Travels and Trevails of August, pt. II
That didn't give us a whole lot of options. It was the weekend of the Bon Festival, which meant pretty much the entire nation of Japan would be traveling. The travel agent we posed the question to the next day turned a very fetching shade of pale (that actually kind of went with her uniform), but after we'd managed to narrow the search parameters down to one area, she dutifully scanned about and announced that there were three resort hotels with rooms available. She showed us a customer feedback sheet showing how people had rated those hotels, and it turned out that our choices were:
- One with excellent facilities, outstanding service and even better food, a best possible overall rating, and a price that would gouge a great white shark's portion out of our budget,
- One with good facilities and food but lackluster-to-poor service, a decent overall rating, and a reasonable price,
- One with reasonable facilities and outstanding service but mediocre food, a decent overall rating, and a price that was lowest of the three.
We weren't sure whether my father-in-law wanted to come or not, but we went ahead and included him in the reservation. As it turned out, he wouldn't come, citing his obligation to attend a number of different funeral-related services happening at the time. We couldn't get a refund for his share, and we'd even been warned there could even be a cancellation penalty (though we thankfully never heard any more about that), but the overall cost was still relatively reasonable.
Saturday morning our 4-person nuclear
IKAHO HOT SPRINGS RESORT in Gunma Prefecture.
I'd never really traveled in Gunma before, except just to pass through it on the way to other places. It's a beautiful, mountainous area with lots of jagged, volcanic peaks and forest sprawls that look like something right out of a dream. (In fact, I used a pic from one location in Gunma as the basis for the cover of my View from the Tower CD because I've always thought that area looks like how I picture the Gor'dan Valley on Gotheia.)
Driving on the expressway wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. We'd actually missed the travel peak by a day, so we didn't run into any serious traffic jams. However, what traffic there was tended to move really slowly - about 20 kph under the regular speed limit - and it wasn't hard to see why. There were police everywhere. Not only were there patrol cars and motorcycle cops appearing practically every few minutes, but I kept seeing officers posted at toll gates, rest area entrances, and sometimes just on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, always just standing there with a radio and a stop flag. (The radio said a lot of people got busted for speeding. I can believe it.) I dodged the traffic clots as best I could while keeping a very close eye on my speed, and soon we were dropping out of warp and entering city traffic.
Driving through the city of Shibukawa (known as the "belly button of Japan" because of its geographical location) was not fun. The streets were narrow, crowded, laid out crazily, and overburdened with signals. Walking probably would have been faster. Again, there were traffic cops all over the place, particularly at the main intersections, so I had to be very careful about how well I observed traffic regulations. Eventually we pried ourselves out of the automotive ooze and found ourselves on a nice, quiet road heading upward. Our destination was at hand.
There is a lot to see and do in the Ikaho area, and we didn't get to half of it. After having a bite of lunch at an Italian buffet, we had some fun at a
Mirror, mirror, on the wall...(aka my better half)
Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...
Look, my deer...
I NEED FRESH FRUUUUUIIIIT!!!!!!!!!
Oh, you're just lion to me!
It included, among other things, a full-sized replica of the Sistine Chapel that apparently doubled as the set of a monkey show (which we didn't get to see...though I have to wonder whether there is some kind of underlying meaning implied there).
Seriously. You can watch monkeys perform here.
After that we went to a museum for Takehisa Yumeji, a famous Japanese artist and poet perhaps best known for his postcards depicting Japanese women and his textbook and children's book illustrations in the early 20th century. He was definitely a talented and interesting individual; lacking any formal training, he went on to challenge the artistic conventions of his day, combining French and Japanese styles with his own ideas in defiance of critics and fraternal snobbery and produced a wide variety of works in all kinds of media. The museum gift shop offered courses in producing certain kinds of art and craft works, and the kids wanted to try one of them, but time constraints kept us on the go.
Just a couple of tourists at a museum. Yeah.
The museum ticket included another building on the grounds that was a museum of music boxes and player pianos. That was fun. We got there just in time for a demonstration performance, and it was a blast to see what pretty much amounted to the jukeboxes of another time (I mean, coin-operated, menu-select music boxes and a keyboardless player piano!) still making music a century later.
When we were in the gift shop for the music box museum, I felt something land on my arm with a bit of impact and a slight pricking sensation. For the merest fraction of a second before I swatted it off, I saw what I thought was a spider and figured it must have fallen off the ceiling rafters. Immediately the store staff came running, apologizing profusely while one woman got a broom and dustpan and made sure the culprit was dead before scooping it up and showing it to me. It was a Japanese giant hornet, known locally as the suzume-bachi, or "sparrow bee". (I've also heard "hornet from hell", and I think that's an appropriate description!) Suzume-bachi aren't really aggressive by nature, and they don't usually sting unless threatened, so judging from what happened as well as the staff's behavior, I have a feeling they probably either swatted or sprayed the winged demon, and I just happened to be in the way of its dying wrath.
Yes, that's how big these hornets from hell can be.
