Japan – Day 2

Waking up refreshed after a solid eight hours of sleep. As Paul predicted, we were quickly reminded we weren’t in Kansas any more when we walked out onto the balcony into a balmy summer morn, with Shirakawa Castle on a hill about 400m off in the distance over a shallow, quickly flowing creek/river. Everything here is remarkably green, something that I will no doubt comment on frequently and will be obvious from the photos.

In an attempt to try and recover some of the masses of energy burned off in the stress of the previous day, we decided that we’d more or less take it easy and just do a bit of general driving around and going to shops. The first thing we did though was take a drive to Nanki Park, a nice little green swath of greenery, surrounded by more green. It lives next to a big man-made lake – you can hire boats and row around it.

Next to the park is the first shrine, no doubt of many, that we saw. The photos illustrate this better than I could describe it, but suffice to say it was pretty neat. Sadly, my knowledge about Japan’s local religions at the time was currently limited to knowing the names (Buddhism and Shinto) and I probably failed to appreciate it appropriately; something which I recognised and have since done my best to correct (by reading my comprehensive Eyewitness Travel Guide to Japan – dripping with knowledge about local cultures like a beef and gravy roll.

From there, we did some more driving around. One particular thing that kept catching our eye amidst the patches of green (it should be pointed out at this point that Shirakawa is very much a ‘country town’ – nothing like the busy metropolis of other massive cities like Tokyo or Brisbane) were other, lighter patches of green, that looked extremely well-tended. Paul was quick to point out that these were rice paddies, and once we discovered this we began to notice them everywhere, literally stuffed into every nook and cranny – wherever there is somewhere rice is able to grow, it seems they’ve chucked a rice paddy into it. I guess they like rice here, or something.

After this, we ducked into a local department store (a la Coles) to pick up some food. For those that know me even remotely, you’ll know that I don’t eat seafood – the very smell of it cooking at my parents place is usually enough to send me fleeing to the far reaches of the house. So, you were probably wondering, like I was, how I’d go in Japan, a place which has somewhat of an affinity for seafood.

Needless to say, I lasted approximately 12 hours before I ate something with seafood in it. Paul convined me to try a rice ball thing – basically a seafood-wrapped sushi-type thing with tuna in it. This was my first time ever (to my knowledge) that I’d eaten tuna. I didn’t die; nor was it as terrible as I feared, but for those thinking that I might develop into a gourmet whilst over here (hi mum), I fear I shall disappoint. Fortunately for me, Paul isn’t a big seafood person either, and I’ve learned the Japanese word for chicken, so I think I can fake my way through a lot of the rest of the trip.

Paul took us to another shrine, this one in a remarkable forest with some simply massive and amazing trees, some of which I attempted to photo, but the low light conditions failed to capture the magnificence of them (the green-ness should be noted).

Driving further around, we noticed a small observatory with a couple of people loitering around, up a small path on the side of the road. Assuming they were tourists, we made our way up the precarious, unpaved road up to the observatory, with me assuming that we were soon to slip over the edge of the road and fall to our doom. Fortunately, Paul’s car has four wheel drive and it proved as sure-footed as a grizzled mountain goat, and we soon made our way to the top.

As we got out of the car, the people up on the observatory started saying something to us. Aaron grinned charmingly (completely oblivious to whatever message they were trying to impart upon us) and said “what’s up?”, repeating it a few times after they had no idea what he was saying. Eventually they realised we were clueless, idiotic tourists that couldn’t recognise something that wasn’t open to the public and retuned themselves to Radio Gaijin.

Fortunately, one of the girls (there was a group of teenagers and a couple of adults who were laughing at us through most of this exchange) turned out to be an English teacher, so she translated for the group as we communicated. As it turns out, they were helping one of the older guys who had built this little observatory finish it off – painting the inside and that sort of stuff. They were kind enough to invite us in and let us check it out, which was a neato experience – but not before the elderly lady that was there gave us tomatos to eat. I assumed this was some ancient Japanese custom, but according to Paul and a few other Japanese people, it was just as weird as if someone did it to you in Australia.

We hung around for a while chatting (it had started raining) and admiring the workmanship (by far the finest hand-made observatory I’d ever been in), and then eventually made our excuses, said our farewells, and left. So far, Japanese people were taking quite the shining to us – Paul informed us that our status of ‘Australian’ basically made us GODS, so we’re going to see how far we can milk this particular cow before we get refused or thrown in jail or whatever.

That night, Paul and his girlfriend Yoko took us out for dinner at a Japanese restaurant that served something called Okonomiyaki. We were accompanied by one of Paul’s Japanese friends, another English teacher that works at one of the schools Paul is at, a great guy called Yuskay. Google defines Okonomiyaki as a “a mixture between pancake and pizza” – basically, you sit (on the floor) at a small table, embedded in which is a hotplate. You order, and the ingredients are brought to you in a cup. You stir the cup, mixing everything together until you end up with a pancake-esque mix containing a bunch of interesting stuff, chuck it on the hot plate, let it cook, and then eat it. Very awesome. It was so tasty, in fact, that I tried some more seafood – there was a ‘spicy tuna’ one that we had. The level of spice was such that smoke literally came out of my ears, just as you would imagine in a cartoon (or anime, in the lingo of Japan!), and I couldn’t taste it at all so it neither added to, nor subtracted from, my affinity for seafood.

That night we also got to try our first Japanese beer. For some reason they seem to serve it with a lot of head, perhaps keeping with the whole presentation thing (Japanese are big on presentation, something which is evident everywhere you go – amazingly-kept gardens, for example, are present everywhere). We tried a brand of beer called Kirin, which I have to say was faaaaaaaaaaantastic. Very smooth, great taste, combined with 5% alcohol content makes for a pretty darn good beer.

After that, we came back to Paul’s place and I introduced Yuskay to Bundaberg Black; Paul and I also sampled some in moderation as well (ie, there was still some in the bottle the following day). The rest of the night was a nice relaxing drinking session.

Stay tuned for Day 3, featuring Mister Donut, Karaoke, All You Can Eat Dinner and Drinks (definitely not in that order).

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