Last weekend, I did something I've never done before in Japan --- went on a road trip. Not by train. Not by bus. In a car.
In the 30 plus years I've been coming to Japan I have never taken a trip by car. Been in taxis. Gotten rides to a station. My most memorable car ride to date was from many years ago, when I worked for the subsidiary of Nippon Steel. My boss was nervous about taking the train from our meeting site back to our hotel in Tokyo. To allay his fear, our hosts and Japanese coworkers arranged for a taxi to take us from our meeting site to Tokyo.
I wanted to take the train. I'm comfortable taking the trains and subways here. I have a good sense of direction and often find myself leading the way with Japanese friends who don't know where to go. And It would have been only about a 50 minute train ride. But no. He was really nervous about it, so I reluctantly got into the taxi. Four and a half hours later, yes, that's 4 and 1/2 hours later, when we finally arrived at our hotel in Tokyo ... after I had given directions to the cab driver on how to get there ... I was fit to be tied. Our colleagues, who had taken the train, had been at the hotel for hours! No wonder I hadn't been anxious to take a car trip.
However, I'm game for new things. So in planning our summer adventures, Shoko arranged with her cousin Keiko and her husband Mito-san, to drive us, and Shoko's son-in-law, Isao, to spend a weekend in the Tohoku region of Japan. We wanted to support rebuilding the tourism industry in the area hard hit by the 311 earthquake and tsunami.
We left on Friday afternoon and returned on Sunday, spending Friday night in the city of Sendai, and Saturday night at Sakunami Onsen (作並温泉). I still have no idea exactly where the hotel onsen was. It was nestled among the mountains not far from a lovely waterfall. If my companions had left me there, you would never have heard from me again.
The trip was a long time to spend in a car but the company was entertaining ... even though we did spend most of the ride to Sendai discussing what to have for and where to eat dinner. And as our arrival time kept getting further away it became a challenge to get reservations. After all that planning, we had a fabulous dinner in Sendai Friday night ... sitting outside on a pleasant evening ... eating sushi, ribs, barbecued steak ... and drinking just a little bit of sake!
As we traveled about, I had fun observing the Japanese countryside and trying to figure out Japanese road signs as well as the car's navigation system. It was very detailed. Showed not only where to turn, but what lane to be in. Also gave me some sense of where we were.
What always amazes me as I travel around Japan is the fact that just about any flat land is covered with rice paddies. They provide a beautiful landscape that looks a quilt of green blocks. And today, if not covered by rice paddies, land is covered with solar panels. And not just flat land. Roof tops - houses and businesses. We passed a hillside with a wave of solar panels sweeping up and down along the hill's contours. I learned the word for solar panel in Japanese ... solar panel.
One of the signs I saw frequently as we headed north, were signs for Fukushima. That name should ring a bell as the nuclear reactor damaged in the Great Tohoku 3-11 Earthquake and Tsunami.
If you've forgotten the devastation that resulted from the earthquake and tsunami, take a look at the Atlantic's article about it. We never drove very close to Fukushima, but did drove through some areas that had been hard hit. What's incredible is how much has been rebuilt.
In Matsushima, as we were waiting to board the site seeing boat, I was impressed watching the workers lay the foundation for a new waterfront. That sand was perfectly flat. Believe me. The workers were doing such careful work. By the time we returned from our boat ride, the bricks were laid.
Much of Matushima's waterfront is still under construction. However, I learned an interesting fact in my research on the earthquake and tsunami's affect on the area. It turns out that Matushima, even though the waterfront flooded, did not suffer tremendous damage. The sign indicating the edge of the tsunami's reach was about 700 M from the waterfront.
Turns out, that all those picturesque little islands diminished the effect of the tsunami. East Matsushima, which is on the outer side of the land surrounding the bay, had terrible devastation.
Another thing I observed along the way ... Wherever you go, there are idiot drivers. Going too fast, swerving through traffic. The worst one that I saw came flying up "slow traffic" lane and dashed off an exit. Of course, they were driving a Cadillac, a classic American car.
And, no matter where you go, there are back seat drivers. When we arrived in Matushima, one of Japan's most famous view spots, there was not only a lot of traffic, but also a lot of construction. Mito-san was driving, looking for a place to park. Keiko, Shoko, and Isao were all the back seat, and they were all telling him what to do. When I called them “back seat drivers” they couldn't literally translate it. The only Japanese language equivalent that they could come up with is “the annoying noise in the outfield bleachers” … if you’ve ever watched any Japanese baseball you can understand that phrase … the fans out there never stop chanting and cheering and waving flags and beating drums. Not a moment do they stop. Not for the ENTIRE game. I’m not kidding. I’ve been watching baseball on TV. It’s one of the few things on Japanese TV that I can understand.