I Love You sou Shut Up Part 1
Hold the phone, people! I’ve got some exciting news! Kait and I made the most astounding, unexpected discovery.
We’ve found the Japanese Rome.
Let me take you on a journey. It all begins on October 31st, otherwise known as All Hallow’s Eve. For most, this day involves candlelit pumpkins, elaborate and often morbid costumes as well as copious amounts of sugar as though our society sorely needs a critical mass of Type 1 diabetes. There’s probably discussion of ghouls, goblins and the like. I had something far more terrifying.
I had an early six o’clock wake up.
You see, after Kait took me to see Yama-dera, reserved the fabled Loople Bus for Tuesday and planned a jaunt to Matsushima for the next weekend, we’d all but exhausted the delights and wonders of Miyagi-ken: Kait’s home prefecture. Thus, we were headed north to Iwate prefecture. This place may or may not ring any bells for it was the centre of the 9.0 scale earthquake of 2011 that devastated Japan. Needless to say, Iwate was the prefecture hardest hit, damaging nearly all the prefecture’s piers and fishing boats and inflicting more than three hundred yen worth of damage to the area’s primary industry: fishing.
To put any early concerns at ease, however, we were not planning on spending any time near the ocean. This little historical tidbit simply helps explain the numerous “flee tsunamis and rising waters” signs scattered throughout the city’s boundaries.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This trip to Hiraizumi was special for several reasons. For one, this was Kait’s first really planned trip. The sojourn out to Yama-dera was mostly her following a previous itinerary she did with several other ALTs. Secondly, we’d have to navigate the JR rail lines instead of relying on local trains and routes. Third, we were seeing a UNESCO World Heritage Site which are always a prime attraction for my travelling. Finally, we would not be travelling alone; Kait (after much apologizing) had invited the other ALT posted in Izumi-chuo along for the adventure.
So, even though we were at the subway in good time, Kait checked her phone to politely inform me that Pauline was running late. Oh, and we only had ten minutes to get to the station, buy our ticket and find the platform from where the train actually left.
Have I mentioned that none of us really speak Japanese? We most certainly do not read kanji. Furthermore, since we were leaving the prefecture, there weren’t many trains available for us to complete this day trip and we had a tight schedule for catching the last train back to Sendai and about twenty sites that Kait wanted to see in that incredibly narrow window.
So, of course the first thing we did when we got off the subway–which Pauline loudly talked on the entire trip down–was hustle over to Tourist Information and plead with them to help us find which ticket booth we needed to buy our ticket. Pauline and Kait then stared at the massive map and poked at buttons on the screen trying to decipher the kanji coded contraption while I read through a pamphlet of places to see in the area when we inevitably missed our ride and the whole adventure fell through.
The girls managed to procure our passes and we wandered the upper floor until Kait braved speaking to one of the employees who directed us to the gate we needed. We were almost running through the ticket stiles and up the platform steps to our train. Luckily, we made it with minutes to spare. We found our car and seats (as these were reserved tickets) and then marvelled as several old women kept poking their heads in to snap pictures of the train’s interior.
Well, at the very least we knew we were travelling with other tourists!
Apparently it’s a thing to photograph trains in Japan. You know how it is. Some travellers take shots of their shoes. Some have group shots of them jumping in the air. I’ve got Kait taking “selfies” without those sticks to hold up your camera because, damnit, we were doing this before it was cool! And most photograph the internationally famous sites. Well, I guess in Japan they like to record their trains. Maybe it is their way to prove that they were there without needing to put their faces in the frame. I can’t really think of any other explanation for the four or five people that piled out of our train in Hiraizumi to snap hasty pictures of the vehicle before it tried rolling away without people recording its bad side.
Of course, by the time we’d arrived in Hiraizumi, at least an hour had passed so the girls needed to use the bathroom. We slipped through the small station, accosted by smiling old Japanese handing out little plastic bags of goodies. Unfortunately, our Halloween fare wasn’t sugar candy but information pertaining to the various sites and history of the Pure Land of the North.
That may or may not be the official name. It’s probably going to be the one I use because I’m not too concerned about using a misnomer for a city that’s been dead for over five hundred years.
