Friday, October 05, 2007


(Mutsu Park Hotel, Mutsu)

Never again will I travel without ear plugs. Not ten minutes after I turned the light out, a bunch of DUDES started carrying on in the corridor. All they seemed to be doing was talking loudly and laughing loudly. No reason why they couldn’t do that in their rooms, right? OMG THEY JUST STARTED AGAIN NOW. WHAT. WHAT. NO. I WILL GAIJIN SMASH THEIR TEETH. Yes, anyway. The noise stressed me out so much I couldn’t decide if calling reception to make them shut up was an irrational reaction or not. I elected to just jam my ear plugs in and take a stab at thinking happy thoughts.

This morning I did some quick research, hunting out road numbers, maps, and re-establishing where the car hire place was. Some convenience stores and petrol stations pop up on Google Maps, which caused me some grief.

I caught the 9:15 bus bound for Sai, with the intention of getting off at Ohata Station and having a taxi take me from there. Unfortunately, I’d maybe nodded off a bit on the leg between Ohata and Mutsu, and couldn’t remember how long it took, or how far it was, and maybe that K’s we just past was the K’s marked on Google, and should I get off? No, best stay on the bus if you’re not sure, there isn’t another bus for three hours. But this seems to be taking a long time. And going all remote coastal village again. Have I gone past Ohata already? Oh shit. I don’t know! There aren’t any convenient road signs to check. Should I get off and get a taxi back? Wait, there are absolutely no stores around here, I won’t be able to have anyone call a taxi for me. Ah crap. AH CRAP.

Asking the woman next to me if we’d passed Ohata ended this monologue. Yay.

Same as yesterday, a couple of taxis idled by the station, the drivers half asleep. Possibly even the same taxis as yesterday. They probably hadn’t moved. I woke the nearest driver up, my dodgy Japanese pronunciation and his thick accent sorted out the address, and off we went. I was still harbouring the slight fear that I’d judged the distances all wrong, and was going to shell out to go back half the bus ride, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.

I’d hired my car through an online booking service, specialising in taking English-speaking bookings. They’d set me up with Mazda. FYI, anyone else using the Ohata Mazda car rental office, there isn’t a Mazda sign to be seen. Suzuki, yes. Daihatsu, yes. No Mazda. The taxi driver even went in to confirm that they hired cars, before leaving.

They had my booking, so all was well. All they wanted from me was a photocopy of my licence and international drivers permit, a signature at the bottom of a form, and 5500 yen for two days hire. I don’t think she could be bothered attempting to explain insurance and the like.

The car they gave me was a Mazda Demio, which I think is the 121 back home. It was clean, new, and went, which is all I really needed.

I swear, it was like driving a tin of sardines.

I’m used to driving mum and dad’s cars. Mum’s isn’t new any more, but when you put your foot down, it goes. Dad’s is new, and goes even more. This tin of sardines, it was a gutless tin of sardines. It took a while to get up to 80 km on the long, flat, straight roads (which is twice the speed limit, ahem), and going uphill? Forget it. Most roads had a 40 km speed limit, and going uphill, I had my foot to the floor just to maintain 40.

While I’d remembered to grab my iPod, I’d forgotten to pick up my FM transmitter as well. Stupid me. The car was very quiet though, I’ll give it that. Earphones it was.

And I drove. And I didn’t have to worry about bus time tables or connecting trains, and William Wallace did not shout “FREEEDOOOM!” louder than I did. Hot diggity. If only car hire was a more feasible form of travel in this country. The luxury! The decadence! I could go where ever I wanted, whenever I wanted! UNLIMITED POWER!

While Shimokita-Hanto is quite large, it’s sparsely populated enough that I didn’t need a road map to get around; there were signs everywhere indicating distance and direction for everything I wanted to go to, in both kanji and English. The car also came with an in built navigation system. It was all in Japanese, but was nevertheless very useful. Until I turned the volume up and started listening to the radio, at which point it started talking to me. Having a moderate Japanese woman ask you a question when you’re alone in a car is very unnerving.

