Category Archives: Japan

Still lost in totally no translation

To resume the situation for the folks who are not paying attention, I was in Numata, Japan, unleashed in the town by myself for the first time, and not having too much success communicating with the natives (despite two absolutely grueling Japanese lessons.)

I had made it to the Tenkeiji Temple through a random act of kindness, but, after a bit of fearless exploring, I needed to find my way back to the house of Ross.

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The familiar sight of garden gnomes reassured me a little. A common denominator! Even the Japanese were victims of tasteless decor, how about that?

Soon, I discovered just how cosmopolitan Numata really was…

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I considered having Itarian (sic) food at the Itarian restaurant.

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But then how tempting was the burg at My Burg since 1997!

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I settled on hot Tommy Lee Jones coffee. He was a graduate from St. Mark’s School of Texas where I shoot quite a lot (not when he was there. I must have been not born yet.) Anyway, drinking his coffee made me feel very macho and courageous and hyper for the rest of my journey at the heart of Numata.

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I even found a French boutique! The problem with all this cosmopolitanism is that it all remains very Japanese-speaking. It may be an Itarian restaurant but they do not speak a lick of Itarian. Ditto for My Burg. Ditto for the French. Quick on cashing in my hard-earned yens, but a bit short on lexicon help.

So I kept on walking and walking and having another Tommy Lee Jones coffee and walking and walking…

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I noticed a barber pole. If I may, I will tell you about barber poles. At a time when barbers were also surgeons (bad surgeons but surgeons nonetheless), one of their principal duties was bloodletting. The two spiral ribbons on the pole represent two bandages, one twisted around the arm before the bleeding and the other to bind it afterward.  As I walked by, I peeked, and pretty much, this is what I saw…

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Crocodile Dundee san cutting the extremely blue hair of a man. Fabulous, no? Of course, I had to stop and “ask” them for permission to photograph them.

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He was all embarrassed but the mama san made him do it. She was laughing her head off looking at her husband posing. She showed me a cup and I understood I was invited for coffee. Many things should have prompted a polite refusal. First, I was wired from all the Tommy Lee Jones coffee. Second, what would we be discussing? Third, there was another client waiting and he, too, was wearing a large hat. I had landed at the hairdresser for weird people!

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Well, of course, I stayed. I told them about going to Nikko and Takaragawa while sipping my milkless coffee (another hazard of the language barrier) and in turn they told me stuff too. There was no understanding whatsoever on either side but it was jovial and I ended up spending more than an hour with them, having a jolly good time.

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The arrival of a second client brought great excitement to my hosts. They made me understand that he spoke English. Well, that was one big exaggeration! He spoke English as well as I Japanese. He was totally busted in front of his friends! I felt a bit bad for him.

Eventually all good things come to an end and I still had to make it to the house.

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The mama san and the non-English speaking dude waived goodbye at the door and hop, I was back on the sidewalk.

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I observed many people working in open areas with their back to the street (which is totally bad for photography.) I walked and walked…

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When I came across the familiar site of small rented houses, I knew I was finally on the right track.

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I also recognized the poster of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda who had announced his resignation a few weeks prior to my trip. I was finally nearing my destination.

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Finally, the corner 7/11, rendered famous by Ross’ continuous milk shortage and his understanding of 7/11 food as the ultimate basic food group, came in view. I don’t know about you, but the closest 7/11 from my house does in no way resemble this one.  Mine looks like this:

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Sad, isn’t it?

Anyway, I had made it back to the point of origin and I was ready for some 7/11 lunch. I generally come back from trips all enriched by other people’s visions and life experience, but in Japan, my conversations being limited to sumi masen, sumi masen, I settled for the warmth and the sense of hospitality of absolute strangers. Upon my return to Texas, I also got rid of all the Japanese language CDs. First, they sucked, and second, if I can get around Japan with sumi masen, I am obviously as well-versed as I need to be.

Lost in totally no translation

Numata, Japan, 2008. Ross is a kind man and a fabulous guide but eventually Ross had to go back to work. That meant I was about to face Japan solo, armed with nothing but good disposition and a map. Before my trip, I had had time to take two Japanese lessons, just enough to learn how to say with aplomb: “Do you speak English?” and hope for the best. The best did not happen, but in a way, it did.