At any rate, though I had a nice, little, red puncture wound from the stinger, there was virtually no pain and absolutely none of the reactions they warn about (necrotized flesh, exaggerated pain like a hot nail being driven into your bone, anaphylactic shock, etc.), so I figure it never had a chance to inject any venom. I went ahead and bought a CD and a music box at the shop. The staff seemed pretty shaken up, so it was the least I could do. (Maybe they thought that, American as I am, I was probably going to sue them.)
After that, we tried to go to the Ikaho Green Bokujo (Ranch), a ranch-cum-amusement park, for the kids, but the ticket window was already closed. We wound up spending the remainder of the afternoon hitting various gift shops before checking in at our hotel.
The hotel itself was rather old and basic, a good example of classic Japanese simplicity, but it had everything it needed. True to the survey's word, the staff there were fantastic, and they kept us smiling. It was located in the main onsen (hot spring) resort area. Like most such places, there were a lot of hotels, pubs, restaurants, and gift shops packed in tight on narrow roads set into the mountain slope. It would've been nice to explore a bit more, especially since Ikaho is famous for the big, old, stone stairway that serves as its main avenue, but we wound up not. Instead, we had a nice, long soak in the natural hot spring baths (in water that is famously rust red because of the high iron content) followed by dinner which, though admittedly not particularly special, was definitely NOT lacking in quantity! We all stuffed ourselves silly, which made us all sleepy. We wound up turning in early and getting a good night's sleep for a change.
The next morning we hit the baths again (Aaaaahhhhhh....), had breakfast, and checked out. Then I sent the BLUE RAV4 further up the increasingly steep slope of Mt. Haruna so that we could see...(wait for it)...
Mt. Haruna is a giant volcano that blew itself up a long time ago. Now it's a caldera containing a lake and several smaller peaks. We headed for a cluster of shops on one side of the lake, parked in a free public lot (naturally a bit of a walk away), and poked around a bit. We didn't bother getting on the giant swan tour boat, one of the lakes main photo-attractions, but we did give in to the kids pleas and rent a couple of swan-shaped paddle boats. (My wife and I, in one boat, engaged the kids' boat in a dogfight, but they seemed intent on ramming us.) Hot and sweaty after our bit of marine exercise, we popped into a second-floor cafe for something to drink.
One of the lake's most photographed attractions, and I don't know why!
There were a lot of these going around the lake, too.
After that, we headed to the opposite side of the lake, at the foot of "Mt. Fuji of Haruna" (a peak so named because it's a symmetrical cone like Mt. Fuji), where we found not only a ropeway station, but also a go-kart track, riding horses, and a game center. The kids took off to the go-kart track while my wife and I rode the ropeway to the top of the peak. It was lovely up there, though it would have been better without the haze...or the trash-mouthed bikers who wound up sharing our gondola on the way up.
At the summit of "Mt. Fuji of Haruna". This is the top of the ropeway.
Looking toward the city.
The Mrs. pays her respects at the shrine atop the mountain.
I wanted to stay longer, but the wife started fussing over things to do back home, so we headed back down the slope. The kids wanted to try going to the Green Ranch again, but mama said a flat no. Instead, we had lunch at an udon (thick flour noodle) restaurant in a local produce gift shop, loaded up with obligatory souvenirs, and headed out to the highway. (Cue Judas Priest soundtrack)
The highway was more crowded than the day before. Not only that, for some reason they had 50 kph temporary speed limits posted at intervals for some unknown reason. Naturally, there were police everywhere...maybe even more than there'd been the day before. It was a relief when we finally got to Ibaraki, but...
The Mrs. apparently had a change of heart, and instead of home we headed for Tsukuba City. There was a newly-opened shopping mall there that my daughter's friends had been clucking about, and she wanted to check it out. That was all well and good, but getting there turned out to be a problem for several reasons. The crowds and heavy police presence came to an abrupt end as soon as we got on the Joban Expressway in Ibaraki. Most traffic was still going agonizingly slow, however, so dodging through it all was a bit of a chore...made even worse by the arrogant sons-of-bitches who were doing the same thing I was, but at MUCH higher speeds. At one point I came up behind a car plodding along at 80 kph (in a 100 kph zone), checked my mirrors, hit my signal, and punched it to get into the passing lane. Next thing I knew, a car that had to be doing more than 160 kph (100 mph) appeared right in my blind spot (apparently while trying to be a stud and whip around me from the opposite side), veering onto the shoulder to avoid me and landing on his horn. I instantly returned to the center lane, braking to avoid ramming the slow poke. The speed demon than slowed down, pulled in behind me, and opened fire with his horn and headlights. Then he returned to the passing lane and took off again at high speed. (It was a middle-aged man in a Toyota Windom, most likely an arrogant businessman type, i.e. he owns the f*****g road.) Several other cars of similar class came weaving crazily through traffic really fast, so I decided just to bear with the slow traffic till we got off in Tsuchiura...after which we ran into problem number two. My daughter didn't really know where the mall was, information on the internet was scant, and it turned out to be located in an area not yet listed in Navi-chan. We finally had to settle on virtual guesswork, with a lot of wrong turns, till we finally found the place.
My daughter was happy, at least.
After that we headed for home. Summer vacation had come and gone, and it would be back to various grinds soon.