Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Zombies, flowers and the sun

Date: Wednesday 4th and Thursday 5th May 2016

Weather: Glorious. The weather was beautiful and sunny for the whole trip. There was a strong breeze which, thankfully, kept the temperature down however, I still had to be careful of getting sunburn.

MP3 track of the day: Road trippin - Red Hot Chilli Peppers

I awoke at around the same time I would normally wake up if I was going to work. As you can see by the date, I was travelling on a Wednesday and Thursday at the beginning of May and so I will forgive you if, at this moment in time, you are feeling a little confused. During the first week of May, Japan has a string of bank holidays which it calls `Golden Week`. This is a time when the whole Japanese population is supposed to help it's tourist industry by travelling somewhere within Japan ... anywhere. In a country where having Saturday AND Sunday off in a single week is classed as a `long holiday`, having four bank holidays altogether is a treasured time and people do take the opportunity to have a couple of days sight-seeing. Sadly, due to how the holidays had fallen this year, Friday the 29th April was a holiday however, Monday 2nd May wasn't. Tuesday through to Thursday were indeed holidays however, everyone was back at work on the Friday. In order to make the most of the three days I decided to get all of my jobs done on Tuesday, leaving Wednesday and Thursday free for a spot of `day tripping`. The problem was deciding where to go. For the first time in ages I hadn't pre-planned anything therefore, finding a hotel for the night was going to be expensive and difficult. I also didn't fancy travelling miles just to be surrounded by thousands of Japanese people (honestly it would have been better to have travelled on a normal weekend however, I was bored). I ummed and arred, finally deciding upon a small city within a prefecture which I'd never visited before. The city's name is Mito and the prefecture is called Ibaraki, which is only two prefectures south of where I currently live. My sole reason for choosing this place was biased on a photo I'd seen on the internet, taken two weeks ago. Rolling hills of blue flowers filled the photograph, with a matching blue sky behind. Now was the time when a blue flower - which I have forgotten the name of - blooms making a park close to Mito extremely beautiful. I also felt that, though this was indeed an attraction, it was not a main attraction therefore, I hoped that the crowds would be reasonable (and as I searched for a hotel, my hopes increased as there were still quite a few vacancies in the area). So there I was, at 5:15am getting ready and having breakfast. Once consumed I got in my car and left my current home city at around 6:30am. After I'd stopped for fuel I proceeded south wishing not to stop again until I reached the flower park.

My route to Ibaraki could not have been easier. I left my city along the 'forty-five' and changed onto the 'four'. Once south of Sendai I changed for the final time onto the 'six'. This road practically went past the park itself. Once on this road I settled down and tried to enjoy the view however, the sky was dark and the rain was pouring down. I had checked the weather forecast before setting off and this downpour of rain did not bother me in the slightest; the weather was behaving exactly as predicted and it was scheduled to become sunny for when I arrived at the park.

Once close to Fukushima`s northern border with Miyagi, I left Sendai's sprawling urban outskirts behind and was now in a world of rice fields, farm houses and small shops. The road was pretty clear of traffic too, and so my pace was good. Now; I am sure some of you only know the name 'Fukushima' due to it's infamous nuclear power plant and their infamous problems. I would like to say first of all that, of course I know that what happened to the people - and their lives - within this area was horrible, tragic and shocking. On 11th March 2011, a huge Earthquake hit this area causing catastrophic damage to the nuclear power plant, which in turn spilled out nuclear waste into the local area. Even today, some food products are banned if they are grown within Fukushima and customers always read where their food is produced ... and yet ... I have to admit ... as the 'six' wound it's way towards the power plant ... I found it incredibly interesting. The rain was still pouring down and it felt as though I was the only car on the road. Whereas before, farmers were planting a fresh crop of rice into their water-filled paddies, here the paddy fields lay bare. Traffic lights were shut down and so too were the shops along the street. I was still a good eight miles or so from the actual power plant and yet, police road blocks had been set-up preventing anything other than a motorised vehicle from proceeding onwards. I switched my air-conditioning system to circulate internally only (as if that would help protect me from any possible radiation). It was then that things started to get really bad. The town surrounding the power plant had not been touched since the earthquake. Mummies within shop windows could be seen lying on the floor and signs had fallen from poles. Every road which led off the 'six' into the community had a huge metal gate barring anyone from entering. Men in suits were posted every so often and cars had been abandoned within car parks now covered in weeds and grass. It was just like an 'end of the world' Zombie film. Unsurprisingly, my speed increased without me knowing but, due to being the only car on the road, little attention was given to what lay ahead. I just kept peering into this 'after earthquake zombie snap-shot'.