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I picked a destination at random, the Tenkeiji Temple on Zaimokusho-Dori, and I have to say that based on the map, it looked ultra-simple. Ross had warned me that the map was really old but he had not mentioned that 75% of the streets were not represented nor that the name of the streets would not be written with the Latin alphabet. Roads with no subtitles.

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Five minutes into my walk and I was already completely lost. I spotted what seemed to be a nice gentleman weeding his driveway, and I approached him with a smile and the absolute confidence that, within the next five minutes, a meaningful exchange of information would take place.

With my best Japanese accent (which, by that time, was infused with a bit of a Canadian flavor), I asked: “Do you speak English?” The man looked at me as if I had come from Mars. Maybe he was suffering from a hearing impediment. I repeated my well-rehearsed sentence more slowly and louder, taking great care in mouthing the words exaggeratedly so he could read my lips. No response. A blank stare.

Well, my valiant effort would not be in vain: I pointed at my camera and made eyes like interrogation points (that’s really big eyes with little nods) and he seemed to say okay. He immediately lowered his head so that I could take a really good picture of his hat.

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I continued on my road to nowhere or God knows where. When I saw a real estate agency, I thought for sure they would speak my kind of Japanese. I went in. A man was in polite conversation with, I think, a lady client (I’m sure about the lady part.) Again, with a confidence only slightly dented, I asked: “do you speak Japanese?” They both looked at each other, then back at me. Boy! My two Japanese lessons really sucked. I pointed at the map. They began to speak Japanese to me and I realized I was really in trouble in this country. I made little respectful bows, sumi masen, sumi masen (you can say sumi masen for any occasions, really. One can never go wrong with sumi masen. Hello, good bye, sorry: all sumi masen!) and exited the building.

Five minutes later, a car slowed down next to me, and the driver, the lady client from the real estate agency, made gestures that I should get into her car. I hope that’s what she meant otherwise she must have been really surprised when I hopped in. She drove me to the temple in her mini-car 66-99.

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Kazumi turned out to be very very cool in a non-communicative sort of way and she posed for me in the gardens of Tenkeiji. Having heard numerous tales of Japanese not liking foreigners (gaijin), I was amazed at the kindness of this woman.

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When she was gone, I started exploring. The temple appeared closed (no shoes lined up in front of the door) but the surroundings were beautiful.

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There were some very strange  Mizuko Jizo. It seemed someone had stuffed their mouth with fruit. A bit disturbing and not appetizing at all.

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I then knew why their clothes always looked like bibs. I simply had never witnessed the results of feeding time. A little further, I found mini God statues.

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I think the one on the left is a God and I think the one on the right is the butler, but this is pure conjecture on my part. I’ve probably committed sacrilege and insulted the God of cleanliness and purity.

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Another God-looking statue in the middle of the spring flowers of September, and of course, the tour would not be complete without my favorite: the tombs!

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Except they may not be tombs after all, but prayer stones. If these were tombstones, the people would have to be very small and skinny to fit. So probably, prayer stones… On the other side of the path, a small water way.

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These mini-rivers run all around town. It’s very charming. Numata is the little Venice of Japan. Without the Gondolas.

The problem with being driven somewhere is that you generally do not pay attention to the road. There I was, at Tenkeiji Temple, with the mission to go back to the house, a little blue dot on an archaic map. I just needed to find another good soul to drive me home. I put on my pathetic face and headed out toward a road…

Bathing with Naked Men. Woohoo!

Numata, Japan. planetross certainly knows how to show a girl a good time… One morning, he put me in the van and announced we would go bathe at a very special outdoor hot springs: Takaragawa. Public bathing in Japan appears almost like a lifestyle and a great social equalizer. The anonymity of nudity allows the street sweeper to rub elbows with the business big wig. Ross, I think, is addicted.

onsen-ticket006My ticket!

Most of the Japanese Onsens (hot springs) are gender segregated but this particular one is co-ed. The rotunburo (outdoor onsen) has four different basins located on each side of the river. The basin’s size is expressed in number of tatami mats; the Kodakara-no-yu is the largest outdoor bathing area and measures 200 mats (I even think it is in the Guinness Book of Records.) Japanese translations never fail to crack me up and the English version of the Onsen brochure describes the Kodakara in the following suspicious manner: “It is possible to take a bath at ease even in the female because it is wide.” Ross did not attempt to do so. In retrospect, I feel slightly slighted. 😉

takaragawa-onsen-06-icoNot my photograph! Cameras are forbidden.

