Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hannah Comes to Town part 2

Saddle up, cowpeople. You might need an outhouse break in an hour.

Hannah and I awoke fairly early to go to Miyajima island, just off the coast of Hiroshima. We hopped on a bus to the station (210 yen), catching a glimpse of the Peace Park as we rode. I also discovered that those little white tickets you’re supposed to take tell you which fare box-thing to watch on the bus. This might seem obvious to some, but it made me feel like Sherlock Holmes. I’m a frigging genius.

We started out by asking for train or tram routes at the station’s information desk. I had read that the JR line wasn’t worth the money; the tramline was a better way to go. I had no idea how the trams operated and so wanted to be sure of my information. I Japanesed with the information lady until I paused to explain to Hannah what she had said. “It’s not that much more expensive to take the train,” I told my friend, brain whirring to process all I had heard.

“Yes, the JR line is only 400 yen one way,” the lady said in English. She recommended the train because of the shorter transit time to the port.


Kyoto seemed very small at that moment.

We stopped at a deli on the way to the train to grab a sandwich to share for lunch (260 yen). We had brought water bottles and fruits and nuts. The ride to Miyajimaguchi station seemed forever long. Hannah and I spent most of that time discussing the clothing choices and potential English abilities of our fellow passengers. Once we left the train we paused long enough to purchase a 340 yen roundtrip ticket for the ferry. We hopped on the ferry and took a picture or two. The weather was gorgeous.

Miyajima is mostly famous for Itsukushima shrine, which was built over an area covered by high tide. When the tide is up, as it was at 10:10 this morning, the shrine appears to float on the sea. A giant torii gate, though not an uncommon sight in Japan, is especially breathtaking when surrounded by blue sea. And people paddling through it in boats.

The shrine was packed, it being a weekend and the start of a set of public holidays, so Hannah and I opted to go up a couple flights of steep stairs to hit a temple. In my guidebook I had read that this was known as that Hall of 1000 Tatami, so imagine when I pay my 100 yen to find out that there is no tatami to be seen. In the case of this temple the tatami are a measure of size, not indication of interior decorating. They did, however, have some nice paintings of deer and bug-eyed horses. Nantoka nantoka shrine was dedicated, among other things, to blessing rice spoons. The world’s largest rice spoon is housed here. It's a big piece of wood the size of 2.5 men. I was a bit nonplussed, but Hannah and I did enjoy the peace of walking around without our shoes.

It was an inexpensive 300 yen to enter Itsukushima shrine. Due to the crowd we felt a little like cattle; I can’t really say too much about the shrine save for that it was surrounded by water and very orange. There are a couple of great spots to take pictures, but our timing meant that there was always someone else in the shot.

After escaping the throngs in the shrine we went around to dip our toes in the ocean and frolic a bit. Some nerdhat shoved a wooden boat in the water, which attacked me when I was trying to take a picture. The palm of my hand still hasn’t healed completely. I powered through to take awesome pictures.

Hannah and I decided it was time to break out our lunch, so we sat ourselves on a bench in the shade and broke out some roasted sweet potatoes and chips.

Lemme tell you a little something about Buddhism in Japan. Deer are regarded as messengers of the gods. They’re something akin to cows in Hinduism. At many temples outside the heart of a city you can find deer wandering around and people ignoring the signs about not touching the babies or the males during mating or cut-off-their-horns seasons. And in places like Nara and Miyajima the gods’ messengers are a nuisance.

Sure, when you see your first deer hanging out in the shade, you get all mushy inside and think of Bambi. Then you touch one, and even though it’s neither soft nor particularly friendly you squeal happily. One or two approach you and you bend down to mime a kiss for the camera, telling it/them how cute it/they are in that voice you reserve for dogs and ugly babies. Never mind that the deer are only looking for a source of sugar or fiber. It might seem funny to watch an adult deer munch on a map that someone dropped. You might shake your head and smile, and admonish it, “Oh, dear,” and then smile at your pun, “don’t you know better?”

It might know better. Certainly when given the options of eating a dirty map or the sweet potato in your hand it will opt for the tuber. You might laugh the first time it approaches. You clutch your bag of food to your chest and wonder how sensitive its sense of smell is. “No,” you say playfully, holding the food out of reach. “That’s people food.”

But what is people food to a deer? Deer food that people stole and threw in a fire. The deer that gives up on your sweet potato and moves to your friend’s chips doesn’t care. It knows you saw it eat that map. If it can eat dirty maps every day, cooked and sugared foods are no sweat. Your friend might not agree, and attempt to push the deer’s head away. The deer reacts like any human would—it shakes its head to remove that offensive sweaty palm. The difference is that the deer has razor spikes growing from its head, and when its head moves the spikes get way too close to human faces for human comfort.