First waypoint in my quest was Osore-zan, a volcanic mountain that is regarded as one of Japan’s most sacred, it is said to be the doorway to hell. The mountain fronts onto a lake, and the creek running into it is said to be the equivalent of the river Styx, which all dead must cross. The Bodaji-temple there is for Jizo, who looks over unborn babies and dead children, although people visit this mountain to commune with the dead in general. The name, ‘osorezan’, literally means ‘mountain of fear’.

The drive there was fantastic. As much as I mocked the 40 k/p/h speed limit, I was hard pressed to find any opportunity to do more than 50. The road was a narrow, twisty, windy thing, full of sharp turns and blind corners and more hairpins than I thought possible. All around was lush wonderful light-filled forest. Are they elms? I don’t think so, but they had light green leaves, and everywhere gold and brown and red and purple was hinted at. Although the drive was fun, it’s on roads like these I prefer to be the passenger, and spend the whole time staring out the window.

The lake Usuri-ko sprang out suddenly, the trees fell back, and I was there.

While all the tourist information goes on about how eerie the place is, gate way to hell and all that, none of the mentioned how astonishingly beautiful it is. The temple didn’t jump out at me, so I move quickly to the grounds themselves.

(There were a couple such murals, or banners, or panels, fencing a court yard before the temple. I don't know what exactly they depict, but the pictures are pretty good indicators. Hell. And fear. And Buddha.)

It’s moderate thermal activity area, just a couple of small vents breathing heavily and casting pale green on the stones around them. Still, it’s a wasteland, with nothing growing at all. Except rocks. People have created cairns, strangely intricate piles of stones, to aid the dead in their passage through the underworld. All the rocks are awkwardly shaped, and these piles so careful constructed, they look delicate. Lonely and colourful windmills were stuck here and there, placed by the parents of unborn children. Some of them spun in the wind. Some of them didn’t.

I found a back trail leading up into the forest, and took it. The bushes rustled as I walked by, and a peek in the foliage revealed a SNAKE. Wait, this isn’t Australia. Scratch the dramatic capital letters. It was a small, red, black and cream pattered fellow, and very shy. As soon as it noticed I was going for my camera, it slithered like a super fast slithering thing and vanished.

At the top of the trail was a small altar, featuring one of buddha’s less friendly faces. There were a couple of cans left as offering, and some flowers. Behind the altar, I found three tiny little jizo, facing the stone, backs to the world.

(See those teeth? Not friendly, not friendly at all.)

(This guy was on a retaining wall behind the altar, and the longer I looked at him, the creepier he became. I mean, just look at him. LOOK. AT. HIM.)


The snake didn’t come out on the way back down. I could hear it hiss, “fucking paparazzi,” as I left.

I wandered through the stone piles. It’s a sad beauty. It’s a lonely beauty. There was no one else around, and all I could hear were crows.

(Many of the piles built from smoother rocks were written on. I can guess, messages for the dead.)

(In instances where the thermal vents were open, many coins were tossed in, piled up, corroded and melted.)

(Whenever Jizo has lost his head, a new one is put in place. He is never headless.)

The path wound out of the rock piles to some more shrines and pools, one of them a startling blood red. It followed the lake shore, where the clouds and blue sky kept moving and throwing great shafts of sunlight down over the mountains.

Everywhere I looked, there was brilliant, contrasting colour. The golds and greens and rusts of the woods, the deep blue sky, the pale and deepening aqua of the lake, the white sand and stone of Osorezan, it went on and on. It is a desolate, bleak place, and it’s also teeming with life and movement.

I hid behind my sunglasses a bit more.

Shimokita-Hanto isn’t really pitched as a tourist destination, nor is it trying to become one. I believe the peninsula is worth visiting just for Osorezan.

More later. Right now, I have to pack and sleep. Only up this late because the dryer was pathetically slow with my washing.

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