The facility, tucked away in the mountain, was breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately, on the path to the ticket counter, a few small cages with miserable looking bears. I averted my gaze. The adjacent hotel advertises Bear Soup. Sometimes, it’s better not to ask questions.

In a typical onsen, you disrobe, go sit on a little stool, and thoroughly wash yourself before entering the basin, but at Takaragawa, they apparently trust that you’ve showered before leaving home. Men and woman have separate changing rooms. Guys receive a modesty towel which is actually a very modest towel and is supposed to hide their bits and pieces as they move around between basins. Woman, on the other hand, are supposed to wrap themselves in a much much bigger towel and keep it on at all times. Towels are generally frowned upon in the water but apparently the rule at Takaragawa is for the women to stay modest (unless they bathe in the special ladies area).

takaragawa-onsen-07-ico1Once again, sorry, not my picture.

I emerged from the changing room and spotted Ross (modesty towel over his head as is the usage) in the water already in great conversation with another gaijin (foreigner.) I put a foot in the water and gasped at how incredibly hot the water was (the brochure states between 109 and 158 degrees!) While feeling on the verge of being poached, I practiced a nonchalant look as I made my way towards Ross. Death before ridicule, that’s my motto! His buddy gaijin, an American professor, had the slanted eyes of people that have resided in Japan for a long time and he was CREEPY. I was glad when Ross suggested we tried another basin on two levels: one, I wanted to get away from the professor, and two, I was about to faint.

We moved to another bath area, and ten minutes later, the creepy professor followed us, and entered the basin with a slip and an unfortunate head dive. A stunning faux-pas although I’m quite sure he did not mean it considering the way he was choking and spitting water. We moved to the basin across the river. Soaking in the slightly sulfurous hot water, perching yourself on a stone before passing out, the sound of the river in the background, most men walking around all naked, all of these factors contributed to make the experience unique and almost surreal. The best part though is the aftermath: the complete relaxation that ensues. Wow!

bonse_005The Buddha at the exit of the Takaragawa Onsen

On the way back, I made Ross stop every five minutes to take in the scenery.

onse_007Rice Field with nice tombs

Tombs in Japan do not always belong to cemeteries. You’ll find them on the side of the road, in the middle of a rice field…

bonse_009Tombs in someone’s yard

onse_018A statue in the middle of exactly nowhere

bonse_019A monkey and her baby on the side of the road

Ross does NOT like monkeys.

onse_021You may live in a small mountain village but that ain’t no reason not to be stylin’

onse_020Avant-guarde vegetable transportation

onse_025A bric-a-brac shop on the side of the road

bonse_030O Surprise! A Japanese Manneken Pis! Of all the things to export from Belgium… Really!

bonse_031Old ad

bonse_026Another old ad with a deja vu feel to it

onse_027A Pachinko machine

Japanese people play Pachinko in parlors. While the game is not considered gambling for historical reasons, the parlor employees are forbidden from telling players where they can exchange their prizes for cash. They’ll have to figure out this one on their own.

tuepm_001Parlor sign in Numata

The devices used to purely mechanical (like the one featured above), but most machines are now digital. The odds of winning on each individual machines are decided by parlor employees and can be changed. These manipulations are tolerated by local police as long as done outside of business hours. As far as Pachinko etiquette, you should do okay as long as you don’t touch someone else’s balls and do not grab a machine where a player has left a pack of cigarette or other personal possession (sign they are holding the machine.)

onsen_001Ross in the mountain daisies

And so we headed back to town, all sulfury smelling, water wrinkled like Sharpeis, and very very mellow. We had a photographic appointment with Kelly Pettit and his family. I’m sold to Onsens. The outside ones anyway. I don’t think I’d like the Sentos (inside public baths) quite as well.

If I may add, not to be difficult, but I’d rather soak with a towel over my head too.

