Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Refresh Memory pt. I

The public school system here in the Land of the Rising Sun has a policy whereby educators are granted extra leave time once every five years and urged to take a trip somewhere. This is known as a "refresh holiday". My wife was up for one during the last school year, which officially ended yesterday. It was only two days, but considering the way our family works it might as well have been two weeks. A combination of the calendar and simple bad luck made a pair of consecutive days off for all of us virtually impossible. That's why, when Spring "Vacation" finally loomed on the horizon, we decided it was then or never. We argued about it, made some arrangements, stepped on a few unavoidable toes as lightly as possible, and booked our reservations. The plan was to go to an onsen (hot spring) resort near the city of Sendai in the Tohoku (Northeast) region, an area my wife and I had never seen. All the end-of-the-schoolyear busywork (including my music club's Big Regular Concert) finally came to an end, Departure Day was finally at hand, and we eagerly got our stuff ready to go.

Naturally, on the evening before Departure Day, it was announced on the news that the weather demons had apparently played dice again; the winds had suddenly changed direction, and the entire Tohoku region was under an unseasonal blizzard warning. That left us with four options:
  1. Scrub the whole thing. (No way!)
  2. Go there by bullet train. (It would cost more than $100 per person one way with a party of five. Not a very attractive option.)
  3. Go there by highway bus or regular train. (It would take pretty much an entire day to get there. Then it would take another full day to get back. That would make the trip pretty much pointless.)
  4. Stick with my original plan and drive there.
We double-checked the weather forecast early in the morning on Departure Day. It said that the worst of the snow had already fallen, at least in Sendai. By nine it was expected to turn to rain. By noon it was expected to start clearing up. The problem was the route in between; the snow was expected to continue through most of the day in the higher elevations. Some parts of the expressway in Fukushima Prefecture could possibly have accumulation. Undeterred, I insisted on going with option four and tossed my tire chains in just in case. We loaded up my BLUE RAV4 and hit the road.

There was rain mixed with snow falling when we left, but by far the worst problem surfaced immediately: frayed nerves. Less than five minutes down the road my kids set to squabbling (as usual) and remained in pouty snits from then on. Meanwhile, my father-in-law (Yes, we brought him along too) was trying to be as annoying as possible by complaining about everything, issuing commands as if he were our tour conductor, and trying to give me directions on roads I'd driven on hundreds of times. After ten minutes of all that, I said I was fully prepared to turn around and go back, which put my wife in a pouty snit. Fortunately, my father-in-law finally shut up after my second polite request for him to put a cork in it, though he kept trying to feed my son his ample snack food (irritating my son and putting my daughter's nose further out of joint). My wife and I both cheered up after a bit of breakfast on the road. The kids refused to be brought out of their sour moods, but we just left them to it.

A new section of expressway completed last year (which isn't listed in my car navi-system, so for a while we were flying over fields and rivers while the poor machine binged at me in confusion) shaved a full half hour from our travel time, and soon we were on the fabled Tohoku Expressway, Northeastern Japan's main north-south conduit, heading north. The mixed rain and snow soon stopped, but not long after we crossed the border into Tochigi Prefecture we started encountering feeble snow flurries off and on. By the time we got into Fukushima Prefecture, climbing almost all the way, we had bona fide snowfall. It was too warm to accumulate, however. Ironically, when we got to the highest elevation along the way, there were signs everywhere warning about snow and recommending snow tires or tire chains not to mention a reduced speed limit, but there wasn't a lick of snow on the ground. In fact, by then there wasn't any snowfall, either. It was smooth driving all the way to the hotel.

Iwanumaya m1 Iwanumaya m3

We were booked into the Iwanumaya Spa Hotel in the famous hot spring resort area of Akiu (秋保), which is technically within Sendai city limits but a bit of a distance from downtown. It is a beautiful area, set along a river nestled among volcanic peaks with ample forest all around. It's secluded and yet equipped with enough conveniences for it not to be too remote. We were there on a weekday in the off season, so there was hardly anyone there. We were greeted and treated like royalty. Check-in took a while because of the extent of the welcome (and also because it took FIL a while to finish gabbing with the manager).

Iwanumaya m4
The view from our tenth-floor room was spectacular.

We had some time before dinner, so we decided to drive up and have a look at Akiu (Great) Falls, considered one of the three most prominent waterfalls in Japan. Japan's waterfalls in general aren't noted for their height - certainly nothing like those of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon - but they can be both highly scenic and highly dramatic. Akiu Falls is certainly no exception; it's about the height of Horsetail Falls in the Gorge but is nestled down in a basin surrounded by picturesque scenery. It's also higher up in the mountains than the hot spring resort. Access can be a pain, as the local bus only comes three times a day, but I was able to make the climb just fine in my BLUE RAV4. As it turned out, however, it was above the snow line. Not only was there still a bit of snow on the ground, but it started snowing just as I parked the car.