The deer returns to you. With a growing sense of dread you use your foot to keep the deer at bay, which only works until he walks behind you. You and your friend both try to shove him away by the base of his horns. Your friend sustains a scratch on her arm from the rough side of a horn. The strangers nearby watch with obvious interest, but stand back. They are not so stupid as to get between food and deer horns.

The deer seems to grow increasingly agitated. You debate taking a picture for evidence, but refrain for fear of losing your eye to another of the deer’s head tosses. Finally you and your friend come to the agreement that mayhap your current location is not ideal for consuming your meal, and you scramble to put your shoes on and leave.

The deer follows. You walk faster, ignoring comments from passersby. The deer lumbers behind, head low. You dart around a small group of people, hoping there’s an ice cream-carrying child nearby to distract the deer. As you put distance between yourself and the aggressive herbivore, you wonder how different Bambi would have been if his habitat had been invaded by tourists toting tasty papers and treats in their knapsacks. And then with the onset of reality that destroys your childhood ideals, the world shifts under your feet and you need years of therapy to understand yourself within the new evil-deer paradigm.

Hannah and I could not escape the buck entirely. Though we left one behind when we sat down again we were soon approached by a plaintive doe. No handouts, doe. Go get a real job and hold your head high. Then we heard the strangest noise:

Now, rather than thinking of deer as majestic creatures of the forest with deep voices and an endearing lack of ice-skating skill, I realize that deer are whiny, pathetic creatures who are much less annoying when left alone in the wild.

Aside from history, Miyajima island offers the opportunity to either hike or ride a cable car (ropeway) to the top of Mt. Misen for a fantastic view of Hiroshima Bay. There are also monkeys at the top and some interestingly shaped rocks. On advice from my friend Margaret, Hannah and I decided to take the ropeway up and walk back down.

When we bought our tickets (1000 yen one way) the vendor lady told us to take the more beautiful way down. There are beautiful views, she told us. Komagabiyashi was the route to take, for sure. Just a couple of hours down. We figured the local would know, and decided to follow her advice. After waiting an hour for the first leg of the ropeway we crammed ourselves into a tiny cable car with six other people.

After a quiet ride up the side of the mountain we transferred to the advertised “funicular ropeway.” I’m not sure what was so special about funicular ropeways, but it did mean a longer, quieter trip in a larger car packed with more people. The view was gorgeous, blah blah blah.

We reached the top and took a whole bunch more pictures.

According to the guidebook, the signs and nature, the summit of Mt. Misen required a short hike to reach. We walked around to take a peek at the monkeys. After the Iwatayama monkey park in Kyoto I was a little unimpressed. Hannah, however, was getting her first view of live, run-screeching-past-your-feet, don’t-look-them-in-the-eyes Japanese macaques. She reacted much as I first did, with squeals and delighted gasps and taking of pictures.

We followed the path around to the summit. I should have known that a “short hike” in a country built on mountains means something different than what it does in Oklahoma. When I think, “short hike” I think maybe five minutes of slopes. 30 minutes later Hannah and I collapsed on a bench near the famous shrine where the fire god’s flame burns eternal.

The only thing that took our minds off our fatigue (mind you, we had been on our feet for most of the morning) was watching out for the rocks photographed in the brochure. There was supposed to be Duck Under Rock, Scabies Rock (touch it and be cured! I would mention names here, but that’s just mean), Ship Rock and Whale Rock.

We realized that we still had another hike to reach the very top of the mountain, and that this particular clearing had been a fake summit. So we climbed, found Duck Under Rock, speculated on which mottled stone could be the real Scabies rock, and looked for whales in every boulder. At Duck Under Rock a young man was trying to tell his girlfriend of what all these rocks reminded him.

“You know that movie, with the swordfighting? It looks like this.”

The girl had no clue.

“You know,” the man said, “with the guy who’s like, ‘You killed my father, prepare to die.’ Inugo Montoya.”

Princess Bride!” I coughed loudly. The young man thanked me.

It was true. The rocky area did look something like the area in which Wesley and Inugo Montoya faced off.

Then we reached the real summit an hour after we had alighted from the cable car.

It was windy. I was too tired to take more pictures, especially after expending the rest of my energy climbing on this rock. Hannah and I began to head back down the mountain, noting that the sun was beginning to set. The following is how I recalled the odyssey in my journal:

…Real summit, come up with the idea of swashbuckling films, swashbuckle, find Whale Rock,

down, down, down, swashbuckle, down, down, swashbuckle, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down. Never again, Komagabiyashi route.