The Wife, her Roomate, and the Husband

Numata, Japan. People sometimes have the weirdest living arrangements… or, sometimes, uncommon marriages too. Since my arrival in Numata, Ross and I had been having conversations about his musician friend Kelly. He had told me Kelly lived with his wife, her roomie, and Shoichi the little one. Now, I do not know about you folks, but a husband, a wife, and her roommate sounds like something suspiciously triangular to me. I felt like prying a bit but the right words eluded me. After all, the guy is a rock star and the wife comes from Brazil which is, as you well know, hot hot hot…

On Sunday night, after the Nikko trip, we would all meet at an izakaya for dinner and I would finally meet the two women in Kelly’s life.

When I am asked how Japanese people live, I do not know what to answer. I can pretty much tell you how a Canadian goes about his life in Numata, but Japanese people remain an enigma. All windows have opaque curtains so you cannot peak into their private space (no lack of trying on my part) and if you go to a restaurant, you end up being separated by a curtain or dine in a separate elevated screened room.

Entering the private room, I was surprised to see only one woman. Kelly introduced us: Nathalie, my wife, her roomie. His wife, her roomie? One person? For the last three days, I had been imagining the oddest menage a trois and it all boiled down to a wife called Harumi? Truthfully I felt a tiny bit disappointed… But Harumi proved to be a very fun dinner companion despite our language barrier.

Throughout dinner, Ross and Harumi sometimes adopted the same expressions (but I think Ross may have been committing emulation here.)

Kelly and Harumi did their very best to converse with signs and expressions so I could follow.

Monsieur Ross sat comfortably in his Prometheus shirt, acting very cool and controlled contrarily to Harumi and I.

He ordered the little shrimps you eat whole and while they may not look like much, they are delicious and not to be missed under any circumstances.

The dinner progressed with Kelly grabbing my camera and Ross making a demonstration of… either a religious ritual or how to chop a particular kind of meat. I could not tell you for sure but he seems definitely quite inspired.

This demented-looking man is the owner of the izakaya, Kei Chan. I took this photograph doing my rounds in the restaurant.

This friendly man showing off his skewers is Kei Chan’s faithful cook.

Kei Chan is also a magician and he came into our cabana to perform some tricks.

Ross appeared very interested, acting as skillful assistant too, but knew a lot of the magic and showed me later. After Kei Chan left, Harumi reclined on the floor and made faces. Harumi is a lightweight. Two sips of beer and happiness flows. I think this is what they called “meeting your match!”

As Kelly explained in one of his posts, musicians can be jocks too.

I surmise this was a case of “putting your money where your mouth is!”

And succumbing to the weight on his shoulders…

By this time of the evening, both men are calm and collected, and basically Harumi and I are, as we say in Belgium, “sur le toit” (on the roof.)

This is Harumi sur le toit.

Sur le toit, that’s generally when I let people take my picture.

And Ross wonders how he ended up with such a monkey woman. I think he may even have called me a baboon. The look on his face speaks for itself. (That was Kelly’s favorite photograph.)

Then we took photographs of all our feet (except for the feet of Sir Ross who was not in the mood for toe display.) Suddenly the reasons behind the need for an enclosed private space made a whole lot more sense to me. We left shortly after. Foot photography is always a tell-tale sign that all good things must come to an end.

Walking back to the house, I took this photograph of a man preparing the newspapers for the next day. He showed a bit of surprise at the sight of me entering his office. Ross, while very supportive of the idea, declined to follow me inside.

This is my Numata apple. I unfortunately dropped it. A gift from Harumi, it did not survive the walk home. Numata apples are famous and I can attest to their deliciousness thanks to the roomie. Apples are produced with great care in Japan with growers plucking the leaves off each apple to ensure balanced sunlight. Some of these practices have been discontinued to respond to the US competition after American apples were introduced on the Japanese market in 1995 at a much lower price. (sigh)

Numata apples are collected from more than 100 orchards and are integral part of the culture. A typical Japanese family outing is to spend time picking apples in a farm.

I did not go pick fruit in Numata.

planetross is very patient but tres demanding!

“What happened to the Nikko dancers?” After asking Ross to be patient in the rain for an hour, then patient in the not so much rain for another hour while I photographed the performers, I should have expected that highly legitimate question coming from him. The simple answer is that the dancers were so cool that I thought they deserved a post of their own.

Let me preface this by saying I have no idea if the different troops were having a contest or simply performing.

The first troop we noticed – how could we not?

A lot of screaming happened along with the dancing

And jumps. A lot of jumps.