My first impression of Hiraizumi, I must confess, was rather positive. Though the aforementioned station was small, it was clean and had wide polished benches that were clearly a recent instalment. The square outside the station was surprisingly good looking. I’ve seen my fair share of small Japanese towns and you’re lucky if there’s anything more scenic than a great smear of asphalt when you first arrive. Hiraizumi, however, had a small cul-de-sac lined with clean cobblestones before the awnings of traditional Japanese architectural store fronts. A backdrop of pine crested hills rose at the end of an expansive main street shooting straight from the front doors like an arrow right into the heart of wild, untamed wilderness.
So while the clouds overhead were dark and the air crisp, I waited pleasantly outside as the two girls did their business. It was then that a large mass of foreigners passed me, following like dutiful lemmings a woman dressed in a neatly pressed uniform. It took all of seconds to gauge that this flock had landed from China. I thought this was a little odd. How many organized tours could there really be for northern Japan? I know if I had to take a bus tour, it wouldn’t be through Iwate prefecture. But these visitors piled into their massive tour bus and nearly ran over the girls as they emerged to poke around the small bike rental shop for directions and confirmation if we could take vehicles on the route clearly marked “walking path” on our maps.
Surprise! You can’t. However, we were given rough time estimates it would take to walk the main route of attractions in Hiraizumi and we’d certainly enough time to see them all and still be back for our four twenty departure. Yes, we had about five hours to take in an entire town’s worth of sites. What could possibly go wrong?
Kait and Pauline looked over the map and Kait designated the route we should take. Naturally, we all headed down the wrong street.
We didn’t know this at first, of course. We did start to get suspicious as we scampered over rail crossings into a rundown portion of town with shuttered stores, droopy workshops and the general air of decrepit misfortune. It’s starting to sound like Europe’s jolly boot already!
We doubled back and crossed a few streets to arrive at the first stop on our route (which coincidentally is the last stop on the shuttle bus). We stood before an empty field, looking over our map to ensure we were in the right place then looking around the field and wondering if maybe the site was behind the small copse of trees or not. Fortunately, we found a sign and shuffled up like ignorant little tourists to get further directions.
Turns out the muddy field was our destination. We looked at it again. We looked back at the sign. Sure enough, the World Heritage plaque was set proudly on the top. And the sign sported a lovely summer shot of our currently brown and dreary field. Course, since it is a UNESCO site, the information sign had an English section to explain why we should care about a handful of scraggly trees and drying puddle.
Apparently, we were proudly surveying the “remains” of the Buddha Hall in a historically famous temple grounds. The aforementioned hall was renown for the beauty of its surrounding park which contained a sacred garden pond (our mud puddle), a man-made island modelled after the Phoenix Hall in Kyoto (our bumpy hill) and raised earthworks that aligned with the sun and local mountain (our scraggly tree clump).
If you squint hard enough, you may even convince yourself that it’s not a glorified rice paddy!
Alright, at least Rome had some wonderful walls and foundation ruins to look at. I suppose that’s the perk of ancient construction favouring stone in Europe over the predominant wood structures of this Buddhist paradise. We took several more pictures now that we knew this brown patch of grass is important or something. We walked along the raised earthen walkway. We marvelled at how unmarvellous the trees were.
Then we turned around and immediately trudged up the street into wonderful constructions. Kait was dead set on seeing some monument at the top of a really long hill. Pauline got discouraged by the three dollar entrance fee so she opted to stay on the old bench across from the ticket booth manned by an old monk.
I kind of expected a bit more of the monument, especially after noticing the parking lot for tourist buses. There was a museum in the same sense that the top of Mt. Fuji has a shopping centre. A structure that would normally be used for an outhouse had some distressing statues and a few placards and the ubiquitous vending machines and nothing else. The monument was a mini shrine with a small board for writing wishes. I don’t even know what it was commemorating. Apparently some dead dude called Minamoto no Yoshitsune I think. Or something about family suicides. At least the view of the river valley was quaint. And there was another stone slab with Basho’s poetry written on it!
