Lauren In Tokyo

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Driving trip to Fukui

A couple weeks ago I drove out with my wife to Fukui prefecture to visit some family that I haven't seen for a while. We left our apartment around 8:30pm and spent an hour and a half in traffic trying to get through Tokyo. The Shutoko is the Tokyo intra-city highway system that links several major highways into Tokyo. Travelling from Highway 7 from Chiba through the Outer C1 to the Shinjuku Line and finally to the entrance of the Chuo Line takes about an hour and a half on a good day. The total distance is no more than 30 or so kilometers, though.

Once out of the Shutoko and onto the Chuo highway, we sped along at a good pace and finally arrived in Matusmoto around 1:00 in the morning. It took us about half an hour of driving around the area to find the hotel as it was hidden away pretty well. The front desk at our hotel was open 24 hours so checking in was a piece of cake.

After breakfast we headed out down Highway 19. Highway 19 is famous for being one of the main highways used by the travelling bakufu on their way to Tokyo. In the olden days, Japan was ruled by warlords who themselves were ruled by the shogun living in Edo (Tokyo). In order to keep the local warlords weak, the shogun demanded a yearly visit of each warlord to Tokyo. This meant a large group including the warlord and his entourage needed to find their way down to Tokyo and of course this meant a lot of business for inns and restaurants along the way. Naturally, this would also serve the shogun's purpose by depleting the warlords' treasuries. Highway 19, being one of the primary arteries for the travelling samurai is full of scenic areas and quaint towns that popped up in response to the demand for accomodations. Largely unchanged, several of these "post towns" can still be visited and, though many have become tourist traps, some still retain their authenticity.

We had planned on going through the mountains via a local road route, we hadn't really taken a good look at the map beforehand and realized upon reaching the Chuo highway that we were about 4 hours away from the mountain route. Taking that as a hint, we just hopped on the highway and drove straight to Fukui.

The Chuo line splits around Maibara and we took the north-bound route along the Hokuriku line. Around 6:00 in the evening we arrived at Takefu, our final destination.

Takefu is my mother's hometown. A small rural town that has grown quite a bit since the last time I was there 10 or 15 years ago, Takefu is slowly becoming a city of its own. Small mountains spring up on the Western side, providing a barrier from the cold weather of the Japan Sea. On the Eastern side, the Japan Alps rise high into the sky holding much of the moisture blown in from the Asian continent. The result is an area much like Seattle during the summer and a snow-covered wilderness in the winter. The primary occupation of the neighbors is farming and each family owns or rents some plot of land to grow their own rice.

My uncle, his hair graying quite a bit, is still as lively as ever. My aunt has hardly changed at all since I visited 15 years ago. The first night, we ate sukiyaki made with vegetables grown by the neighbors. The vegetables were delivered because the neighbors had heard that I was coming back and were excited to see me again. Unfortunately I was not able to meet many of them due to the shortness of the trip. Fresh vegetables like those are simply not available in Tokyo. The squash was juicy, the eggplant was sweet, and the cucumbers were overflowing with water. An hour later and a liter of beer heavier, we were all very merry.

The next morning, we all headed up to my grandfather's gravesite to pay respects. The family gravesite is a ten minute hike up a nearby mountain. A grove clears on the left side of the path and a set of logs are set into the ground to act as a set of stairs leading up to the gravestones. We set our buckets and flowers down and cleaned the stones a bit. I went with my uncle down to the river a short jog away to refill the vases with water and brought the fresh water back up to my wife and aunt who were busy cutting the flowers. We put the flowers in the vases, lit candles for each of the three family gravestones, and paid our respects. Afterwards, we collected our things and headed back home.

We talked about what we wanted to do while we were visiting, and we decided that since the day was half over, it made sense to pick only a couple things and enjoy those rather than do a whole bunch of things and not really have the time to enjoy them. We decided that we'd go to Eiheiji temple first and then go see the Tojimbo rock formations along the Fukui coastline.

I was scolded at the temple for trying to take a picture of a monk. Apparently being in pictures may result in an increase in their vanity, so they aren't to be photographed. I swear I didn't do it, the guy just walked into my frame. Then I was told not to take pictures of the ceiling which was composed of hundreds of tiles each with a painting of a meaningful thing. Flash photography is not allowed in there because it results in the fading of the paintings. However, my camera has no built-in flash and I was not carrying my SB-23 with me, so there was really no reason for the scolding.

The rest of the temple was your standard temple fare. If you've been to one temple, you've been to them all. A high-traffic tourist attraction like Eiheiji really doesn't offer anything new that can't be had elsewhere for less parking fees. There is a zen camp that they offer which lasts a few days and you live in the temple and study and practice zen while there. Short on time (and on interest), we decided to forego that and head over to Tojimbo.

Side note: Not all temples and shrines are the same. In Aomori prefecture, my wife and I drove up Mt. Iwaki and visited a small shrine that was very interesting. We were allowed to hike around the area, visit the inside of the sanctuary, and shoot pictures however we saw fit. Afterwards we had some tea at an outdoor wooden table with the sanctuary guardian and thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. I don't think that this is a problem of Shinto vs. Buddhist religion. I have a feeling that Eiheiji is just such a well-worn tourist site that whatever interesting thing there once was about it has long worn thin. Temples and shrines off the beaten path are much less crowded, more serene, and the custodians of them are more friendly to visitors.

After having slept very little the day before, my uncle took the keys and drove us all to Tojimbo. I slept the whole way. Tojimbo is a basalt outcropping along the Japanese coast of the Japan Sea. There is no rope or rail to prevent someone from plunging to their death. Lacking what others call common sense, I immediately went right over to the edge of the 60-foot cliff and snapped a bunch of pictures. This freaked everyone out as they all were sure I'd fall into the gorge and kill myself. Apparently Tojimbo is a popular spot for suicide attempts. So much so that the government has installed a telephone booth that can be used for free near the edge of the cliff so that someone thinking to commit suicide can call home or a suicide hotline in order to think twice about what they are doing. The booth does not allow free long-distance calls. I checked.

We drove back along the coast and my wife watched the horizon intensely for a glimpse of North Korea. The area is famous for being a particularly successful kidnapping grounds of Japanese by North Korean spies. Despite the close proximity of North Korea to this area, it is still far enough away to not be visible from shore. That didn't stop me from claiming to see the communist country every five minutes or so. After she caught on, the game wasn't so interesting anymore, especially as how she would hit me from behind every time I said it.

That evening, we returned home and enjoyed another home-cooked meal and copious amounts of wine and beer. My uncle brought out his old Nikomat EL and presented it to me as a gift. Despite being in storage for the last 10 years, everything still worked, even the batteries had a charge. I need to take it somewhere to have it cleaned up. The years have left it moldy and in need of a thorough scrubbing and re-lubing. I plan to pick up a 28mm or 35mm lens for it once it is cleaned up and use it as my second camera. I just have to find a place that will clean it...

We left the next day around noon, eating lunch with my aunt and uncle and then heading north along the Hokuriku highway, we made our way up to Joetsu. From Joetsu, we headed south along the Kanetsu expressway back to Tokyo. Our first thought was to make it all the way back to the Chuo line, but our experience with that highway has always been bad, so we decided to try the Gaikan (Outer Ring) highway which encircles Tokyo. We made it home by 10:00pm that evening, but I'm sure that if we had taken the Chuo that we would not have made it home until past midnight.

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