And jumping AND screaming at the same time too!

The next troop was much more subdued… and in another age bracket.

Subdued in their movements that is, because some sporadic screaming happened there too.

She was just cool-looking with her little glasses.

Another troop. Very traditional.

My predilection goes to black and white, but sometimes you just can’t escape color.

Please don’t ask me why but there was always a little guy playing with a flag in the background.

Now that I think about it, that afternoon, Ross may have been close to patience sainthood.

Some of the troops had little ones performing too. The cuteness factor ran pretty high.

They even had a mini flag bearer! Mini-Me since 2006!

While the performance took place, little dancers waited anxiously for their turn.

You could just feel how well-behaved these children were until…

Meet the WILD ones in the bunch. OMG! These were fierce little things… with a spooky-looking adult troop leader (not featured here.)

Back to the stage with a mother’s dream of a daughter.

The greenest of them all! Airborne!

And a highly enthusiastic nipple showing flag bearer

O ho! The return of the wild bunch.

Very expressive, but not looking very Japanesy folkloricky if you ask me.

I even thought the costumes were borderline slutty. Me! That should tell you something right there!

But they were interesting,

And kicked ass basically.

Soon it was time to go find the vagivan and head back to Numata to spend an evening with Kelly (buy his last CD) and Harumi, his very cool wife, at an izakaya. Have I told you how much I enjoy dining at izakayas although the memories always seem nebulous and the details sketchy?

Toshogu, wat een chinese stuut!

Religion confuses me greatly. Raised in Belgium, a country where you either are catholic or not religious for the most part, I was a bit puzzled when first exposed to the myriad of different Christian denominations that exist in the US.

Japan with its mixture of Buddhism and Shinto left me confounded as well. The two co-exist in harmony and even complement each other. For example, a large number of weddings are held in Shinto style, but death being considered a source of impurity, most funerals are Buddhist ceremonies. Shinto Gods are called kami but many Buddhists view them as manifestations of Buddha.

Ross took me to Nikko to visit the Toshogu Shinto shrine (which also contains Buddhist elements – of course!) It is dedicated to the kami of Ieyasu who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1603 through 1867. To create a worthy shrine for the Shogun, 15,000 craftsmen worked for two years (just like for the Scottish castle!) and used 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf.

One of the telling signs you are entering a Shinto shrine and not a temple is a torii gate. This is the Ishidorii, one of the three best stone torii gates in Japan. The complex of shrines is surrounded by a magnificent forest of over 13,000 cedar trees.

The original seventeenth century five storied pagoda burned in 1815 and was rebuilt three years later. It has no floors inside, no foundations and contains a suspended pole which swings like a pendulum from the fourth floor to maintain the equilibrium of the pagoda during earthquakes.

Kikazaru, Iwazaru, and Mizaru

The Sacred Stable (Shinkyusha), is traditionally home to an Imperial white horse, a gift of New Zealand. The horse stays at the stable a few hours a day except when it rains or snows. It was raining on the day we visited so I did not get to see it.

I was wondering why so many people were standing around the empty building until I suddenly recognized the famous Three Wise Monkeys carving on the facade. The maxim originated out of a wordplay on “zaru” which means monkey, but is also an archaic negative verb conjugation.

Monkeys have been considered guardian protectors of horses since early times in Japan.

Another famous carving is that of the “Imaginary Elephant” on the Kamijinko, one of the three sacred warehouses. Why imaginary? The Chief Carver, Tanyu Kano had never seen an elephant therefore liberties were definitely taken for the representation.

While most Shinto shrines are characterized by a minimalist architecture that blends in the surroundings, Toshogu appears much more Chinese in its lavish intricate decoration, colors and representations of dragons, birds, flowers, and sages. Some are said to be repelled by its gaudiness but I found it mesmerizing. I would not want it in my living room but such splendor in the forest felt magical.

The mausoleum of Ieyasu in comparison to the pictured constructions is very simple but I took no photographs of it. You have to climb 200 very steep steps to accede his tomb and there were just way too many other things to see without exerting yourself in the process. My mother would kill me, but disown me first. I’m glad she does not read my blog.

The lanterns are very beautiful. There are more than 120, all donated by warlords.

This one has an added human element.

There were a lot of people despite the rain. Some seemed more appropriately dressed than others.