I think Kait mostly wanted a break from Pauline.
The first time I came to Japan, I reflected that the ALT position attracted certain types of people. Pauline seems like one of those individuals who falls into the “loves Japan perhaps a bit too much” camp. This can be tolerable even if said individual takes every opportunity to share every bit of information about Japan they’ve learned. It’s a little harder to swallow, however, when you can tell the person is just making shit up.
I feel the biggest issue with Pauline is that she’s just young. Hm, that’s perhaps a strong way to word things. Let’s rephrase. Pauline has a very obvious desire to impress others. This leads to her overemphasising her capabilities or her perceived capabilities. For example, Pauline is very quick to tell people that she’s studied Japanese in school and is very good at speaking it. She’ll then turn around and make declarations like “Anata-wa” means “I love you.”
For those not knowledgeable about Japanese, “anata-wa” literally means “you.” Like, that’s what you’d say (if you wanted to be polite) if you were going to make clear your statement was directed at the person to which you are talking. That’s it. This little detail would take all of five seconds to pick up and is a pretty basic grammar point that’s probably taught within the first few beginner Japanese classes.
Now, I have lived in Japan and can probably guess what Pauline meant to say. The Japanese language has a tendency to drop the subject of sentences if it’s clear so you don’t normally say “I will X,” “You should Y,” “We will Z.” You basically just say whatever it is the person is going to do. Direct translations would be in the realm of “Will study tonight.” So, it is being overly formal to use “You” in Japanese and, amongst people that are familiar with each other, it can have certain amiable connotations.
That said, Kait hears “anata-wa” in school all the time and we’re both pretty certain that her Japanese English Teacher isn’t professing his undying affection to her. I suppose it’s not impossible that he’s really hopeful Kait has a preference for older men, though.
So, while we explored the rather limited sidewalks of Hiraizumi, we were regaled with wonderful little “Pauline Pearls.” These ranged from bizarre history to descrptions of her friends in Calgary. Which, once again, wouldn’t be such a terrible offence if it wasn’t phrased in such a way to extol just how much better Pauline is than us rather maudlin peasant. Like, she will go to great lengths to describe her friend who is an Olympic speed walker while completely missing an innocent joke about how it doesn’t matter how big her thighs are since she can’t lift her feet to run after you. (“No, her legs are pretty big so she can run fast too!”).
At any rate, Kait unrolled her map and we trudged to the next marker. We had to scamper around even more construction, dodging cars as we ran from one side of the road to the other like tourist frogger. I’m not entirely sure what this stop was for, as the sign was in kanji and well beyond all our capabilities. There was a very red tree to which the girls were quick to photograph. Pauline had plotted our path while we visited the hilltop and she marched us across the railroad tracks to the thickest knot of restaurants.
But despite her clear intentions, Kait wasn’t having any of this lunch nonsense. “We’ll do it after we’ve seen the temples!” she declared, taking the lead again and force marching us around Hiraizumi’s hilly streets. We ended up looping around the back of the Golden Cockerel Mountain. I was excited for this one because it had a UNESCO designation.
Well, it turns out that Golden Cockerel Mountain is neither golden nor a mountain. It isn’t even a shrine, despite the svastika symbol. It’s mostly a dirt trail that climbs up a short but steep incline into a forested hilltop. It starts off promising with a bright vermilion torii gate (across the street from some weird blue honeycomb trailer park that doesn’t even have trailers) and a paved leaf littered trail that snakes around a small shrine for two moss covered statuettes. But it quickly leads to empty meadows and disappointment. The view from the top is too tree-lined to give you a scenic vantage point and the only thing of note we could find was a small stone “house” even less remarkable than the entrance statues.
As it turns out, the mountain is most famous as being the alleged location of a buried golden cockerel and hen pair that was meant to protect ancient Hiraizumi from tragedy. Given the state of the modern town, I hazard there were probably better ways to spend that money. At the very least they could have locked the treasures behind some glass and charged ancient entrance fees from old timey tourists. As it stands, it’s going to be a hard sell to charge tickets to this venue.
So far it’s been Japan Rome: 3 and Us: 0.