As Geri entered the women’s side of the baths, a group of old women exclaimed, out loud, “Hakujin!” We know this word. It means white person. Geri knows this word. She suddenly knew what I felt when I walked into a grocery store in Rapid City, South Dakota and encountered a store full of white faces smiling and pointing at me. It wasn’t a negative experience, but it was strange that they thought I was some kind of emissary from a foreign land despite the fact that I was probably the same generation American as they were.
After Geri told us the story, we realized we hadn’t seen a white person since we left Tokyo. And we wouldn’t see another one until we left Koriyama two days later.
As has often been reported by JA’s who travel to Japan, it’s a strange experience. The locals all think you are Japanese, so they speak to you. Then they see the confusion in your eyes, and they wonder if you are crazy or mentally handicapped. Somewhere on the list of ailments scrolling through their minds is “American,” but it’s way down there, likely after, “drug addict,” or “evangelical Christian.” Japanese evangelicals tend to be nuts.
We gorged ourselves on the buffet breakfast. I ate so many pickled things and had my first fish for breakfast. I gotta say, I really like cooked salmon and rice for breakfast. The Japanese have mastered pastries. The croissants were amazing. And they seem to like French toast. Coffee, fish, natto, yogurt with fresh fruit, rice, miso mocha balls (dango), pickled stuff, we ate just about everything.
And we would need it because Miyuki’s brother, Minoru, had serious plans for us. We went to the Aizu samurai castle, which sort of a samurai holdout during the civil war that ended in 1868. The government forces stormed the castle for a month before it was taken. Meanwhile, inside, almost everyone eventually committed suicide.
We walked through town after, and then got in our cars and headed an hours drive up into the mountains to see a 400 year old village. The thatch roof huts all had souvenirs and locally-made bowls and chopsticks. And they all served hand-made soba noodles and ice cream. After exploring the area, we picked one, sat on the mats and enjoyed a nice lunch.
The woman who ran the place was really nice, and she chatted with Miyuki. She had lived in Tokyo, so the contrast of lifestyles couldn’t have been greater. She married the man whose family owned this establishment, and she felt fortunate to now be a part of it. Apparently, only family members can purchase these places. Her son who appeared to be about Owen’s age and was wearing a Chicago Cubs cap, walked through and hopped down from the raised platform. He greeted us and said he was going to visit a friend in another hut. We felt like we were a part of the little town. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but it was pretty cool.
Minoru then took us further into the mountains to a little rest stop with shops that were now closed, but we walked through the little village and came upon a huge gorge with a river and a somewhat rickety suspension bridge. It was a beautiful, serene spot that we would never have known about with Minoru. There were huge fish rising in the water beneath the riffles, and we died a little bit not knowing what kind of fish they were.
That night, Miyuki, the kids, and Minoru left us at our hotel near Lake Iwanashiro. It was a ski lodge and was pretty fancy. We were a little concerned when we checked in because the woman at the front desk told us she had to escort us to the room. She led us through the lovely lobby, past the shops, into the terribly noisy game room, out the narrow door and into a narrow corridor outside, and down several flights of steps onto a steep hill lined with rooms. Ours was half way down the hill. We realized the next morning that during winter, one could ski down from the lifts to the rooms.
Alone without our guides and interpreters, we ate at the hotel izakaya (pub food). Miyuki had read the signs in the lobby and told us that was the only place still open. It was the end of a long day of driving and siteseeing, and we slept hard that night.
The next day, Geri drove us north to Zao Fox Village in the mountains north of Koriyama. It was a 90-minute drive that took us almost 4 hours because we had to first stop in a small town JR station to purchase our bullet train tickets for the next day, and we couldn’t figure out how to use the toll road/freeway until about half way there. But we saw so much of the area, navigating with google maps through small towns, rice fields, and something new for us: peach farms. Miyuki had told us the area was famous for its peaches, so we made a note to find a place to get some.