Akiu Falls m1
Here's my FIL in front of the little worship hall that stands at the entrance to the falls. The worship hall was a bit enigmatic; it had elements of both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple, so perhaps it was both.

We hiked over to the viewing platform overlooking the falls, but by then it was snowing HARD.

Akiu Falls 2
Here's a picture I took of the falls. Compare it with the one on the site I linked.

Akiu Falls m3
Either that or compare it with this shot my daughter took with her cell phone camera.

Akiu Falls 3
My kids and FIL are pictured here on the viewing platform. You can just make out the edges of the falls behind my daughter.

Within minutes of our arrival, the snow became more intense and started to accumulate, so we hustled back to the car and went back down the mountain to the Akiu resort area...where we found blue sky. It was still an hour before dinner, so FIL and the kids decided to get in the spa baths immediately. Meanwhile, my wife and I walked over to a nearby convenience store to take care of some things and then came back and did some gift shopping. After that it was our turn to get in the baths. (Check out the bath description at the Iwanumaya Hotel site here. At night the men use the larger "Kanname-no-yu" bath and the women the smaller "Yu-no-mai-no-yu" facility. In the morning they switch.)

I went into the Kanname-no-yu bath facility to find just one group of four or five youngish guys sitting in the wussy cooler end of the main bath. As I came in, one of them glanced up at me and then turned to the others and said, "Kita..." (literally "(He) came." His tone of voice suggested a meaning of, "Look who showed up...") Ignoring them, I proceeded straight to the showers, washed up, and then got into the middle of the long, narrow, natural-looking bath. Next I gradually made my way over to the hot section where the hot spring water pours in directly. Hot spring baths always make me feel strangely energetic, as if I've overdosed on coffee or vitamin drinks, and this one was no exception. I stayed there as long as I comfortably could. Then I got out and walked the (freezing) distance to the rotenburo (outdoor bath), which I had all to myself. I also stayed there as long as I was able to stand it, soaking in the hot, mineral-laden spring water surrounded by garden with a brisk breeze making the steam dance. Then I got out, showered off again, got dressed, and went back to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was FANTASTIC. (My FIL complained at length that the rice was "not good at all," going on and on about how that of Miyagi Prefecture simply didn't compare to the "much better" types grown in our Ibaraki Prefecture and his own native Iwate Prefecture. Then, when the waitress came back, he asked her for a second helping of rice, commenting on how delicious it was.)

We were all pretty worn out after dinner, so we just climbed in our futons and went to sleep. Or tried to, anyway, as was the case with me. My FIL got up and went to the bathroom three times during the night, waking me up every time by banging shut the door (which happened to be right by me). Then, at 3:00 a.m., he started rattling papers as he set to work writing something. Finally, at 6:00 a.m., he started calling loudly from the doorway for my son to go with him to the baths again. (Someday I swear I'm going to throttle that man...)

Then came Day Two, which was even more eventful...and will be covered on another post.

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  • Ah, the pitter patter of little falling snow flakes. I'll bet you wish you had four wheel drive now!

    It was good of you to take your FIL, even if he is a pain. I can remember many family vacations where tempers flared, mostly because cramming a bunch of people in a small space is never comfortable for long distances. Looking forward to part 2.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 1:18 AM  

  • Ah, c'mon Uncle Kevin. Tell us more. Do we have to go to bed now? ;)

    I'm glad you got some family vaca.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:52 AM  

  • Dave
    Do I wish I had 4wd now? Not really. There was never any accumulation on the pavement, so traction was never an issue, and I was happy to do without the reduced gas mileage, thank you.

    Oh, I quite understand the correctness in bringing FIL along. The last time we had a full family outing was when we went to Yokohama a couple of years ago. I was upset when I found out my wife had invited both of her parents to come along, and they were more than a bit of a pain at times, but my MIL was happier than she'd been in months. Her health took a sharp turn for the worse soon afterward, and she died five months later. It was definitely a good thing that I caved and allowed them to come. I'm keeping that well in mind.

    Well, now that I've finished the tune I was working on plus the latest Blogventure post, maybe I'll have some time to write part two...soon. I'm hoping to get some of the many pics my daughter took with her cell phone since my camera wasn't always available.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 2:23 AM  

  • Excellent scenery. My K has wanted to go up there for some time - guess I'll have to plan on it sometime.

    You live in Namegata-shi and have chains? I'm impressed. Or maybe you're just over prepared? (Just kidding!)

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:15 PM  

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