Tag Archives: Gunma

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.

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.

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.)