Monday, 11 August 2014

I have all the time in the world

Date: Monday 11th August 2014

Weather: Luckily for you and I, the day was dry. There was a lot of cloud in the sky; some treating, some not, but it didn't rain.

MP3 track of the day: We have all the time in the world - Louis Armstrong

I went to bed at around 10:30pm last night and I awoke this morning at about 8:00am. Feeling fully refreshed, I set too getting ready for the day however, being in no rush, I took my time. First of all I read the news followed by all of my messages. I then checked my emails and read yesterdays Dilbert entry (I have the Dilbert app on my MP3 player).Once done I went down to the communal bathroom.

When getting undressed, the Japanese aren't shy and they usually bathe together as a kind of, social gathering of the same sex. I, having lived here for over two years, am used to it but, apparently not the other westerner who was taking a shower at the same time as I. I did what I needed to do in a relaxed manor whereas, my European buddy took just enough time to look as though he wasn't rushing, but not enough time to look as though he was completely comfortable with the current situation. It mattered not; once he had left I continued to clean myself before turning the shower off and stepping into the bath. I haven't mentioned this before, as I rarely use them, but every Ryokan's bathroom has a bath with water continually flowing into it to keep it hot. Normally I wouldn't bother using it however, last night I thought “why not” and it was fantastic to have a soak. I decided to do the same today and, with a shave – plus an ear clean – I felt as though I had never been cleaner.

Once ready I said goodbye to the staff and put my stuff in my car. The weather was pretty good; a blanket of cloud covered the sky however, most of it was white. There was a cool breeze too and though the cloud wasn't much good for taking photos, it hid the sun's rays away making it perfect weather for a walk. Due to buying a lot of presents yesterday, I walked back into town for more money. I also stopped at McDonald’s for another breakfast; as luck would have it, I arrived ten minutes before they changed to their regular meals. This was great as it meant that I could still get a breakfast and then, after I had consumed that, order an ice cream from their regular menu. I got back to my car around 11am.

Today I would be driving slower than a Japanese 80 year old man however, unlike an 80 year old I did move out of the way for faster vehicles (except lorries and buses; which I hate). I had bags of time so I spent it looking at the forests and mountains around me, letting cars go by and playing silly games like: when I drive through this puddle, how long will my tire marks last for (not as long as I thought). I was in a happy place.

Even with a stop to see some water wheels, I was still making great time. I arrived at my location around 2pm (6hrs and 30mins before the festival starts) and found some cheap day parking. For the first forty minutes or so I updated by blog before heading out to find the local tourist office.

The tourist office was a little harder to find than I thought it would be. This was due to the fact that their tourist sign was excellently placed for those who had parked in their car park - at the rear of their building - but totally useless to the people who were walking along the main street. Once found I discovered that the festival was still on however, it was finishing much later than I had anticipated. With that done I walked towards the town's main attraction; it's castle.

When I say 'castle', what I actually mean is a kind of white turret. Keeping to the laws of castles, this one was most certainly placed in a 'elevated position over-looking an area of strategic importance'. From my car park, you could just see the castle way, way, way in the skyline, up a forested covered mountain however, the hike up made it feel even higher than it actually was. Before heading up to the castle though, there were two temples which I looked around and photographed. Once done I then started the grim task of climbing up to the castle within a humid forest..

Fortunately I was not alone; in fact, a local High School running club was using the mountain as a course. Though idiotic, it made my journey all the more pleasant; as the runners passed us 'tourists' they would say 'good afternoon'. Of course we would reply and then, after a while, the tourists themselves would say 'good afternoon' to one another making a normal mundane hike a lot more pleasant.

Once at the top I rejected paying the entrance fee for a number of reasons. Firstly I have been around Japanese castles before. Secondly this was just one turret. Thirdly, the entrance fee was astronomical but most importantly, I always prefer the outside of buildings and I could get some quite good photos for free … if the Japanese TV camera crew would get out of my way.

Once I had photographed the castle to death I headed back down into town the way I had come. I went back to my car to phone my hotel in Nagoya to make sure that arriving at 1am in the morning was fine (the festival here finishes at 10:30pm and it is a two hour drive) … no problem. I then headed back into town to photograph that to death.

