I've been in this region once before with my best friend Robert (see Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together), but whereas that was only an 11-day long tour through three cities, this here should actually turn out to be a genuine working holiday experience that would last three times as long. Either way, I am now officially once again in…
Touhoku is the northernmost region of Honshu, the main island, and is also Japan’s third-largest region, right after Hokkaido and Chubu, measuring a total of 66,889.55 km² – that’s somewhere between Myanmar and Afghanistan. With a headcount of 9,335,088, it’s also Japan’s fourth-least (or fifth-most) populous region, which places it just a little bit below the Republic of Belarus. Finally, from a population density point of view, Touhoku is the second-least-dense area of Japan after Hokkaido. At an average density of only 140 people per km², Touhoku is about as densely populated as the small Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga, and surprisingly only a little less dense than China, which despite its huge population only has an average density of 145 people per km² thanks to its large area. That means that 75% of Japan is more densely populated than China.
Appi-Kogen (安比高原 “Peaceful Coexistence High Field”) is located on a mountain saddle in the Iwate prefecture, not even 40km away from Morioka. The name “Appi” was actually taken from the Ainu language and means “A place where people live together in peace”. Since the place is covered in snow for a whopping 6 months a year, it’s one of Japan’s biggest ski resorts, and consequently the town actually consists almost exclusively of pensions, hotels and holiday homes. During the summer months it is also known as great place for hiking and enjoying the peaceful tranquil landscape of Touhoku.
And within Appi-Kogen, the place I’m staying it is located in the Pension Village…
…which is located here.
Climate-wise, I am extremely happy to be here during this time of the year, for while it certainly is fiendishly hot for the majority of the month…
…that is still nothing compared to the ultra-extreme temperatures which the centre and south of Japan have to endure.
In fact, this summer should set a new record high temperature for Japan with 41.1°C, measured in Gunma-Ken (群馬県 “Herd Horse Prefecture”). Consequently, the topic is all over the news as people are dying in the figurative boiling pot that central and southern Japan has become.
And it's not only people that are dying. The temperatures are hard on the crops as well, and price increases of up to 50% for certain types of procure are the consequence.
Truly, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, it seems like now the entire south of Japan is experiencing a meltdown.
Blissfully, though, up here in the mountains of Tohoku, the temperature rarely rises above 30°, which is one of the reasons why many people flee the southern cities to seek refuge in the cool heights during this ongoing heat wave. As such, I consider myself lucky to be able to stay here during this time.
It is in this remote, beautiful and reasonably cool location that I should experience some…
Honestly Helpful Hospitality Happiness
I am helping out at a place by the wonderfully inviting name of Pension Mutti (ペンションむってい)…
…which is run by the wonderfully kind and caring Kayoko Morikawa…
…who runs this place together with her husband Hikita – who also happens to be an adept runner…
…as well as a diligent kitchen hand by the name of Yuki.
They also have two pets, both of which are former stray animals that Kayoko kindly took in. The first one is a fluffy, over 10-year old dog by the name of Sasuke. He can actually be a real handful. Stubborn and irritable, I actually manage to get bitten twice by him before I figure out his issues: Apparently, he had a tough life on the roads, and as such he gets all snappy when you move your hand next to an object which he considers to be his or if you startle him. By contrast, when he wants to be petted he actively comes to you and starts pawing at your hand, which is actually quite cute. After figuring out that much we actually get along quite well together.
The other pet is a pudgy stubby-tailed tomcat by the name of Nyantaro, or Nyanta for short. Apparently, he managed to get into Sasuke’s dog food store, which is how he grew to his current proportions. Unlike Sasuke, Nyanta is relatively uncomplicated and should often make himself comfortable on my lap, or invite me to visit and pet him with his mewling calls.
And then there’s the other helpers, for running a place like this sure is a handful, so the more helping hands we have around the better we can handle the workload. When I arrive there is a cool American student from California by the name of Adrian, who would be my mentor for the first few days. In an unfortunate turn of events, however, his father should suffer a stroke, forcing Adrian to cancel his travel plans and return home prematurely. I sure hope his dad turned out to be alright.
As a direct consequence, I should be the only helper in this place for about two weeks, which should increase the workload to a considerable level, even with Kayoko’s daughter Asa coming all the way from Tokyo to help out for one busy weekend.
It goes without saying that I’m more than grateful when the next pair of helpers arrives. The first one should be a girl from Stuttgart in Germany by the name of Chiara, with whom I should quickly become very good friends, and we should spend much time together chatting about this and that and generally connecting and bonding. Like me, she is on a working holiday, but unlike me, this is the very beginning of her adventure, so there is much for me to teach her about working holidays in general and Japan in specific.
Ying – a notably big young man from China easily 10cm taller than me – is more introverted. About him I should learn that he’s from Shanghai and works in the IT sector, but little more. Even so, he certainly isn’t bad company, and I would clearly pick him over a good number of people I’ve had to endure on my travels so far.
The last helper to come during my stay there should be Kotryna, who would arrive one week later, and only five days prior to my departure. She is the first person from the relatively small east-European country of Lithonia whom I should meet on my travels, and is currently studying in Kyoto. Her absolutely valid motivation for coming to Touhoku during the semester break is to escape the merciless heat wave that is currently ravaging central and southern Japan.
Now then, the cast is all introduced. However, I feel that this time I must make a little change to my usual routine since there is just so much to tell about my stay here, so just this once let us begin with a tale about…
Interlude: Two Men Down the Slopes
One of my first exploratory strays around Appi-Kogen should take me up the mountainside along a road, and then down a currently unused ski slope. Short though it may seem in comparison to some of the other strays I've done in the past, it is still quite an exercise due to the fact that we should climb a total of 200m in altitude.
With “we” I mean myself and Adrian, who is up to exploring the surroundings as much as I am. He has only been here one week longer than myself, and there’s many a hidden road he has yet to see.
Kayoko tells us to be careful though, since there are bears around – for real this time. People regularly see them. Granted, they may only be relatively small black bears, maybe the size of a large dog, but since I genuinely enjoyed not being eaten by bears back in Hokkaido, I decide that the security of carrying a noisy bearbell around outweighs the potential discomfort of being digested by an ursine.
For the first part of the stray, we explore an abandoned loop road that is continuously being reclaimed by nature.
After that, we hesitate a bit before follow a rather boring main street up the mountain in order to get onto a more scenic forest path…
…that would eventually lead us to the middle station of the ski lifts and the ski slopes, which around this time of the year are vibrant lush heaths.
After that, it's down the mountain along a slippery slope. Since these last few days were a bit rainy, I only narrowly avoid sliding down the hill on my backside. Fortunately, we make enough noise as a result that we probably scared off any bears in a mile-wide radius.
As a finale for this admittedly short stray, we would walk wone way which I've been wanting to try for some time: One of the idyllic green pedestrians’ pathways connecting the bigger roads of Appi Pension Village: The Tanuki Footpath.
