Just got in tonight from an awesome, awesome, awesome (did I mention how awesome it was?) trip down to Honshu for ゴールデンウイーク - aka Golden Week.
I went with my good friend Judy (who is living in Muroran) and saw a huge chunk of Japan, all on the power of the mighty thumb. Yes people, I went hitch-hiking. Now before you freak out about it, I went with a friend and constant keitai contact with other people doing the same thing. What can I say -- Japan is the only country I would ever do this in, and even then I would never do it by myself. When the opportunity presented itself I couldn't say no. And it was, as I may have mentioned, awesome.
We not only made it to Kyoto in good time, but we stopped at a lot of places that I never would have considered going to as a one-off trip. Except maybe now that I've already been there.
The Golden Week Hitch-hike is a great Hokkaido tradition. Every year, people pair up and rely on the kindness of strangers to get around Japan. In the past, it has *technically* been a race from the Sapporo TV tower to Kyoto Station. This year, there were lots of other teams doing the hitch as well, but nobody seemed too interested in racing. Which was good, since neither were we. I'm only here for another three months so I wanted to see more of Japan than I already have. And having been to Kyoto once already and knowing I'll be back briefly this summer... yeah. Japan's got lots of other places outside of Kyoto.
We started off on Friday night. I caught the train into Tomakomai, met up with Judy, and we cabbed over to the ferry terminal to catch a boat to Hachinohe, a port city on the east coast of Aomori prefecture. From there we caught a ride to the burial place of Jesus Christ (bet you didn't know Jesus was an early JET participant. He apparently came to Japan during those unaccounted for years between 12 and 33, skipped out on that whole crucifiction thing, travelled around a bit and settled in Aomori where he lived to the ripe old age of 106), saw the lovely Lake Towada, and ended up in Hirosaki.
Hirosaki is a gorgeous castle town, even more lovely in the spring time when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Which was conveniently the day we were there. Us and 10,000 other people. But since the sakura wouldn't be in full bloom until the next day (when they were expecting 25,000 people), we got a hostel room no problem. A place to sleep secured, we went to the castle to enjoy the sights and the hanami parties.
We ended up getting invited to the hanami party next to us. A group of travel agents, crabs (of the edible variety) and beer. What more invitation do you need? We were even offered a ride back to Aomori on their party bus, and if Aomori wasn't the wrong way, we totally would have gone for it. We settled for an invitation to a homestay and a night at the bar, which we gracefully turned down in favour of dinner and sleep.
The next day, we had an excellent breakfast at the Aomori Youth Hostel, which was packed with Japan's answer to youth: oba-chans. The little old ladies who secretly run everything and have plenty of time on their hands for gallavanting off to far flung parts of Japan and scoping out the best onsen and sakura viewing places. The oba-chan we had breakfast with had been to more places in Hokkaido than either of us, and recommended we go to Kanazawa. In fact, she said it was even better than Kyoto -- the city touted in the guidebooks as the cultural soul of Japan. This twigged the memory of the same recommendation from a past hitch-hiker, and sealed the deal. Kanazawa was on the list.
However, Kanazawa was on the opposite side of Japan from Matsushima, the city we had picked to stop at next on our tour. Oh well, we would have to cross over at some point to get to Kyoto anyways. And we had already ended up further to north and west than when we had started.
After breakfast we headed to the outskirts of the city to work on getting a lift. We set up relatively close to an expressway exit, put the kanji character for the next expressway stop on our trusty white board, and held out our thumbs. After a short wait, a local couple stopped for up. He had an impeneratable Aomori-ken accent and talked the whole way. His wife barely spoke. After what would become the standard set of questions (where are you from? are you students? how long have you been in Japan? don't you know that hitch-hiking is dangerous? where are you going?) it became apparent that we didn't really want to go to whatever small town had been on our sign. They felt sorry for us for not knowing that we had written the equivalent of "please drop us in the middle of nowhere" on our board. And since they had nothing better to do, they decided to take us two hours out of their way to Morioka, where they had a son in the SDF. And we could try the local noodle specialty: reimen. A cold version of ramen.
Once in Morioka, we found a restaurant, and our ride treated us to reimen and gyoza, refusing to let us pay for anything. They dropped us at the expressway junction and went back to Hirosaki, where they had just been out doing some puttering around town beore deciding to pick us up.
Thrilled with our success, we changed our sign to Matsushima and waited. We saw lots of trucks and cars with single riders, but after not too long a wait, were picked up by a couple from Tokyo. It turned out they were heading to Sendai, just a short jaunt past Matsushima. But there was a problem. They were going to be stopping at a temple complex called Chuson-ji for some sightseeing of their own. Would that be okay?
An unexpected stop at a big famous temple? With a ride to just outside of our destination afterwards? Well, I guess it was okay.
The temple was beautiful, and very much unknown to us. It was one of many "Basho" spots on our tour -- places where the poet Basho had stopped to write. It seemed like a good way to live. Travel, stay at beautiful temples and gardens and write poetry. Which was pretty much what we were doing. Except for the poetry part. To remedy that, we decided to send a series of postcards back to the polestar: the HAJET magazine.
After a lovely afternoon strolling through the temple complex and gawking at the beautiful gold plated (okay, gold leafed) temple, we get back in the car with the couple from Tokyo. The guy doing the driving has serious lead-foot, and we make it to Matsushima in record time. Not that I know what that record is, but whatever. He was speedy.
We were still a ways out from our destination, but after all of the good luck we'd had that day, we were unfazed by the need for another ride. And after 5 minutes, a local boy heading into Matsushima to visit his family picked us up. He was really quiet, and kind of freaked me out, but I think he was just quiet. And busy watching his DVD player. And talking on his two cell phones. I was quite happy the car ride was short, but he was nice enough. He told us Mastushima, being a tourist town, shut down at 8pm. So we were quick about getting a room for the night in a local ryokan. Nothing flashy, but lovely service, clean, and a kotatsu. I *NEED* one of those. It's basically a table with an electric blanket on top. Great for cool weather. On Honshu, it's the primary source of heat in winter. I'm not so keen on that, but it was great for a cool spring evening on the coast.
That evening, after a walk with all of the romantic couples, we plonked ourselves down for dinner. Much to our surprise, who should walk in but another pair of Hokkaido hitch-hikers! They had definitely not had the same luck as us, and had ended up on a train after two and a half hours stuck in Aomori. Well, we had it on the authority of our first ride of the day that we were definitely not scary (or so he told his son on the phone).
We chatted a bit over a few beers, and then split up -- they for their tents in the park, we for our ryokan. We wished them luck on their tour and planned to meet up in Kyoto.
To be continued...