The town is like a massive upside-down 'T', with a river running through the centre. That river would meet up with another river before they both left town together. This made it quite easy to see the whole town within a relatively short space of time. The first two impressions I had was that, even though the buildings were not much to write home about (there were some beautiful old buildings however, these had lost all of their charm due to a huge amount of horrible 1980's buildings being placed in between them) the town was still very beautiful because of the geography around it. The rivers and steep forested mountainsides made the place lovely to view. Secondly it would appear that desserts – especially ice cream – is big here. As I walked along the small streets wedged in between the mountainsides I noticed a disproportionate amount of dessert shops. This was no bad thing and I had eyed up an Italian ice cream parlour that I would be hitting as soon as my walk of the town had been completed.

I continued photographing the town until about 5:20pm. By this time I had been in this town for over three hours and I was running out of sightseeing things to do. I started to walk back to the Italian ice cream parlour I had seen earlier when I noticed something odd … the town was closing.

I am not joking. As I walked down the main street I hardly recognised it with all of the metal blinds down. Once I arrived at my Italian ice cream shop that too was shut (I bet it wasn't real Italian ice cream anyway). Gujo Hachiman isn't the only town to do this weird, 5pm closing however, on a festival day, you would have though the shops would be begging to stay open. This closure worried me a little; I hadn't had any dinner, let alone lunch, and as I looked at shop closure signs I failed to see a re-opening times. I therefore found the first restaurant I could find and ordered a 'curry udon'.

A few things about this restaurant. Firstly I was their only customer and, at first, I thought that had something to do with the time but then, after I experienced the service, I soon realised why. Next came the food; I normally order 'curry udon' if I am unsure of the restaurant because, frankly, it is hard to get it wrong. When it arrived it was piping hot however, the cuts of meat reminded me of South East Asia. On the plus side, it was good thing that the food was awful because I couldn't order any more if I wanted too; the 'waiter' had gone as soon as he had plonked my meal in front of me to resume watching his TV programme.

It is true that the meal had been cheap however, it had put a dampener on my day and I was no longer a 'happy chappy'. To cheer myself up I ordered a dessert from this dessert filled town however, the person at the only dessert store still open decided to use clairvoyance instead of listening to my order therefore, I got the wrong thing. With the town shut down until festival – and I being a little fed up – I implemented the only option available to me; I headed back to my car and worked on my blog. As I arrived at the car park I could see other people in their metal boxes just waiting however, it seemed as though I was the only one who found it bizarre.

To be honest, I wasn't that annoyed with the town being closed. I hate having to wait for things because, ultimately, you end up spending money on things you don't actually want to do or own. There was no chance of that and also it was good that I could write my blog now as, when I am in Nagoya, time is tight. Once my blog was up to date I still had a whole hour. I therefore chatted to a friend or two and played Spyro on my PS Vita until it was time.

Fifteen minutes before the festival was due to start I stopped playing Spyro (I was getting battered anyway), got out of my car and walked onto the main street. I couldn't understand it; I stood precisely where the lady, from the tourist information shop, had marked on my map where the parade would start from and, with fifteen minutes to go, I was the only one there. Maybe I'd misunderstood, I thought to myself. Maybe the parade started from where I thought she said it finished. I therefore followed the line she had drawn and, sure enough, the number of people started to increase.

As it turned out I had misunderstood. There wasn't going to be a parade at all; this dance festival happens every night from the beginning of July until the end of August (I was surprised that, by now, more than just the drummer had turned up) and each night, the dancing happened in a different part of town. The line the tourist lady had drawn on my map wasn't a parade line at all; it was directions to where the dancing was happening.

Once there the dancing was under-way. As I said earlier, this dance festival occurs every night for eight to nine weeks therefore, I was amazed that, I reckon, around 200 people were dancing in one big group. As I looked at my map I realised that the streets where the festival was being held was in fact a 'cross-intersection'. The dancing was very traditional with men and women dancing in a line without touching one-another and, ever-so-slightly, always moving to their left. If you imagine this cross-intersection as a giant Ludo board, then the dancers acted as the pieces do in the game (except, when your 'dancer' had returned to where he/she had started, they kept going around the board). As other people left or joined, the Ludo board contracted, or expanded accordingly and, in some places, the lines were three people deep.