And that’s already it for this initial stray. Now let me proceed to tell you a bit more about…
As I already mentioned, I am staying in a Pension by the name of Mutti, which happens to be an Alpine-European-Style twos-storey-house with a souterrain.
Anyway, let me give you a tour of the place.
Halfway during my stay, just before Chiara and Ying arrive, I should move into a different bedroom in order to stay in a private room. That new room is on the other side of the helpers’ lounge, and used to belong to Adrian before he left. Consequently, we should come to call it the Senpai-Room (先輩 “preceding comrade” = “senior”). This one actually comes with its own TV, though I should end up not using it at all.
As for the surroundings of the Appi Pension Village, the most prominent feature is the Hotel Appi Grand that towers over the entire village like a giant, yellow monolith.
The Pension Village itself, meanwhile, is much more rustic, with lots of pretty greenery.
Maybe the most amusing feature is the variety of creative pension names around here.
But then, there’s also a number of curious statues to be found around.
There’s also a sports areal with a nice view of the mountain in the middle of the Appi Pension Village.
On one weekend, they hold a tennis tournament there…
…and on another, there’s a soccer competition going on.
If you go a bit further beyond the boundaries of the Pension Village, there’s a nice big Soba field nearby…
…which gradually ripens over the duration of my stay, though I should not get to see the fabled white flowers.
And speaking of Soba: This tasty plant and the noodles made from it are this region’s specialty, and as a result, the official mascot of this area is an anthropomorphic Soba-bowl.
There’s also a walkway that I like to call “Dragonfly Alley”, where the little bugs are flitting around me all over the place. I am literally surrounded by a cloud of dragonflies. I try to take a movie, but the buggers should prove to be too small and swift to be captured by my humble little camera. But at the very least I can take a few pictures of the ones that are sitting still.
It shouldn’t happen all that often due to the unnaturally hot weather this month, but every once in a while we should also get a nice misty morning, dipping the entire place in a nice, mystical flair.
That place in the last picture, by the way, is a dog run in the back of Pension Mutti, for you see, in this place, it’s not only humans, but also dogs who are welcome (and foxes too =^,^= ).
And finally, let you tell me a little bit more about the Ofuro (お風呂 “Wind Spine” = “Hot Bath”) that we have here. We have one for each gender, inside and out each. The baths – in a traditional Japanese manner – are covered with wood planks when not in use, and are uncovered by the guests when they want to use them, and re-covered after use. The outside one is especially nice a night when you can see the stars shimmering between the trees. Also, allow me to explain the difference between this place and an Onsen (温泉 “Hot Spring”). While both an Ofuro and an Onsen are used in the same sequence (get naked, shower , bathe, shower again and maybe wash hairs), the main difference is that an Onsen has to get its water from a natural volcanic hot spring, while an Ofuro can just get its hot water however they like. The main difference are esoteric healing qualities that are attributed to natural hot springs and which apparently can’t be replicated even using modern science and chemistry (probably because sulphur is pretty toxic and an Ofuro that artificially added sulphur to its water would never be authorized).
So much to explore in such a quiet place… enough that I would before long embark on…
Interlude: A Solo Stray to the Station
When I arrived, Kayoko picked me up from the Appi-Kogen Station. However, the station itself is actually within extended walking distance, so naturally I desire to walk there and make a connection between the place where I arrived from and the place that I'm staying at.
Since I don’t like going the same way back and forth, I pick a route that would take me through the forest, armed with my trusty bearbell and, well, this…
Fortunately, I do not have to use it, and so I can just enjoy the foresty stretch of my hike about 100m in altitude down the mountainside.
Afterwards, it’s a significantly less thrilling walk along the not very heavily trafficked Route 282. However, there is a very pretty little waterfall just along the side of the road…
…before it disappears into the Appi Snow Shelter…
…which around this time of the year is more like the Appi Baking Oven. But there’s no way around it, so I have to go right through.
Or actually, there might have been, and had I known how frustratingly low this heat death tube is, I would have looked more thoroughly for it. The most frustrating part is that it not only takes me painfully close to the Appi-Kogen Station, but also taunts me with a service opening at the side, leading into the untamed forest. I am this close to risk just going through, but the combination of going through an uncharted wood with bears in it and then across railroad tracks plus the memory of the cross-country experience I had back in Outram (see Book I ~ Chapter 14 ~ Out in Outram) deter me from it after all. So the long way around it is, and after what feels like an eternity, there finally is a light at the end of the tunnel.
After that ordeal, the rest of the way to the Appi-Kogen Station is pretty much a walk in the park.
One regrettable thing worth noting here is that there are barely any Shrines around. The closest thing I can find is this historic landmark across from the station, but it’s neither a Shrine nor a Temple, and since I can’t read the inscription, I can’t figure out what it's all about either.
Afterwards, I have no choice but to double back the way I came from until the intersection, so I try to make it at least a little bit different by walking under the trees by the edge of the forest near the road.
After that, it's pretty much a straight road back home that should take me maybe 45 minutes, remarkable only for the soy fields along the way and the multitude of dragonflies just waiting to be captured on film.
Now then, I guess that was enough straying around for now. Time to get serious and talk about…
There’s three basic overarcing categories of Jobs that we, the helpers, have to do here: Cleaning and setting the rooms, helping in the kitchen, and other stuff. One of the things of the “other” category would be me drawing up a day schedule for life at Pension Mutti, which should help the helpers to come after me settle into the place more easily.
But let’s start with the cleaning and room setting for now, since that’s the one task that needs to be done every day, starting from 10:00 and usually lasting to around 12:00, give or take. There's a total of 12 rooms with 8 tasks to do for each room. Fortunately, Hikita, Kayoko, Yuki and the other helpers all work together to make this happen. Also, we rarely need to do all the tasks for all the rooms, so it's not as much work as it may sound like. By the end of my stay, however, I should know each room and almost every task – with the slight exception of the Towel-task which somehow never came up for me to do.
So let’s get started! The first task is the Out-tasks, which pretty much means taking the linens off the beds, taking out used towels, emptying the trash, putting the clothes hangers in order, and if there was a dog staying in the room also put the chairs and table on the bed.
At first, we just gather the used linens in the floor, but eventually we stuff them into green sacks, tie them up and shove them down the stairs, from where a laundry man comes to conveniently pick them up.
After that comes the dog-out vacuuming. It should take me some time to see the pattern here because nobody ever told me, but eventually I figure out that we only have to do this step when there was a dog staying in the room, and thus by checking whether this step exists we can conclude when we have to put up the chairs and table in the Out-step. As part of this step we also have to bodily push the beds around the room to make sure we get all the fluff that a pooch might have left behind.