It took thirty minutes from when I passed the last open shop to when I got to the next one. I pulled into a convenience store and grabbed a bottle of water and a doughnut. I hadn't even got to my destination yet and already the trip had been an experience. Once back in my car the weather started to brighten. I pushed forever southwards hitting the Fukushima / Ibaraki boarder an hour later. I finally arrived at the flower park around 1pm.

Thankfully - after such a long drive - both traffic and people within the park were light. I easily found a parking space and grabbed a map before entering the park. Looking at the map, the hills of blue flowers were to the north of the park. To get there, I had to go through a rose garden and around a large blue lake. The rose garden had seen better days as the flowers were starting to wilt however, some strong willed roses - luckily it seemed to be a couple in each colour present - carried on the fight and I enjoyed seeing them. Once past the lake I made it to the hills of blue flowers. Probably due to the earlier bad weather front, the hills weren't as blue as they could have been. The area was still impressive; huge areas of blue flowers swarmed around the odd tree however, the higher the hill climbed, the more the blue got replaced by green. I got my camera out and strategically took photos which would give the impression of a world of blue.

Once done I spotted an ice cream stand. Being quite hot, I decided to join the huge queue and buy an ice cream forgoing my usual 'food within a tourist location is always more expensive than it should be' stance. The queue moved a lot quicker than I had expected and all of a sudden I was holding a '99' ice cream with a big smile on my face. Instead of being white, the ice cream was a bright blue colour and I wondered if it had something to do with the flowers within the park. As I tried to read a Japanese poster about the ice cream the unimaginable happened ... my ice cream slid off the cone and onto the floor ... with everyone watching.

I could have cried. I know it is just an ice cream ... I know it doesn't matter ... but there is something about being happy over such a little thing and then suddenly, it being taken away from you that just affects me. I stared at the pool of blue being sucked down into the ground below. I was just about to walk off and forget the whole thing when I stopped, joined the queue again, and paid for another one. I wasn't going to let this moment ruin my holiday. I paid another £2 and carefully took the ice cream - by-passing all of the people who saw my first ice cream fall - and sat down on a bench and consumed it.

I have no idea if the whole 'loosing my first ice cream' made it taste better however ... it was damn good. The flavour is difficult to describe; all I can say is that it was delicious. By the time I'd finished it, my first ice cream had all but evaporated. I left the area pretty happy and went to investigate the rest of the park.

I had seen the north of the park and so now I turned east. With it's tall trees and many types of grasses, this part of the park felt more like a wildlife reserve. This area soon became my favourite part of the park as I seemed to be the only one there. The sun was shining and things were great. After twenty minutes or so I left this area and followed my nose to a hot dog stand. My mouth dropped when, not only did I see a food product - within a tourist area - priced reasonably, but the hot dog was huge. I would go as far to say that it was actually cheap. I bought one and held onto it tightly before consuming the whole thing ... it must have been fourteen inches in length easily.

