Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Road Trippin'

We had all of the ingredients for your typical American-as-apple-pie road trip: summertime Saturday morning, four good girlfriends, music loaded on the iPod, snacks -- and even the token bout of car trouble.

I digress to tell the back-story here: My car battery died in a tiny one-road village we'd stopped at on one of our many potty breaks. Apparently, the constant uphill climbing on mountain roads was too much for my little Suzuki. (Read: It was rainy and I left the lights on. Doh!) But the four of us were able to pool our individually-lacking Japanese skills and communicate enough to call to get the car jumped. There was also the matter of creating quite a spectacle with the neighborhood kids, who had apparently never seen a broken-down K-car crammed with four giant gaijin women. We shared our raw veggie snack stash with them while we were waiting for the car repair guy to show up. They'd apparently never eaten raw carrots either, and, at first, silently stared at us – and our vegetable offerings – with wide, “you-want-me-to-eat-what?” kind of eyes. But they ended up really digging the ninjin (carrots) and even helped themselves to seconds.

But, this being Japan and all, last weekend's road trip was anything but apple pie.

For starters, our destination was pretty unique: We visited 白川郷 (Shirakawa-gō), a centuries-old UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in mountain valley in Gifu prefecture. Shirakawa-gō is a picturesque village of still-inhabited thatched-roof houses, painstakingly constructed against a breathtaking backdrop of towering deep-green pine trees and mountain mist. 'Twas one part Amish community (given the whole stepping-back-in-time factor) and two parts Brothers Grimm (given the whole stepping-into-a-scene-from-a-fairy-tale factor).

Our accommodation was also a bit strange: We slept in a temple-turned-youth-hostel (complete with a 10 p.m. curfew – apparently late-night carousing is not very Zen), run by a very kind Buddhist monk. We tucked into futons spread out on a tatami-covered floor. The earthy smells of tatami, pine and rain (it's still rainy season, y'all), along with the sound of the steady summer shower on the roof, lulled us to sleep. Quite the spiritual experience for a bargain 3000 yen.

Our company was out-of-the-ordinary as well: We caught dinner at a lively local restaurant, complete with Gifu's finest regional fare. Walking into the dining area, where we ladies were greeted with a rowdy “Hellooooooo!” from a table of young Japanese guys, out celebrating their friend's wedding. (In Japan, the bachelor party apparently happens on the night of the wedding. Yeah, we didn’t get it either.) The guys had downed quite a few beers and were quite eager to bust out their English – turns out they'd all met while studying abroad a few years back in California. A couple were actually working as English teachers in real time. But as our 10 o'clock curfew came around, we, being good Cinderellas, excused ourselves from the proverbial “Ball” and headed back to our temple hotel.

I digress again to explain, who, exactly, is “we.” “We” is me, plus three fellow Fukui JETs who happen to be the best pals a gal could ask for. This road trip was our final girl's weekend, a last hurrah before we left the safe, warm blanket that is June and flipped the page to July, the month we will leave Fukui and be scattered all over the world again. When I came to Japan 11 months and 1 week ago, these girls were strangers, but now they are my family-away-from-home, my lifelines, my sanity, and some of my best friends. I will miss them terribly.

Unfortunately on the way back home the next day, we – despite all of our girl-bonding glory -- experienced the dark underbelly of road tripping. The previous night's rainy season shower turned into a full-on typhoon, which made navigating windy mountain roads somewhat daunting in my little blue car. We got lost (of course), wound our way through four different prefectures, ended up in Nagoya, and blew 6000 yen and nearly five hours on toll roads trying to get back in Fukui. Nice.

But I guess that's part of the fun. Typhoons, carrots, cultural heritage sites, temple hostels and drunken J-boys: all the ingredients needed for your typical Japanese road trip.

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