Next up is bed-making, which is a two-person task that needs to be done in a very specific manner so that the beds look nice and welcoming for the customers. There’s two positions one can have at this task: either top or bottom. At first I start as a bottom, standing at the foot end of the bed and folding the corners of the blankets nicely, which is almost like wrapping a present. However, later on I should eventually become a top and stand at the head end of the bed, managing the much more meticulous mission of making sure that the blankets on the head end are folded over nicely and all exactly the same length as the other beds in the room.
Then, there’s more vacuuming! This step may seem a bit redundant in case the room has already been vacuumed once before, but since Hikita wipes the floors clean after the first vacuuming and making the beds has a tendency of getting things a bit dirty again, I suppose it’s justified. This time we don't have to move the beds around as much, but instead we also have to vacuum the chairs and windowsills.
We also have to do the bathrooms and toilets, which probably sounds a lot more demeaning than it actually is. Or, let us rather say that compared to cleaning the bathrooms back at the Woodstock Royal Mail Hotel (see Book I ~ Chapter 17 ~ Wild & Woody), cleaning them here is a pleasure of cleanly-sparklyness.
One important thing to remember here are the triangles. One thing that everyone who has been at a Japanese hotel or Ryokan will recall is that the toilet paper and potentially also tissues are always folded into neat triangle-shape by the staff, and since we are the staff now, that task falls to us. We also have to do that every time we use our basement toilet, since that one is also available for the guests to use since it's right next to the Ofuro.
The final two tasks for making the rooms are cleaning windows and mirrors using the good old spray & wipe approach, and then finishing up the room by wiping down all surfaces.
Subsequently, there’s vacuuming the guest corridor…
…vacuuming the downstairs area and dining hall…
…vacuuming the basement…
…vacuuming the vacuum…
…okay, so I made that last one up. But we pretty much vacuum down the entire place on a daily basis.
Now, moving on to the kitchen work we do, which once again can be divided into two parts: Breakfast and dinner. For the guest breakfast we usually start out at 7:30 by preparing the salads, which is a surprisingly precise task: Every guest gets exactly 100g of salad with two slices of cucumber and a halved mini-tomato, all arranged in a very exact manner.
Afterwards, we start mixing eggs for the daily omelette, all manually for better Feng Shui. That’s quite a demeaning task, and more often than not I have to keep beating a single bowl of eggs for over five minutes with the chopsticks before Yuki is adequately satisfied with the result.
As the guests start arriving in the dining hall we also begin by pouring out soup, again very precisely: Each guest gets exactly three scoops of soup, topped up with exactly three little croutons which have to be at the very centre of the bowl and close to one another. Also, we have to take care to scoop the soup cleanly, lest we have to wipe the bowls before serving them. This, however, turns out to be a task clearly beyond me, and I eventually conclude that scooping the soup quickly and messily and then wiping the bows afterwards is not only faster than trying to scoop it cleanly (and failing 9 times out of 10), but also significantly less frustrating for me.
From then on, it’s pretty much washing and putting away the incoming plates and dishes for the rest of the time until approximately 9:15. Depending on how many customers we have that can be a real marathon with two of us working at different sinks to get the dishes clean while Hikita and Yuki dry and put them away.
For dinner – the preparations for which start at 18:00 – the routine is a bit different. Since dinner is a complex multi-course experience for the guests, it starts with us preparing not one, but two dishes of meticulously arranged salads per person (and I always get the amounts of carrots and cucumbers wrong)…
…and then setting them on the tables in a very precise manner, the carrots facing away from the seats, and the salllads on the llleft.
Also, there is more soup to be served. At dinner, however, it's only two scoops instead of three, and instead of croutons you get a tiny little pinch of parsley in each bowl. Really only thing that’s the same as with breakfast is that I still can’t scoop the soup cleanly.
The rest is dishwashing, which usually lasts until 20:30. Unlike breakfast dishwashing, which is still relatively relaxed, dinner dishwashing is a complex four-phase onslaught: Preparation implements, salad, main courses and desserts. I never had enough time while washing the dishes to actually pay attention to how many courses Hikita, Kayoko and Yuki actually prepared, but based on the dishes which I did I think it was six: Two salads, then a fish dish and soup, followed by a meat dish and finally a dessert. And if that’s not enough for you then things occasionally go from “Yay” to “Excessively Fun” when they do something special for some guests and prepare a traditional Japanese meal using a dozen tiny bowls and plates per person, all of which have to be washed by hand.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do that every day. Things go really crazy for one weekend while I’m alone at Pension Mutti with no other helpers to back me up, and I have to do three morning and evening shifts in sequence, but apart from that I don’t have to help out in the kitchen all that often, and usually not on successive days. Altogether, for the entire 33 days that I should stay here, I would only have to help 10 times with breakfast and 13 times with dinner. A very fair balance I would say.
Now to some of the miscellaneous tasks I should be doing here: On one day, for example I get a ladder and clean some of the outside windows…
Another day, I would try and walk Sasuke, which should turn out to be… uhhh… “complete pandemonium”? Unlike normal dogs, Sasuke regularly goes into “brick mode”, and I have to try really hard to get him to move even more than 20m from the house and onto the road. Then a car comes and I barely manage to get him out of the way in time. While dragging him along further, he suddenly manages to slip off his collar, and only with the help of a neighbour who was fortunately just passing along with her own dog do I manage to herd Sasuke back inside the house, where I manage to put his collar back on with some serious difficulty (but at least without getting bitten). And that was the first, last and only time I tried taking Sasuke for a walk.
My favourite task, however, should clearly be one of my time-honed specialties: Just like I did for a number of places in New Zealand, I should also make a map of this place. Unlike in New Zealand, where I made maps of farms, this one should be a map to give people directions of how to get to Pension Mutti, so I focus my efforts on the most recognizable landmarks, as well as where the forests are and how to get there from the nearest big road.
And that is all the work I should be taking care of. Now for yet another…
Interlude: Of Waterfalls and Shrines
18-Jul-2018, 19-Jul-2018 & 25-Jul-2018
While the Shrine-density around here is certainly rather sparse, there are still a good number around if you are willing to range far enough afield. One such opportunity should present itself one day when Kayoko has to drive to the town of Arayashinmachi (荒屋新町 “Run-down-house New Town”) to get some bank business done. She offers to take me to a nearby beautiful waterfall in the mountains while she’s going in that direction anyway, and I ask her if it's okay if we go to see some Shrines that happen to be, like, right along the way.
The very first Shrine, right on the road to the Waterfall, is – much to my delight – already an Inari Shrine, and while there are no foxes outside, there certainly are a few of them hiding within.
Afterwards, we proceed towards the waterfall, which is such a beautiful place that the people of old already built many a Shrine right next to it, including a White Snake Shrine in a cave up the Cliffside.
And then, there’s the actual Fudo-no-Taki (不動の滝 “Immovable Waterfall”), which is yet another one of Japans top 100 beautiful waterfalls, and for good reason too. The way it plunges through the gap in the rocks and into the valley below exudes an aura of divine providence.