Once consumed I felt full enough to forgo a proper lunch and wait until dinner time. I now proceeded into the western part of the park. This part was split into two sections with the south being taken over by an amusement park (which I skipped pretty quickly) and the north used the beach it backed onto to create a kind of 'sand garden'. All building materials used were sand in colour and it really made the area look as though it would have been more at home in the Middle East than in Japan. As it turned out, this area was quickly becoming my second favourite area of the park however, sadly, I didn't have time to appreciate it. For some UNKNOWN REASON, Japanese parks close and this one had decided to close at 5pm ... even though it didn't get dark until 7pm. As I walked towards the exit, it soon became apparent that a lot of people didn't like the closure time either, as they kept on playing whatever sport they were playing at the time. I thought about joining them however, the constant messages over the speakers were starting to ruin the peace and quiet I had sought for in the park anyway. I therefore decided to return to the main gate, noticing a feature this park had which I really, really liked. Throughout the day it hadn't occurred to me but, I hadn't come into contact with a cyclist. I have nothing against cyclists but it is rather frustrating is when you have to constantly be aware of traffic moving at a faster pace than you whilst trying to relax. Thankfully, the park is so big that cyclists actually have their own path which, through the use of tunnels and bridges, never came into contact with a single footpath. What’s more, along the cycle route were 'stopping stations' where a cyclist could park their bike and proceed on foot through some of the sites. I really liked this idea and felt that it should be adopted throughout the world.

As mentioned before, I left the park at it's 5pm closing time. The sun was still high in the sky and I wasn't really ready to call it a day. I therefore got out my map and proceeded to try and find something of interest whilst a queue of cars formed behind me, patiently waiting for the traffic lights to turn green. There was a lake thirty minutes south of my position and, though my guidebook didn't mention it, I decided to 'give it a whirl'.

At first, the traffic leaving the park did affect the speed in which I could drive at. Once away from the park my speed increased and I made it to the lake within forty-minutes or so. I'm guessing the reason why the lake hadn't made it into my guidebook was that it wasn't anything special. I drove around the lake trying to find somewhere to park however, I couldn't find a single visitors centre. Giving up I headed back north to where my hotel was.

I arrived within the vicinity of my hotel, hungry and at 7:30pm. I found a chain tempura restaurant and decided to stop there as a) you can get a lot for your Yen and b) I quite fancied tempura. Once consumed, I walked to a local supermarket to buy some chocolate for dessert and a bottle of orange juice to put in my hotel room. I then drove for five or six minutes and parked within my hotel's car park. Tonight I would be staying within a 'Route Inn' - a bit like a travel lodge in the UK. The price wasn't too bad and it did indeed include breakfast. Today had been a good day, I was back travelling and all was well in my world ... until I sat down on my hotel bed. The thing didn't move. I refused to call it a table because, I believe, a table has more 'give' in it. I turned on the TV and found no foreign channels. I drank some of my orange juice, and had a long shower, before admitting that there was little I could do. I therefore decided to 'hit the sack' at the rather pleasant time of 9pm, hoping for an early start tomorrow.

So today had been pretty good. I hadn't spent a lot but I had seen a lot. I was back to my old self, wondering what tomorrow might bring.

Thursday 5th May

I did not have a very good nights sleep last night. This bed must be the worst bed I have ever slept on. Still it mattered not; I was refreshed enough. I got up, had another shower - got to get my monies worth - and headed down to the breakfast buffet at 8am.

For the money, the buffet was fantastic ... if a little weird. I mean, it's not everyday onion rings are on the breakfast menu (I do like onion rings). I helped myself to two-and-a-half plates full of food, planning to stuff myself until dinner. I had rice, cold meats, salad, bread, onion rings, juice ... the list was endless. As soon as I felt six stone heavier, I waddled back to my room to collect my bags. I left the hotel noticing that it was another glorious day with a cool breeze. I had burnt my arm a little yesterday and so I had to be careful. Today I would be heading south and into the city of Mito itself. The road to Mito was familiar to me as it was the one I'd used on my return journey from the lake yesterday.

Within Mito is a park. Within this park is a garden - called Kairakuen - labelled as the 3rd most impressive garden within Japan (I have been to the most impressive). It was designed by the ninth lord of Mito – Nariaki Tokugawa - in 1841. Even though the weather was glorious, and even though it was a bank holiday today, and even though the amount of cars increased as I approached the park, a parking space was easy to find. The car park was located close to a large lake. To the west of the lake lied a large park which, it appeared, was being used to hold an event of some kind. Across the lake was Mito's skyline and the famous garden was to the north-west. With the lake filling the foreground, Mito didn't half look pretty and I was raring to go. I started by heading west and into the middle of some kind of event.