There was much more buckling of swashes than I wrote in my journal, as evidenced by this video. The ticket vendor hadn’t lied; the route down was beautiful, but ridiculously long for two unprepared non-hikers. Hannah and I both had a case of the shaky legs (when you stand still and your muscles tremble like they’re about to give way), and at one point sat down in the middle of the path to elevate our feet for a couple of minutes.

After these pictures (and several unnecessary jokes about dam deer), my camera died.
Dam deer. Heh heh.

Once we got back into the main part of the town (3 hours later) we dawdled very little, checking out the fronts of the souvenir shops and debating whether or not to try kakigori (shaved ice) and takoyaki (fried dough balls with octopus inside) then or later. We chose later. The tide had been at it’s lowest at 4 p.m. and was just starting to reclaim the land on which Itsukushima shrine and its torii had been built. Hanah and I joined the folk treading on the soaked sand to take some more pictures (with Hannah’s camera) and marvel at the sunset.

Hannah wanted to find another shell as a souvenir. I almost agreed, but then saw one moving. I suggested that maybe we should leave the ones underfoot as intact as possible; most of them were probably alive.

“Weird,” said Hannah with a degree of self-mockery, “I never thought about them being alive before.”

Neither had I, not really, given that all the ones I’ve found on beaches have been empty and on dry sand. I bent down and turned one over, but it just looked dirty. Hannah and I got as close to the torii as we could without standing in the ocean. Except for the part during which I was standing in the ocean, but I was wearing sandals. While Hannah took a few pictures I bent down to investigate those small conical shells again, only to shriek and drop it when claws emerged.

“What?” Hannah asked.

“They’re hermit crabs!” I exclaimed. There were several I could see in the fading light, crawling around on the seabed. I picked up another and let it clamber over my palm and then plunge back into the sea. I picked up another. Hannah took a picture. Nature. I thought that the Japanese people nearby were squealing because they thought the crabs were exciting. Then I noticed that the peninsula on which Hannah and I had been standing was an island.

Remember that part in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when Dick van Dyke starts to tell his pirate story, then suddenly the camera zooms out and they’re sitting in the middle of the bay? “The tide…had come in.” It felt like that. I half-expected a comically evil Bulgarian baron to sail up at any moment. Hannah had to take her shoes and socks off so that we could wade back to dry land.

Sorry, people to the right of me. You're swimming back.

We left Miyajima much later than I had planned. Never mind that I had planned too much to fit in a day, anyway (which was something of a trend for the vacation). Another 400 yen took us back to Hiroshima train station, then back on the bus. I recalled the fare having been 210 on the way to the station that morning, and so accidentally got off too early. I felt bad about making Hannah walk even more. We did get to see the Peace Park and other such monuments at night, and Hannah took some pictures and picked up the kanji for peace because she's that smart (that's in one day of no prior kanji experience, Ms. M, so it is impressive), so it wasn’t all so bad.

Hiroshima is well known for its okonomiyaki, which is supposed to be different from Osaka’s okonomiyaki. In my opinion it’s like the difference between New York and Chicago pizzas—I don’t care as long as it tastes good. However, I didn’t want Hannah to leave Hiroshima without being able to say she tried the famous Hiroshima-yaki. On a side note, I think the shortening of “Hiroshima okonomiyaki” to “Hiroshima-yaki” is slightly disturbing, given that “yaki” means grilled, fried or burnt. Maybe that’s just my American guilt talking.

Located in the heart of Hiroshima’s entertainment district is Okonomura, or Okonomiyaki Village. Four floors of Hisoshima’s best okonomiyaki stalls waiting for natives and tourists alike to swarm their tiny halls. Hannah and I got back to our hotel when, according to my five-year-old guidebook, the booths closed. We needed to eat, and I wasn’t sure how much time we’d have the next day for an okonomiyaki stop between weeping at the Peace Park and catching a shinkansen. I asked the concierge about nearby okonomiyaki eateries. He pulled out a handy map, circled Okonomura, and assured me that it did not close until midnight.

We were in business.

A brief 190 yen bus ride back to the entertainment district, spotting the Parco shopping arcade (our landmark) between two buildings, and a small loss of way later Hannah and I were at Okonomura. It being a weekend, the day before a holiday, and a large city the open stalls were packed. I had read in my guidebook that the first stall in front of the elevator on the fourth floor was truly the best. Hannah and I stepped onto the fourth floor to see the recommended okonomiyaki stall packed. The stall to its right was empty but closing down and the stall to its left was also full.