You can get a great view of it from the bridge, and if you go just a little bit further, you can get an even greater view with the bridge in the foreground, the bright red colour of which contrasts nicely with the green foliage all around.
Afterwards, Kayoko an I take the scenic forest route back to the carpark, walking alongside the stream originating from Fudo-no-Taki…
…and then continue to the town of Arayashinmachi, which naturally has its own manhole cover design.
This is the point where the Shrine hunt truly starts. I visit a Shrine in Arayashinmachi while Kayoko is taking care of her bank business, and on our way back we stop by a total of six more shrines – some more hidden than others – and I should take note of a seventh Shrine along the way and closer to home that I intend to visit at some point.
The next day should bring an opportunity to go the other way, towards the town of Hachimantai (八幡平 “Hachiman Peace”), and while we shouldn’t have time to visit all that many Shrines this time along, I should still manage to at least add three more to my list.
The first two are actually right next to another: Nagakane Jinja (長嶺神社 “Superior Peak Shrine”) is a traditional Shrine, while the Chojayashiki Shimizu (長者屋敷清水 “Elder’s Residence Pure Spring”) is actually a spring that is venerated as its own Shrine.
Moving on to the actual town of Hachimantai – which is a very rural place by the way – I navigate Kayoko to yet another Shrine she didn’t even know was there. This one is located next to a stream between two back yards, and goes by the name of Hakusan Jinja (白山神社 “White Mountain Shrine”).
That should be all the time we would have to visit Shrines on that day, but I should get yet another opportunity for Shrine-sightseeing when Kayoko takes me all the way to Morioka on a shopping trip on 25-Jul-2018. After visiting quite a number of different stores, Kayoko stops at the Aeon shopping mall, where she says she will be busy for about an hour and a half.
Naturally, this is my cue to get out my trusty tri-Comm and chart an impromptu stray route around the general area.
The first notable thing I should see on that route is actually not a Shrine, but rather a stack of owl just standing there next to a driveway.
And since we’re at the outskirts of Morioka here, pretty much the entirety of my stray should take me through a landscape of rice fields mottled with some buildings in between.
The first Shrine on my list is Oomiya Jinja (大宮神社 “Imperial Palace Shrine”)…
…which not only has a pair of Inari Side Shrines (one of which is currently undergoing renovations)…
…but also a genuine Horse Side Shrine by the name of Oshinmeiten (御神馬殿 “Honourable Horse-Deity Mansion”), giving credit to the historical importance of horses in this area.
Following that, I walk through a landscape which I feel captures the character of present-day Japan perfectly: Mountains and rice fields, interwoven with technology and people living on it.
The next Inari Shrine on my list should turn out not to have any foxes around, but at least it sort of protects the lone tree standing in this area. That, by the way, is a great way of figuring out places where Shrines might be: Since rice fields, being submerged in water, don’t need any hedges or tree rows to prevent soil erosion, historically the only places with trees would be shrine grounds, so if you see a copse at the middle of rice fields, odds are there might be a Shrine within.
After that, I have to scramble to get back to the Aeon Shopping Mall in time. Fortunately, the building is clearly visible even from 2km away.
Unfortunately, a distinct drawback of rice fields over regular fields is that you can’t just take a shortcut through the fields if you're in a hurry – at least not without getting severely wet and muddy feet – so I have to take the long way around along paved roads. In the end, however, my timing should be absolutely perfect, and I arrive at the car at precisely the same time that Kayoko does.
On our way back home, Kayoko, having lived here for decades, marvels about how she never knew that there were this many Shrines around, and for the rest of my stay she should not grow tired about telling the other helpers how many new things I taught her about the place she considers her one true home. I for my part am glad that I could enrich her life like that simply by being myself and following my interest, so I guess it's a true win-win situation. And now, let us continue with…
The food at this place is without a doubt the best I have ever eaten at any of the places I've helped out at. Period.
…what, you want me to go into more detail than that? Oh very well.
The days start off with a well-balanced breakfast that is lovingly prepared for us, the helpers, by Kayoko and Hikita, and although the exact composition varies, it generally includes some meat, an egg-dish, salad and rice, sometimes augmented by some fish.
At the beginning I eat the rice blandly, and then with Furikake (振り掛け “Shake and Pour”) – a popular Japanese condiment for rice that is made from dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, as well as some spices.
However, one day Yuki, who usually eats breakfast with us on days when she helps on the morning shift, asks me if I would like some Natto with it, and I naturally agree right away. Ever since then – much to the surprise to Kayoko, who can’t believe that a westerner such as me would like Natto this much – I should have the delicious fermented beans with every breakfast that I eat here, and oh would I ever miss this when the time for me to move along finally arrives.
Lunch – which would be unusually late at this place, namely between 15:00 and 16:00 – is probably the simplest meal of the day, though still exceedingly delicious. It contains dishes such as Gyudon, Curry Rice, highbrow Bento boxes, Soumen, Yakisoba, and Oyakodon, among many other tasty meals. One more thing worth of note is that we have an unlimited supply of cold tea at this place, and even have the liberty to choose between tasty Green Tea, and Mugicha (麦茶 “Barley Tea”), which is not quite to my personal liking since it kinda tastes a bit like beer.
At a number of occasion, Kayoko should also generously invite us to eat out at various restaurants, the most frequently visited of which would be the nearby Appi Ranch, where I should eventually try each of the four dishes on the menu (The Appi-Burger, Curry Rice, Curry Rice with a potato-mozzarella-puffer, and a cute little pizza).
Another day, Kayoko and Hikita should be away during lunch, and should arrange for Adrian and me to eat at the nearby Pension Whistler, where we would be served a very interesting (and delicious) combination of Spaghetti Tonkatsu.
Later on – after Chiara, Ying and Kotryna – arrive, we should also go to a very local Soba-Ya and enjoy genuine local Soba there. I for my part have a delicious bowl with local mushrooms that go along just perfectly with the rich flavour of the Soba noodles.
The most amazing restaurant Kayoko would take me to, however, is the automated Sushi restaurant that we should visit on the shopping trip to Morioka.
Now, forget everything you know about traditional gastronomy, because this is the future. Instead of waiters taking the orders and delivering the meals, here you place your orders on a touch screen at the table…
…and only a short time later, your order zooms in on a conveyor belt next to the table! On top of that, you can also take dishes off the traditional Sushi conveyor belt, and every so often you can also watch the orders of other guests zoom by. Naturally, the Macha-distribution is also automated, but that’s a feature many Sushi restaurants share between them already.
Kayoko should literally stuff me with all sorts of tasty Sushi here, maybe the most peculiar type of which would be Tenpura Sushi: A piece of Tenpura on a block of rice. That, actually, is a good summary of about half of Japanese cuisine: You take something, roast or fry it, and then put it on rice. Maybe add a bit of soy sauce on it, but that’s all there is to making genuine Japanese food.