The Japanese are obsessed by food. Each county, each town has it's own special food (Mito's is natto). This festival was all about ramen; a noodle dish with meat, vegetables and spices all put into a boiling bowl of hot broth. Now, there is one important thing you need to know about ramen; the Japanese are ferociously protective over their favourite dish. Reminding them of the fact that, actually, it was imported from China doesn't go down well. Neither does saying that all types of Ramen taste the same - they do; but the Japanese are adamant that each counties ramen is very, very different. I suppose it's like a foreigner coming to the UK and telling anyone who would listen that, throughout history, the French were simply superior to the British in every way. Anyway, as luck would have it, the festival within Mito's main park was indeed a 'ramen festival'. Chef's from around Japan - none had been invited from China - each had a stall and each were serving medium-sized bowls of ramen. Instead of buying a bowl from the stall itself, you had to queue up at another tent where you could opt for a '1 ramen', '3 ramen' or '6 ramen' ticket, before joining the biggest queues of people in history. I thought that it was wonderful that the people of Japan were so enthused about a Chinese product however, I declined in joining them as I was still full from breakfast and I didn't want to spend the day in a queue. I grabbed an ice cream before heading north towards Japan's 3rd most impressive garden.

Just like the car park, the garden – Kairakuen - was free to enter. A lot of the garden was devoted to plum trees and, sadly, I was out of season. It is therefore difficult for me to give an opinion on whether this garden lives up to it's claim however, it was rather peaceful. I quickly made my way through the plum trees and into an area of bamboo. I do love bamboo however, Arashiyama - close to Kyoto - was a lot nicer. I went through another area devoted to huge cedar trees before finding myself at an entrance gate to a replica of a building – called the Kobuntei - used by the Mito clan to think, write poetry and generally waste time (the original building was destroyed during WW2). Once I had put my shoes within a plastic bag I walked through the wooden building in my Darlek socks. The buildings was nice enough, but nothing I hadn't seen before. It was a wooden building with paper sliding doors, tatami floors and a first floor. Looking out from the first floor I could see a lot of Mito however, the best site was located directly below where I was standing. The gardens surrounding this wooden building were beautiful and well kept. Small bushes of many colours were strategically placed in between gravel paths and flowers. From my high advantage point I photographed the garden more than I photographed the city.

Once out of the building, I put my shoes back on and looked at my watch, surprised to find that the time was 1pm. I had a five / six hour or so drive home and so I had wanted to leave Mito at around 2:30pm. Having not bought any souvenirs yet, I decided to leave the park and make a short stop to the centre of town where I bought a small trinket (which isn't very good, but it was the best thing I could find at the time) before leaving town and getting on the 'six' north. Within an hour I got back to where my hotel was located. I stopped for a late lunch / early dinner. I then stopped for fuel before, finally, starting the long trek back. It was 3:30pm.
The traffic in Ibaraki wasn't helpful. Small 'one lane roads', filled with traffic and traffic lights, hampered my speed however, once I'd crossed into Fukushima I was able to floor it. As if scheduled, dark clouds prevented all sunlight from hitting the ground as I, once again, drove through 'zombie town' and past the nuclear power plant.

32km later and shop lights could be seen. Business was being done and life was occurring as normal. I continued speeding towards Sendai and still traffic was light. I made a final stop for refreshments and a little bit of a stretch.

I made it back to Sendai at around 8pm. My town is only a thirty minute drive from the south of Sendai and so I found myself, within my apartment, at 9pm. I unpacked, got ready for work and took a shower before going to bed at 10:30pm. My Golden Week had been quick, but I was glad that I had actually done something. The weather had been fantastic and as I closed my eyes, I was thinking about the summer.

Toodle Pip!

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