neither happy or unhappy.

Unlike the mountainous road to Aizu-Wakamatsu, the '112' wound it's way in between the mountains. It was extremely beautiful and at some points there was only room for the road before the tree lined mountains shot up, almost vertically in places. Of course at some point I did have to gain height and cross the mountains but, the height gained was tiny compared with my journey two days ago. Once over the other side of the mountains a board notified me that I'd left the Fukashima prefecture and entered Yamagata. As soon as I did this, it began to rain.

The rain didn't last for very long and soon I entered the town of Yonezawa. After stopping for lunch I continued north and through the open rice fields to Yamagata itself. In my original plan I was supposed to continue to Yamadera however, feeling very tired, I aborted this plan and went into the center of Yamagata. Even though Yamagata is a large city with many high rise buildings I found my hotel with ease. Finding where to park became more tricky and so, after parking on the street outside the hotel (and racing up to the reception on the fourth floor) I got the owner to walk me to their car park. I felt a little sorry for the owner; he had a huge smile, but was pretty old and had a walking impediment. I'd actually seen him when I first arrived, and he had said something in Japanese to me but I couldn't understand (plus at the time, I didn't think he was the owner so I paid him only the minimum amount of attention required to look polite). In no time at all I was parked up (outside the back of the hotel and across the street) in the smallest hotel car park known to man. Having successfully arrived I went to check-in.

It wasn't the fact that the place looked old, it was the fact that it was old. The hotel has most of the facilities I need but the internet seemed to be a strange and wonderful concept in the eyes of the 83 year old receptionist. In my room there is a box to plug an internet cable into however, from what the receptionist said, it didn't work and I would have to sit in the hotels reception to get a signal. The internet is important to me but not overly; I thanked the lady and went up the lift to my room.

Being 4pm you would have thought that I would have dropped my bags off and gone straight out; but you would be wrong. It's so hot here that I decided to chill first, write part of this blog, and look through my photos freeing up the evening when it should be cooler. I therefore didn't reemerge from my room until 5:30pm.

It was still hot as I walked out of my hotel and onto the streets of Yamagata. Due to this, my first port of call was the air-conditioned train station shopping center, where I found cheapish souvenir cakes which I can buy for the teachers I work with (a very poliet thing to do in Japan after 'one' goes on holiday). Also, on the fourth floor, I found a nice Italian restaurant which I thought I might visit for tea later. For now though I left the train station and headed up Yamagata's main street.

Yamagata is weird. As I walked up it's main street, high rise buildings lined the sides of the road making it look like a suburb of Tokyo however, as soon as you came to a cross roads, and looked to your left or right, desolate wasteland branched out as far as the eye could see. It's like Yamagata got heavily bombed with only this main street surviving. It was still hot and so I popped into a 'seven eleven' to buy a drink (got Vanilla Coke here too) and it was then that my MP3 player went off. I'd got a message from my mate Mike (see below) with details about tomorrow. Due to the early start I abandoned my discovery walk and headed back to the train station and into the pizza place.

I'm not sure if it was done on purpose, but I seemed to have been sat with all the other 'misfits'. I, eating on my own and not being Japanese, stuck out like a saw thumb. The man next to me was a little weird however, he left shorty after I arrived (maybe I said something). The woman to my right was plain mental. Dressed like an extra from 'The Little House on the Prairie' she sat their like a dog, back straight and looking directly at the kitchen doors. Every time a meal was brought out she would follow it until it past her table, and then she would re-focus on the kitchen doors again. If she wasn't doing that then she was looking into her shopping bag. She looked inside that bag on so many occasions that I was desperate to know what was in their however, just like in the film Ronin, I never found out (maybe someones head). She was wearing this stupid female 'pairie hat' which just looked out of place. Luckily her meal came before mine and she slurped her spaghetti like the waitresses were going to take it away five minutes later. Speaking of the waitresses; they were fit. Once was very pretty and I wished I'd changed into something more 'appropriate' than a sweat stained t-shirt and cheap shorts (which showed my bitten legs). Still, I had on my new trainers so hopefully, they alone, could win her over. Anyway after a moments thought I decided to forget asking for her number …. for tonight away. I paid my bill, smiled at the waitress and walked back to my hotel where I used the internet within the reception area.

So tomorrow I shall be heading south-east to another mountain; Zal-San. Here I will be taking 'rope ways' up to the top of the mountain for spectacular views, or so my guidebook states. However first a bit of a treat. A British backpacker, Mike, I met in Malaysia in is backpacking around Japan this summer and so I will be picking him up tomorrow (probably from Sendai) before we do some sightseeing together. I hope is budget isn't too tight.

Toodle Pip!

P.S. This hotel is weird. All staff seem to be in their mid-80's; and most of the guests too. I don't know the Japanese for 'retirement home' however I did get some funny looks when I checked-in. I hate old people.

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