And what do you do with all the empty plates once you're done? Simple! There’s a slot at the side of the table where you can enter them. I assume it leads to yet another conveyor belt transporting the plates back to the kitchen. I wonder if they also have the cleaning process automated.
Moving on to dinner. This dish, too should consist of a variety of tasty dishes, including Tonkatsu, Gyouza, Tenpura, Steak, Shabushabu and chicken. Alone the roasted fish is a bit of a challenge for me: I simply can’t get comfortable with the idea of eating food that has tiny and potentially dangerous bones in it, and de-boning the fish is more like work than enjoyment for me. Roasted fish aside, the dinners are an absolutely amazing experience.
In addition to all the delicious meals, Kayoko also provides us with a steady supply of snacks, some of which are more genuinely Japanese than others (they are all equally tasty though). Despite all of the stuffing, all the work and trips I take should keep my weight at a constant 68kg though.
One such snack of particular note are the Japanese Sakura cherries. Why? Because I don’t normally like cherries. However, Kayoko eventually convinces me to try one, and I immediately have to change my opinion about them: These Sakura cherries are nothing like the normal cherries which I don’t like. They have a lighter flavour, much closer to grapes than to cherries actually, and so I end up eating quite a bunch of them.
Every once and so often, Kayoko should also treat us to ice cream from the Appi Ranch. The first time, I make the mistake of ordering it in a cone, which is a bad decision because with these temperatures, the ice practically evaporates in my hand. On subsequent invitations I should opt to take it in a cup instead, which would eventually result in a drinkable form of ice cream, not unlike iced cocoa.
The absolute culinary highlight, however, should be the fact that this place has a proper oven. For five long months did I have to go without my beloved legendary tri-Tail pizza, and now I finally get the chance to prepare it again. Naturally, I seize that opportunity right away.
Kayoko, not being familiar with how filling my pizza is, commissions and entirety of three trays for only four people, which should leave us with enough pizza to last for an entire lunch the next day. I don’t mind though. Since it’s been so long since I've last had the opportunity to bake my pizza, my approach is “the more the merrier”. My only regret is that we only have mozzarella cheese for baking, which is about four types of cheese less than I normally like to put on my pizza.
In the end, I make a meat-and-fish pizza, a mushroom-pizza, and a veggie-pizza, and Kayoko invites the manager of the nearby Appi Grand hotel to dine with us in our humble kitchen. I am a bit nervous since it has not only been months since I last prepared the pizza, but I'm also not yet quite familiar with how Japanese ingredients (especially the yeast) will alter the consistency and taste. In the end, however, it all turns out mostly alright. The sauce turned out to be a bit to liquid, making the pizza a bit floppy, but they all enjoy it anyway.
In fact, they enjoy it enough to allow me to make it one more time after the other helpers arrive. This time I manage to get the consistency of the sauce and consequently the crunchiness of the pizza just right. My absolute highlight, however, is when Chiara – who normally doesn’t like pizza that much – tells me that she really enjoyed my legendary tri-Tail pizza and says that I have shown her a completely new type of pizza. With this, I guess my pizza is now officially famous on three different continents.
And now, to get all those calories to work, let us go on a ride…
Interlude: Down and Up the Valley
Remember the seventh Shrine from the last interlude, which I did not visit but rather committed to memory to drop by later? Well, today should be the day I should go and see that Shrine.
Measuring 9km either way this would still be too much for me to walk in a single day. Fortunately, however, there are free bikes that I can borrow, and Kayoko should drop me off at the Appi Ranch and give me instructions on how to acquire one.
And not just useless city bikes, but real, proper mountain bikes too! Realizing that in this terrain I am going to need all the gears that I can get, I naturally pick one of this type, and I choose Trusty N°8 over Mighty N°9.
Up until now, I had somehow had the mental imagine of Appi-Kogen being up on the side of a river valley extending all the way from Hachimantai. This ride, however, should soon make me familiar with the true lay of the land: Appi-Kogen lies on a mounting saddle separating two different valleys, one of which indeed goes down to Hachimantai, following the course of Nagakawa (長川 “Long River”). The other one – the one that I should go down – instead leads north through Ninohe, and eventually all the way to Hachinohe along Appigawa (安比川 “Peaceful Coexistence River”) . As a result I should have a pleasant ride down the mountain at first, but should have to work may way back up a total of 276m in altitude on the return trip.
Along the way I stop by some rice fields, admiring their growth. It will still be a few months till the rice is ready here in the north. Down south, meanwhile, Kayoko should tell me, they can harvest rice two times in a single year.
There is also a number of other, smaller vegetable fields around, and much to my delight, some witty company seems to have promoted the “Tiger! Tiger!”-approach to protecting these crops. Either way, these inflatable felines are to be found all over the place if you keep your eyes peeled.
Not wanting to take the same route both ways, I eventually take a slight detour through a wooded part on the other side of the Touhoku Expressway. A good call, as it should turn out, for that decision leads me right to a little old Shrine that is not marked on any map. In fact, it's so old that even with Kayoko’s help I can’t figure out the name of this Shrine since it uses outdated Kanji. Makes me kinda glad to be using an alphabet that has gone unchanged for over four hundred years, and remains recognizable even when going back for up to two millennia.
Since I know that the Shrine is located on this side of Appigawa, I briefly look into taking an uncharted road that seems to lead through the forest into the right direction…
…but it turns out to lead up into the mountains as opposed to along the river, so I turn around and take the road along the opposing riverbank instead, even though that one becomes gradually less well-maintained…
…and eventually ends altogether.
Fortunately, by now I'm quite close to my destination, and there is a field path that I can take to get back to the main road and onwards to the Shrine, which is across a suspension bridge on the other side of Appigawa.
Looking down at the river I can understand why it would inspire peace. The river is so calm and tranquil, and if there had not been a bridge I could probably have safely waded across.
But now to the Shrine, which turns out to be easily worth the entire way and more.
By itself, it’s only a normal little Shrine. However, the place at which it is built makes it really special: You see, the Shrine, which goes by the name of Fudo Yashiro (不動社 “Immovable Small-Shrine”) is built into the gap between a broken-of precipice and the cliff it was attached to. Mere pictures can’t do the epic feel this place exudes justice. You really have to come here and see it for yourself. It feels like a location out of a book, game or movie, and it’s hidden away out of sight in a place that many people will never discover even if they pass within a few hundred meters of it along the road every single day.
And then, there’s the details, like this one-yen piece that was placed in a spiderweb. These smallest denominations of Japanese currency is made of aluminium and barely weighs a single gram, making it light enough to swim on water if placed carefully, and apparently also light enough to be carried by cobwebs.