Honestly, I do not know what is happening here. It appears that the hand of a small child is rubbing the shaved cranium of one of the men. I wonder if Ross’ students try to pat his head too.

A classic!

Cool looking painter who could have come straight out of a Tintin book

Japanese tourists

Purification troughs are typically found near the entrance of a Shinto shrine. There is a precise ritual involved in cleansing yourself: you need to fill a ladle with fresh water and clean both hands, then transfer some water from your cupped hand to your mouth, rinse it, and spit the water next to the fountain. You cannot put the ladle to your mouth nor are you ever supposed to swallow the water. A lot of people skip that step all together.

Another very cool lantern.

This is a God.

This is a photograph taken by Ross of someone holding what would appear to be a heavy God.

The God of Thunder

The God of Wind

A Very Blue God

A Dragon guardian

While we visited, a dance festival was taking place in front of the five storied pagoda. At first, I attempted to photograph it holding the camera with one hand and the umbrella with the other, but I gave up because frankly the process lacked the comfort factor. At the end however, the weather improved, and poor Ross who thought we were driving back to Numata was in store for an other hour of Japanese dancing photography. Ross is a very patient man (thank you!)

Back to Nature After Sake Overdose

Numata, Japan. After the debauchery at Gen Roku the night before, it was time to go back to the pasture a bit and enjoy the more natural treasures of the area. On Sunday morning, we set sails early. Oscar Wilde said “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”, so we skipped breakfast all together and bought hot coffees in a can from a street dispenser.

Hot coffee in a can! Awesomeness right there AND Tommy Lee Jones stars in many commercials as a coffee spokesperson AND an alien who looks exactly like Tommy Lee Jones (eventually he goes back to his planet BUT he misses the coffee in a can so much he returns to earth.)

Ross refueled the van. I can confirm that he does in fact have a bumper sticker that spells “Vaginas are way cool” (in case you had any doubts.) We drove towards the mountains on Route 120, the Japanese version of the German’s Romantic Road.

The red dot is where we were and I’m not sure where we were going on the map, but our final destination was Nikko. Ross promised we would stop along the way to check out some famous waterfalls.

Fukiwari no taki or Japan’s Niagara Falls in Tone Village is a shallow but a rather impressive waterfall. It was created from the stream eroding the soft monolith rock and is shaped like a banana.

You can get very close to it but if you step over the white line, Monsieur Ross lets you know in no uncertain terms that it is not safe nor allowed.

There is a pathway which allows you to walk besides the stream and it gave me ample opportunity to abuse my designated model.

Abused here,

and abused here,

Downright violated. Actually he was absorbed in contemplation here.

Going upstream, a very cool bridge

A little store sold fortunes. The tradition is to keep the good ones and tie the not so good ones to a rope to leave them behind. Walking pass all this bad fortune is probably not recommended.

The serene scenery from the bridge

After walking 10,000 miles (30,000 for me) we hopped back in the vagivan and cruised towards the next waterfalls using a very twisty road in the mountain. Each turn is designated by a different kana and we tried to memorize them BUT it is better to attempt the exercise after a full night sleep, no sake, and no beer, as I found out (after a few turns.)

We stopped at what we thought were perhaps Kegon Falls and Ross explained that since I had my camera, he would leave his in the van… then he saw all the Lotus cars and he went back to the parking lot to get his camera. Men!

We finally found the Kegon no taki which flows from Lake Chuzenji and which water plunges down 97 meters! There were bus loads of people and the observatories appeared jam-packed.

It was as fun to photograph the people taking pictures, some with their cell phones.

I do not think this one will make it to the album.

But this one might.

And voila the explanation for all my woes. A pint-size kid posing for his mom. Making the peace sign. I think the peace sign might be the equivalent of our “cheese”, and could be ingrained in the Japanese youth by well-intentioned parents before children learn how to walk.

Fish on a stick! I did not taste these. They were snacks sold at the Kegon falls and I’d rather have my fish raw and without a head or a stick. Besides, we had had plenty of Nikumans along the way.

This was just the beginning of the adventure… Back in the van and en route for Nikko (after desperately trying to find some ladies bathroom with an actual toilet instead of holes – which may be quite economical for the Japanese but absolutely irreconcilable with my deep-seated Jackie O. complex.)