I guided Hannah to the third stall to our left and we sat down. The cook noticed us immediately and crossed her hands in an X. I knew what that meant. She was about to tell us she was closing. The woman seemed to struggle with whatever she was about to say.

“Nihongo wa daijoubu desu,” I said, smiling gently. Japanese is fine.

The woman responded in English, “Uh, uh, curoozu. Sorudo out.” Uh, uh, close. Sold out.

A judgmental voice in the back of my head said her stammer seemed put-upon. It also wondered why she would attempt such terrible English when I had spoken to her in Japanese already. My accent isn’t that bad, not after a year in this country. Nevertheless, I said it was fine, translated the incomprehensible English for Hannah while the lady apologized profusely. I must have repeated, “It’s fine, I understand,” six times in Japanese by the time we shuffled back out of the stall.

Feeling less optimistic about the prospect of giving Hannah a taste of okonomiyaki, we went around a corner to a couple of other stalls. Along with a family of four we were turned away twice more. Hannah and I ended up waiting between the famous first stall and the one to its left for an open seat. It was past nine o’clock by this time and we were starving.

I had a sneaking suspicion that our first rejection had been anti-foreigner in nature. This suspicion was confirmed when I noticed three young Japanese women who had gotten off the elevator about ten minutes after Hannah and I. They had gone to the right as we were coming back to the elevator, likely to be turned away after we had. They strolled back in front of us, saw three empty stools at the stall where the woman had spoken terrible English, and were welcomed with a smile and allowed to sit down. They were served almost immediately.

Two people left from the stall between the racist xenophobic lady’s and the famous one, so Hannah and I squeezed to the back of the stall and sat down. We ordered an okonomiyaki and a yakisoba from one disgruntled cook (you know, the kind who slaps the English menu down and walks away) while the main chef served the other customers. For the record, the difference between Osakan okonomiyaki and that of Hiroshima is layers. Osaka okonomiyaki is all mixed together, almost like an omlet. Hiroshima okonomiyaki is separated into distinct layers. It tasted about the same: friggin’ delish.

About halfway through our meal the main cook noticed the bright pink sunburn on Hannah’s neck and shoulders. “Ittai so!” he exclaimed, moving past us. I translated for Hannah—he says it looks painful—and agreed with him. The chef proceeded to draw attention to Hannah’s pink skin, talking with the other customers about sunburns and pale people and tourists and other stuff that went over my head. He even went so far as to give Hannah four moist hand towlettes—two for her shoulders, one for her neck and one for her back. I assured her that this was a good sign, and that the chef was showing us that he approved of our presence by drawing us into the group. It was like how everyone mentions Obama to Americans; they may not be all that invested in American politics, but it’s something to say.

“I know,” Hannah replied, “but it’s still embarrassing.”

I didn’t disagree, but I still took a picture.

Hannah’s sunburn opened us up to conversation. We told the crowd that I was a teacher and Hannah was visiting, that I lived in Kyoto, and that we enjoyed Miyajima. The two dapper gentlemen you see over Hannah’s right shoulder had a third companion as well. They inadvertently placed themselves in the same category as my punk students when, after a brief conference, they shouted over at us, “Yes we can!”

Hannah and I fake laughed. “Oh, hah hah hah! Yes, yes we can. Mm, hm.” So clever, those boys.

We finished out meal, slapped down 1180 yen for the lot and thanked the chef. On our way past the classy Obama fans they said goodbye to us; one made boob-honking motions when we got close enough.

Upon my honour.

“No thank you!” I said brightly, joining Hannah at the elevator.

“How are you?” called Boob Honk, Esq, earning laughs from his fellow okonomiyaki consumers.

“I’m fine thank you and you?” I said in a monotone. The chef laughed, said something about junior high school English, I said of course, and the elevator arrived.

Hannah and I walked back to the hotel (with a stop at 7-11 for the next day’s breakfast) and crashed.


  1. Wow. You remember everything! Might I add that the trip to Miyajima seemed so long because we were standing. Reading what we did makes me even more impressed how much we packed in. Good day!

  2. I'm impressed with your can-do attitude in your mountain descents and adventures into unknown territory. What fun!

  3. boob honking?! really????

    the whiny deer was absolutely precious. PRECIOUS.

  4. BWAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Boob-honking motions!!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Dam jokes are never unnecessary. Note it.

    Sweet sunset pictures with Hannah's camera. Kudos.

    What's okonomiyaki? Don't tell me it's layered slash omelet like and then not tell me what it is?! AHHHHHHHHH! choo?