Also, as if the Japanese writing system was not already complicated enough as is, this Shrine introduces me to a pattern that I should subsequently observe on a number of other Shrines as well: Instead of being written left-to-right or top-to-bottom, the Shrine’s name is written right-to-left (社動不 as opposed to 不動社). This is something I only realize due to having become familiar with the naming conventions of Shrines in the past, as well as recalling the nearby Fudo Waterfall, which was also written as 不動. It makes sense, if you think about it: In a system where you traditionally write top-to-bottom and then align the columns right-to-left, the logical consequence is that when the columns are only one character tall, then the text is written right-to-left (that, or they took their horizontal writing lessons from Zorglub). I assume that it was only with the influence of western civilization that the Japanese people began writing left-to-right when writing horizontally.
Having properly appreciated this place, I now turn around and begin my trip back up the mountain along the well-maintained main road, passing the seventh heaven by the way. I knew this place was too idyllic to be a part of the mortal realm!
Subsequently, it’s past a Totoro-bus stop…
…and onto the primary rise of the road, from where I get a good view of Maemorisan (前森山 “Before Forest Mountain”), the mountain at the foot of which Appi-Kogen is located.
While catching my breath, I also take a moment to appreciate the beautiful clouds we are having here today, and while they certainly are not as spectacular as the unique clouds of New Zealand, they are pretty to look at nonetheless.
It is here while taking a break that I should discover the biggest butterfly I have ever seen. Almost as big as my hand, it appears to be drying its wings before taking a flight again.
After that little break, I continue to make my way up the mountain, which is quite an ordeal in temperatures such as this.
Through pure strength of will I push myself up the final stretch of the way though, past the intersection near the Appi-Kogen Station, past the Soba fields, and finally all the way back to the Appi Ranch.
That shouldn’t be the end of this trip’s curiosities, however. After indulging in a tasty plate of curry rice at the Appi Ranch, I make my way back past the Hotel Appi Grand, only to walk right into what seems to be a remotely coordinated rehearsal of the Appi Grand Wind Orchestra.
After that, it’s only a short walk back to Pension Mutti, where I should give my backside a well-deserved rest from the barely padded saddle of the mountainbike. And actually, since we already started with a perfectly good curiosity here, why don’t we go ahead and proceed with the remainder of…
One nice thing about cleaning rooms is that sometimes you get to clean rooms that are currently in use. Nothing big, just emptying the trash, vacuuming, perhaps making the bed look nice and such. The perky part about this is that you actually get to enter the rooms of people perfectly legally, and see the sort of stuff that they have around, such as this thing that I can only identify as a sex toy for small dogs.
And speaking of dogs, here’s Sasuke’s very original food bowl.
Moving from dogs to wolves, one night, before Adrian leaves, he joins me for a game of Ecchnasi. He quickly grasps the concept and gives me a good game during which I don’t feel like I have to hold back at all.
Outside the house, there lives a big spider, and I am quite grateful for its efforts to keep mosquitoes and other little pests away.
By the way, did you know Japanese people often use scissors in place of knives? This is of historical origin: Knives used to be exclusively kitchen tools, whereas only chopsticks were used at the table. As such, all food was cut into edible pieces in the kitchen, unless it was by its very nature soft enough that you could just use the chopsticks in a scissor-like manner to divide it into edible bits. A good example for this would be tofu. With the advent of western cuisine, however, this paradigm shifted, and while cutlery soon found its place at the table, many people were still so used to scissor-cutting their food that scissors found their way into what is considered cutlery here in Japan. Today, many dishes such as steak and pizza are cut with special cutlery-scissors in Japan.
In classical Japanese manner, there is also a TV in the kitchen, and it should be running all the time. During breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as during the morning and evening shifts, as soon as someone is in the kitchen for more than a few minutes, the TV is turned on. Unlike in Sapporo, where we watched mostly entertainment programs, however, Kayoko and Hikita favour local news programs to stay on top of current local events and trends to be able to advise their customers, so even watching TV is part of work for them. as a result, I should not see too many outlandish stuff on TV (apart from the crazy Japanese adds, of course), with maybe the most notable one being a comparison of the top 100 brands of Vanilla ice cream that just keeps going on for hours.
And then, there’s the weather forecast, during which I should learn that there is such a thing as “rain”, “very rain” and “please stop rain”.
Now, almost half a year after I left Germany, my toothpaste is finally starting to run out. Good thing that there’s a Konbini more or less nearby where I can restock on such things, although I should find that it's not quite as easy to decide on a brand if you can’t really read what’s written on the tubes.
I think I already mentioned that you can get everything you need in daily life in these Konbinis (and then some), but I think this one really drives the point home: In addition to utilitarian things such as food and stationery…
…this one also sells Kirby merchandise…
…as well as adult magazines in a separate section that is adequately cordoned-off from the regular magazines by a pair of hand-high plastic dividers. I bet you have to be at least old enough to be able to pay money in order to buy something from this section.
Speaking of shopping, on some of those trips Kayoko should leave us, the helpers to stray through the aisles of the various shops she visits on our own for some time, resulting in us finding strange plants (looks like a stone, feels like a stone, but is actually a xerophyte)…
…and whatever the hell that is (apparently some kind of kitchen machine).
Also, I know I already mentioned that Japanese cashiers instinctively put everything you buy into bags, but this time they manage to really outdo themselves.
While we’re in Morioka, I also get the chance to listen to the peculiar sounds that some of the bugs make. At first I think it's birds, but then I realize that it’s actually just another species of bug. No wonder that the birds have to scream to prevail against such a cacophony.
And there’s many more curiosities to be found in the parts of Morioka that I should visit this time, such as the somewhat superfluous “turn anywhere”-road arrow…
…or solar-powered traffic cones.
Then, there’s this sign that I don’t quite know how to deal with. Does that mean that only elderly people are allowed to walk here? Or are there simply so many seniors living in this part of town that this sign is representative of the average population? The Katakana below the sign read Shirubaa Zoon (“Silver Zone”), so I guess maybe the second explanation might be more accurate.
Meanwhile, some of the roads that we drive here are so narrow, that I’m afraid we are going to fall of both sides simultaneously. Good thing there are only rice fields on either side, and not bottomless pits or anything.
I also get to see how the automatic ETC system for the expressways works… or not. Since the toll gate near Appi-Kogen is currently undergoing renovations, Kayoko has to get a good old-fashioned paper slip on her way to Morioka, and boy is the expressway expensive.
I think my subconsciousness reflexively suppressed the memory of just how expensive it actually was, but the gist of it was somewhere along the lines of…
In essence, that means that I would never pay that much money only to save maybe half an hour on the way, and even Kayoko agrees, saying that the only reason why she takes the expressway today was because she really is in a hurry today and every minute she can save counts. In retrospective that makes me really glad I did not use the expressways on my trip through Hokkaido.
By the way, Kayoko’s car also has a really nifty invention in the form of a bottle holder that you can clip to the AC vents, thus actively cooling your beverages while you store them.
Next, there’s this very… uhhh… suggestive sign (the correct translation of which I cannot deduce due to the Kanji being written in a font that merges horizontal lines together to an indecipherable block).