The Fox Village was cool. We had watched some youtube videos about it back home, so we knew what to expect. And it didn’t disappoint. When you buy the tickets, they warn you repeatedly not to touch the foxes. They tell you to not even kneel down to take pictures because they can bite or try to take your camera or phone from you. The woman at the counter extended her wrist to show us scars that we realized were in the shape of a fox’s mouth. Yikes. Proceed with caution. Got it.
In reality, the place was pretty peaceful. The foxes barely acknowledge your presence. We had bought a bag of snacks to feed them from the feeding stand. We were told not to even take the plastic bags out until we were safely inside the feeding stand because the foxes would come after us if they knew we had the food. The highlight was when Geri and Audrey got in line to hold the baby foxes. We had gotten there at just the right time. They put on these yellow rain coats and sat in chairs set up by the baby area. Along with about a dozen other people, they paid 1500 yen (about $15) to be handed a baby fox to hold for a few minutes. The pictures say it all. Part of the fox-holding group was three Asian American dudes. One looked to be South Asian. They were laughing as they realized none of them could let go of a fox to take a picture. I told them I could take their picture. The South Asian dude told me his phone was next to his foot with the camera already on. I took a bunch of pics for them. They thanked me after and we chatted a bit. They were from Orange County, traveling and hiking from south to north for two weeks. Nice guys.
We left the village, trying to decide if it was worth it to drive another 45 minutes north to Sendai for dinner. Geri was getting pretty good at driving, and we wanted some good food, so we went for it. And we are so glad we did.
We drove towards the center of town without really knowing where we were going. The internet guides mentioned a street area that was popular with locals, so we looked for it. I looked up the street, and we navigated to it. At first we were disappointed because it was just a regular downtown area that looked like downtown LA. We found public parking and walked a few blocks. Yelp and Foursquare showed a grouping of sushi restaurants about three blocks from where we parked, so we headed in that direction, just hoping to find a place to eat.
We hit the jackpot. We looked down a side street and saw…everything. Shops, restaurants, bars…we had found the cool part of Sendai. The rustic side streets and alleys, full of tiny places to eat and shop, gave way to a huge modern outdoor mall, complete with luxury department stores. Every corner took you to another experience with a completely different vibe.
We picked a sushi place. The rustic door was deceiving as we entered a well-lit, high-end restaurant. They gave us the waiter who knew a little English, and we somehow ordered a few things. It wasn’t the greatest sushi, but the tuna was really good. We ate a small meal and headed out to find more food. We picked an izakaya nearby. The guy who worked there seemed happy to see us. We sat down and the waitress brought us water and a piece of sushi for each of us. Onigiri (rice with egg) for the kids, and Tai (snapper) for me and Geri. How did they know what our favorite things were? At first we told her we didn’t order these things, but she pointed to the guy who bowed to us. Wow. The food was great. Ramen, kara-age, small plates of all kinds of things. Back in the outdoor market place, I went to a fruit stand that had a variety of peaches. The prices ranged from $2-$15 for two peaches. I opted for the $6 pair. I gestured for the man to pick one, and he seemed to understand that I was a foreigner. He scanned his peaches, picked a couple up and analyzed them. The third choice seemed to satisfy him, and he held them up to me to see. Looked fine to me, so I bought them.
We drove back to the hotel, tired and full. Before bed, I had to try one of the peaches. I washed it off and bit into it. It was so intensely sweet. I have never tasty anything so intensely peachy that wasn’t’ candy. The juices ran down my chin. I considered just eating the whole thing and not sharing with Geri or the kids. But only for a second. Some things are so exquisitely good, they have to be shared.
Slept well again, and woke up the next morning to another epic buffet breakfast. We jammed the little Mazda 2 hatchback full of our suitcases, bags, and us, and Geri drove us the 45 min trek back to Koriyama where we took the bullet train back to Tokyo where we needed to find a train to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima had been looming in my mind for the entire first few days. It was a place we knew we had to go, despite it being so far from everything else. I wanted my kids to see, firsthand, what cruel, horrific things humans are capable of. I expected our hearts to be broken, our worldview to be altered. Hiroshima would not disappoint.