I was enjoying the festival immensely however, I found myself surrounded by food stalls (a Japanese festival must have food stalls). I therefore decided to walk around the neighbouring streets, entering the 'Ludo board of dancers' at the four different entry points to see if I could find one to my liking.

After forty minutes of walking I decided upon the second 'entry point'. From here I could see the musicians and the singers (I use the word 'singer' in the looses possible way) within a small mobile stage. I found a good place to stand, took a few photos, and then put my camera away and just watched.

Each dance seemed to last for around ten minutes. If it wasn't for the participants, and the musicians, I wouldn't actually know when a song began or ended. At the end of each song the musicians stopped and so too did the dancers; very quickly the music would start again however, the music and the dance moves were almost identical to the previous dance. There was one dance – saved until almost the end – that was quite high tempo whereas, all of the others were very slow. Even just walking around, the humidity was extremely high and so the dancers were doing an excellent job; slow dance or not.

Within the centre of the Ludo board all sorts of this were happening. First of all there were people positioned at each end of the dance, to make sure that the dance kept it's 'shape'. Participants walked down the centre to find friends and, kind of experts would dance in the centre to keep everyone motivated and make sure that all were okay (the musicians, singers, experts and 'shape of the dance protectors' all wore the same outfit). About 50% of the people were in traditional Japanese dress, and 50% weren't. It was nice to see a few foreigners 'giving it ago' however, I would have liked just one dance where only those dressed in traditional outfits could take part as, I reckon, that would have looked amazing.

As time went on I tried to understand each dance... but I failed miserably. I do, however, think that I understood the point of the festival. I bet, many years ago, finding a husband or wife within this festival was extremely common. Pre-Facebook, I bet many Japanese women, and men, would wait for this festival, practising everyday and making sure that their outfit was perfect (or, for those would couldn't dance, I bet they dreaded the day). During the dance, young men and women would probably try to dance close to one-another (or who their parents felt was a good match) occasionally giving the odd subtle gesture. As I thought about this I realised that, maybe some of the dancers here had met their husbands / wives at this event and now, many years on, their children were dancing the night away.

Time was ticking on and, at 9:50pm, a very fluid dance started which just got quicker and quicker until the dancers were almost running. This dance finished at 10pm and then a very slow dance started. This had all the markings of an ending so I pushed my leaving time back ten minutes and waited. Unfortunately, after this slow dance another began; I wanted to see the end of the festival but I couldn't wait, as I had a two hour drive in front of me. I left the festival, glad I had seen it, and walked back to my car. I then started to drive towards Nagoya. As I was turning out of town what would pass me by but a lorry heading in the same direction I wanted to. I got around it ten minutes later.

Nagoya is Japan's fourth largest city. Due to this I wanted to make my entry into this city as easy as possible. After heading south from Gujo Hachiman, I then went east around the outskirts of the city looking for the '41'. This was a main road and, luckily for me, my hotel was located on it. Whilst heading east I did get lost however, it mattered not; better to get lost in the small urban areas around Nagoya than in the chaos of one-way streets, traffic lights and more roads that Birmingham's spaghetti junction. After stopping at two convenience stores – to ask for directions – I soon found the '41'. I then joined a three-lane road with hundreds of traffic lights and way more traffic than I was expecting for midnight. I told myself that, all I had to do was keep in the left-hand lane and follow this road into the centre; once at the intersection with the '19' I will have found my hotel. This I did, even though the left-hand lane was pretty slow, and sure enough I arrived at my hotel without error. Once parked I checked-in before I went to my room. Even though the temperature was lovely, it would appear that I had no control over it. I put my bottle of orange juice in the fridge, had a quick shower, and went to bed.

Tomorrow I will have a brief look around this large industrial city. Not being one of my 'star attractions' I won't look for long as, for the day after tomorrow, I need an early start.

Toodle Pip!

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