And by the way, that’s not big money…
…that’s big money.
Finally, in an somewhat unexpected turn of events, a Japanese family visiting the Pension should ask me to pose for a picture with them… and a week afterwards I get a cute little love letter from a girl by the name of Mai, featuring copies of those photos. She lives in Gunma-Ken, where the new heat record of 41.1°C was recorded, and she and her family originally came to Appi-Kogen to escape the heat. Should I eventually get to meet her again during my journey? Only time would tell…
And that’s it for the flair, next up is the first joined trip with Chiara and Ying as we are off to…
Interlude: Un-Climb The Mountain!
One sunny afternoon four days after Chiara and Ying arrive, Kayoko should take the three of us up the side of Maemorisan and give us instructions for a trail that would take us back to Appi-Kogen again. Quite a nice way of enjoying the scenery without having to actually climb the 200m up here in these subtropical temperatures ¬– even at this altitude it’s still 27°C hot (and humid). From there, we should take a path across a heath, and then through a shady forest pretty much all the way down.
Starting at about 850m in altitude, our path leads us directly across a horse pasture populated by four equines who keep a respectful distance away from us.
Before long, however, we enter the forest, and while the path is hard to find at first, and we almost lose our way once…
…eventually we should reach the main hiking path (apparently the way we came was an access path from the nearest carpark). From there on, getting lost should be really, really difficult since there are pink ribbons (occasionally augmented by a few other colours) attached to every second tree along the way to make sure absolutely no one loses the trail.
Now then, when I say that we “walk through the forest”, most of you are probably going to imagine a nice and quiet walk, maybe with birds chirping and occasionally the sound of water from nearby streams. Well… forget about that. These forests are dominated by cicadas of various breeds, and those critters are loud. In fact, they are so loud that I can bear-ly hear the sound of my bear-bell, which served as a constant source of annoyance to Chiara until the insects started overshadowing it in volume.
In fact, there are so many of these bugs around that they don’t even bother hiding: They just sit there on the trunk of trees, big and inviting crunchy bites for every insectivore that happens to pass by.
As we walk through the noisy but beautiful forest, Chiara and I end up talking about all sorts of things, happily chatting the path away while Ying turns out to be more of the big, silent type of character. One way or another, however, I’m sure that each of us enjoyed our trek through woods and over little streams in his or her own personal way.
In essence, this should be the big version of the trip that Adrian and I took about two weeks ago, and our paths should eventually cross a little bit before we arrive at the forest’s edge, and proceed to the Appi Ranch to claim our lunches (and ice cream), which Kayoko kindly arranged for with the staff in advance.
And now, after all this work and enjoyment, it's time for…
I can already say with absolute certainty that Pension Mutti should become one of the best places I’d stay at in Japan – maybe even the best, but let’s see what the future holds in store for me.
The accommodation was okay, not really great, and only semi-private, but definitely acceptable, and better than some of the other places I’ve stayed at. The kitchen work was kinda stressful during the busy times, but at the very least it did not make me desire to be been eaten by bears instead… much. Meanwhile, the hospitality work was significantly more enjoyable and rewarding. I should do more of that.
With those two downers out of the way, let us now proceed to all the really great and amazing stuff that served to catapult this location to place #1 of Japan thus far, and probably for some time to come: Kayoko is a really, really, really nice host and did everything she could to make my stay enjoyable, including taking me on so many trips that I still have trouble catching up with my blog. Nyanta and Sasuke was nice to have around too, and then there were the other helpers, first and foremost of which would be Chiara, with whom I really got along great. In fact, we got along so well that she should be the first other traveller with whom I should stay in touch after leaving a place, and even now we are making plans to meet again once we’re both back in Germany.
The facilities at this place are great too, and although there is no dishwasher or drier, and the WiFi is a bit unreliable and slow at times, the nice Ofuro at least partly makes up for that. However, the best part about this place was – and you probably guessed it already – the food. At no other place during my travels thus far have I been so culinarily pampered as here, with three tasty Japanese meals made for me each day, regular eat-outs in restaurants, as well as almost daily free snacks and an unlimited supply of tea. Even with all the exercise I got doing chores and running or cycling around the landscape, this should serve to help me regain two of the sixteen pounds that I lost since the beginning of my journey in February.
As for the Work-Value Ratio… I can only say: “You win, Kayoko”. I tried my best to make up for all she gave me with the map and all, but even so she came up ahead with a total 10 hours that I feel I owe her for all she’s given me. All the tasks at this place only kept me busy for 29 hours a week, whereas I feel that this place would easily deserve 31. That puts Pension Mutti at the top of the Work-Value-Ratio ranking, beating even the Golden Bay Barefoot Backpackers of New Zealand (see Book I ~ Chapter 20 ~ The Golden Getaround).
Combine all these factors, and you get an impressive 4.5 star rating, which places Pension Mutti on Rank 4 of all the places I've ever visited, right below Juliet & Bryce’s Furry Farm in Carterton (see Book I ~ Chapter 23 ~ The Critters of Carterton) and above Jennie Edmond’s Farm in Outram (see Book I ~ Chapter 14 ~ Out in Outram).
With that, it goes without saying that I’m more than happy to sit down and prepare a piece of gift artwork for Kayoko and Hikita (her as a dog, him as a red panda), as well as their pets.
And since I've also got my drawing supplies out, I also prepare another piece for Chiara, who made my stay here so much more enjoyable. And yes, she does know about Chocobos… and Minecraft. Did I mention that I like that girl? =^,^=
At my last dinner at Pension Mutti, I present the gift artwork to Kayoko, and take a photo of the entire current crew of this wonderful place…
…and then it’s time to move on. But wait! I have not even told you about the final and quite possibly most memorable adventure that we should share together, namely…
Interlude: The Morioka Sansa Oodori Matsuri
I already mentioned that despite the current tropical temperatures, on an annual scale this place’s predominate weather is “winter”. As a result, Kayoko tells us, the people here celebrate the summer with energy and enthusiasm. One such occasion is the Sansa Oodori Matsuri of Morioka from 1-Aug till 4-Aug every year, which also happens to be the world’s largest drumming parade, and one of the five great festivals of Touhoku. It originated after the demon Rasetsu was defeated and sealed away by the god of Mitsuishi Shrine. I've actually visited that Shrine during my last visit to Morioka: It's the one where the demon’s handprint on the rock cannot be seen (see Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together).
In order to enable us to witness this amazing event, Morioka drops us off at Obuke-Eki (大更駅 “Big Renovation Station”) in Hachimantai – which indeed was just recently renovated – and gives us instructions about taking the bus to Morioka, as well as more than sufficient money for the fare there and back, as well as catering.
Down here in the valley, we feel the full brunt of the blazing temperatures: At 37°C, we try to stick to the limited amount of shadows that we can find the best we can.
At first, we are a bit uneasy about whether or not we’re waiting at the correct bus stop, but then the heavens send us a very clear “follow me” sign. From there, we should not have any problem getting to the Matsuri.
This bus trip should provide yet another new experience for me: Unlike in Sapporo, where I could use my Kitaca to pay the fare, here we have to take a numbered ticket out of the machine near the rear door of the bus, and then pay the fare displayed on the segmented screen when getting off at the front door. Not an easy process if you're not used to it, and having fares such as 690¥ certainly doesn’t make getting off any faster. In the end, it should take several minutes until all the people wanting to get off at Morioka-Eki are off the bus.
At the beginning, the bus is nice and empty, so we can easily grab seats by the window…
…but it soon fills up with school children returning from classes… in August… in these temperatures. I definitely wouldn’t want to raise my children here in Japan.
And then, we arrive in Morioka. Naturally, I have already laid out a stray route in order to show my companions a number of Shrines and other sights before the main parade starts at 18:00.
The city is definitely different from when I last visited it (or at the very least this specific part of the city) with Robert back in May. The most notable thing (apart from the blazing temperatures) are the cute little wind chimes that are hanging all around the street, and do not only attract my attention.
Among the Shrines that we should visit, there are a total of six that are new to me as well. In fact, it turns out that Robert and I must have walked directly past a pair of them without noticing, thanks to the fact that they are cleverly hidden beneath an office building, and only discernable by a solitary Shrine marker at the roadside.
Since it’s about our regular lunchtime now (read: about 15:00), I use this opportunity to give Chiara and Ying a short “how to survive in any Japanese city”-101, telling them about the various easy-to-use-even-if-you-don’t-know-any-Japanese restaurants and demonstrating at the example of a Nakau. It goes without saying that I should order Kitsune Udon, my all-time favourite.
After lunch, Ying goes his own way, using this opportunity to get some shopping done, while Chiara and I set off together, chatting merrily along the way and bonding at least up to rank 5. As we walk down the main street, where the festival is going to be held, we notice that many families have already reserved places next to the street my taping down tarps, and more often than not a member of the family is patiently holding the position (as if anyone would try to steal a claimed spot here in Japan).
Naturally, I should not miss this opportunity to show Ishiwarizakura, the stone-splitting cherry tree to Chiara…
…and from there on, we continue to Sakurayama Jinja (桜山神社 “Cherry Mountain Shrine”), which this time around is occupied by festival stalls and decorations of all sorts.
While we’re there, we also visit the Morioka Castle grounds, where we not only observe a tree with a crutch, but also a gang of youngsters performing some impromptu castle siege techniques.
Afterwards, we return to the main festival grounds, where we can see a number of impressive parade floats awaiting the time of action tonight.
There’s also something that I believe would be an amateur festival parade class going on, with a number of lead dancers in yellow yukatas demonstrating the motions, and a whole lot of amateurs in turquoise yukatas trying their best to imitate them while walking back and forth along the square. Luckily for them, the motions are highly repetitive. The drummers meanwhile all seem to be experts at what they’re doing.
Moving on, one of the more unexpected stalls at the Sansa Matsuri is that of Fleischermeister Togodate Yasuyuki, with Meisterbrief from Germany…
…and while this is not festival-related, here’s another neat little detail that can be found just at the side of the road by attentive observers.
I did mention that the military presence in Japan was notably stronger than in Germany, and so it goes without saying that at a big event like this the defence force is also present… just in case, you know?
As the sun gradually starts to set, the roadsides become ever-more crowded, and so Chiara and I eventually decide to secure a place for ourselves to watch the parade from before all good spots are taken. However, since all the good spots turn out to be occupied already, our choice eventually falls to place just behind a hedge not far from Ishiwarizakura, which has the advantage of begin in the shade while the sun is out and till gives us a good view of the parade.
And then, the parade finally begins. Frankly, after what I've seen at the Yosakoi Soran Matsuri in Sapporo (see Book II ~ Chapter 7 ~ The Sapporo Strawberry Stay), this is somewhat underwhelming. Whereas the Yosakoi Soran Matsuri was a vibrant and colourful display of song and dance with a multitude of troupes performing original dances to a wide variety of tunes, the Morioka Sansa Matsuri turns out to be just hundreds if not thousands of drummers and dancers walking along the same route, playing the same repetitive rhythm (at varying speeds) and doing the same repetitive motions all over again. It's the sort of thing that would be nice at a parade if performed by one troupe, but at the Sansa Matsuri, that appears to be the overarcing theme, with the main variations being in the dancers’ and drummers’ outfits. Every now and so often, there is an unusual interlude with dragons, pipes or acrobatics, but mostly it's just the same old drumming and the same old dance. Eventually, after night has already fallen, we finally get to see one of the parade floats, this one being-bubble-themed and trailing soap bubbles behind it.
Hence, it’s not a terrible shame that we don’t have time to watch the entire thing, and shortly after the bubble float passes us by, we set out in search for dinner. One obstacle there is that the street with all the restaurants is on the other side of the parade, but fortunately, the Japanese – well-organized as they are – have arranged for crossover points that are regularly opened in gaps between the troupes maybe every 5 minutes or so. Fortunately, my Japanese skills are by now advanced enough that I can identify these points, for a group of people waiting to get to the other side is not really distinguishable from ordinary spectators in this crowd.
At first, we think about buying some of the readily available festival foods, but in the end there isn’t anything that rouses our interest enough to pay to overpriced festival prices. So instead, we end up eating tasty Cheese Curry at the Coco Curry house before embarking back towards the station and being reminded along the way that it's now less than five months until Christmas.
We reunite with Ying at the station, and take the last train back to Appi-Kogen, which ends up being quite crowded. Also, we learn that apparently festival-goers are exempt from the maxim of being quiet in trains, and the ride ends up being as “quiet” as a Japanese forest during summer.
Incidentally, this is also where we end up meeting Kotryna, who is easy enough to spot since she’s the only other foreigner on the train. Actually, Kayoko told us to keep an eye out for her, and so I invite her over to join us after the train has emptied out a bit during the stations of Hachimantai.
And that finishes my recount of all the many things that transpired here in Appi-Kogen. With that, it's now finally time to look at…
The Road Ahead
I should leave Pension Mutti behind at 7:30 on 8-Aug-2018. Saying my last goodbyes, I realize that I'm really going to miss this place, and Kayoko says I am welcome to come back here at any time. However, now the winds are blowing again, and I must fly once more, so Kayoko takes me to the Appi-Kogen station where we first met 33 days ago…
…and where the tracks are beckoning to the next adventure.
Once again, I have planned something special, notably different than just going directly to my next host. It might not be as spectacular as my round-trip around Hokkaido last months, but it’s something I've been looking forward to nonetheless. As such, I am going to end this chapter here, and dedicate a chapter of its own to the trip that is to follow, so stay tuned for more Tales from the Travelling Fox!