Three Days Out, Part I: Iga, Ise Jingu, and Toba.

Wednesday began a set of excursions that would keep us out for three days. Because of that, I didn’t take my netbook along, because it would have been one extra thing to carry (and I learned my lesson in Kyushu). I stuffed two days of clothes and my sundries kit into my backpack, picked up the bag that held some presents for Megumi, and joined the group early that morning.

Despite the museum being pretty serious, local businesses seem to enjoy their “ninja town” status.

After a series of train rides (that didn’t include the Shinkansen), we arrived in Iga, the site of the old Iga Clan of ninja. The town is home to the Ninja Museum, which was our first stop for the day. We were among the first visitors, so it wasn’t crowded at all. The ladies who acted as guides wore ninja-style trousers and tabi, but only one of them gave us the tour; the rest worked more to show people where to go. Our guide didn’t seem like she’d be quick, but whenever she’d demonstrate a pivoting wall or hidden sword in the floor, she moved with catlike agility. I was the only one willing to try to use the pivoting wall (the first thing she showed us in the mock ninja dwellng, and the only thing she allowed visitors to attempt). I wasn’t as quick as she, but she praised me nonetheless. We saw hidden compartmens for items or people, clever escape hatches, and ladders disguised as shelves. Very resourceful. After our brief tour, we were allowed to go downstairs and see the exhibits. They had weapons, clothing, and even ninja water-walking shoes on display, as well as a looping full-length movie. Past that was another display building, ending in a gift shop (where I bought a realistic-looking hard-rubber kunai).

Outside the museum was a small shrine, though to whom, I don’t know. A path beneath a series of red torii led to it, so Warren and I purified and prayed while we waited for everyone else to be ready.

From there, we walked down into town to a bus station. We had a little bit of a wait, so we availed ourselves of the little convenience shop (more of a corner blocked off by merchandise shelves). Warren and I split a tuna-curry sandwich two-pack, and when I went back to get a melon soda, the nice lady at the counter complimented my Japanese, going so far as to say it was better than some native speakers. I deflected and thanked her as best I could and paid her my money, and she gave me back 10円 as “おまけ,” I guess because she liked my accent.

Our bus took us to the train station, and we boarded a train.  A group of what looked like junior-high kids boarded as well, and a shorter boy who sat next to me gave me the “harro” I’d come to expect from students looking to practice English. I said hello back, letting my Nano play in my ear, but the kid kept grinning up at me and looking like he really wanted to talk. I finally shut the Nano off and looked down, saying, “Looks like you want to speak.” He was surprised at my Japanese, and we had a short conversation; I told him he was brave for talking to me, while his classmates didn’t seem so daring. When it came to their stop, they all tumbled off, the one boy still grinning and looking very pleased with himself. I figure he was probably the school celebrity for the day, since he was the one who was brave enough to talk to an older foreigner.

I’d love to go back someday.

Finally, we reached Isuzu Station, gateway to the massive shrine complex called Ise Jingu, to which millions of Japanese make a pilgrimage every year. In short, if you go to Japan and visit only one shrine, Ise is the place to go.

The walk to the inner shrine was along a road lined with stone lanterns, and whose manhole covers even bore colored pictures of ancient Japanese pilgrims. Pretty impressive, and I get the idea Ise thrives because of the shrines. It was a lovely day, with an overcast sky keeping the sun from baking us, and a recurring breeze to cool us off. We stopped at a little town designed for shopping and eating, looking very period, yet full of modern tourists and items. We’d been given a set of three coupons, good for small-size food, each allowing a choice of vanilla soft-serve, dango, or a potato-and-pork croquette. We redeemed our first coupon for ice cream, then headed down the street for the entrance to Naiku.

The bridge that crosses the river into the shrines is rebuilt every twenty years, and this one had apparently been redone the previous year. Torii gates were everywhere, and necessitated bowing most every time. We all made our way to a huge purification pool, where we ritually cleansed ourselves (as we’d done every other time we’d visited a shrine or temple), then entered the forest. Well, almost all of us. Two of our group stayed behind, citing fatigue and boredom. Their loss.

We were eager to visit this incredibly important religious site.

I’d learned about Ise Jingu in my culture class last fall, and I was very interested in seeing what I’d only heard about, or seen a video about. I wasn’t disappointed. The forest had wide paths with crushed stone, towering trees, many with what looked like bamboo corsets (to keep the trunks safe from damage, I imagine). The main shrine was up a set of wide stone steps, and no photography was allowed once you hit the first step (though we saw a Japanese guy clearly violating that rule later on, halfway up the steps). Nearby the shrine was a small building, in which an authentically-dressed priest was writing, cooled by an oscillating fan, his only apparent anachronism. I nodded my head to him when I saw him, and he bowed deeply in response. The shrine is dedicated to 天照大御神 (Amaterasu-oomikami), the sun goddess in Japan’s creation myth. (Near as I can tell, the Japanese know it’s a myth, but everyone basically plays along.) Non-clergy aren’t allowed to enter the shrine itself, but can pray outside the fence that surrounds it, which we all did.

After a bit of walking, we came to another small shrine, at which we also prayed. Past that were the buildings in which they stored rice and silk, set high off the ground in simple wooden structures; no pagodas there, because Chinese influence had not yet arrived.

Our instructor finally left us to go check on our wayward members, while the rest of us went down to a public spot by the Isuzu river. It was, in a word, peaceful. The river quietly murmured by, giving a view of the bridge that crossed it, as well as the stone retaining wall on the opposite side, probably restored many times over the centuries. We took a few pictures and relaxed before heading back. I stopped and bought a very nice ema, with a bit of metallic-looking paint, featuring the tiger (my other option was the rabbit).

I’m drinking ramune… in Japan.

Back in the little shopping town, we headed back to use our other coupons for lunch. I found a bottle of ramune, and had to purchase it, but I learned an odd stipulation: if I drank it in the shop, it was 100円, but if I wanted to take it with me, it cost more. I paid the extra, since the group was getting ahead of me, and dashed to catch up. We passed a lot of little eateries, food shops, and pubs, some offering free samples of their fare. Most of us forewent the dango and instead got another ice cream and one croquette, or (like I did) two croquettes. They were small, but delicious, and I washed them down with my ramune.

The two girls plus one more chose to take a taxi back to the train station (300円 each, we learned later, for a 10-15 minute walk), but the rest of us enjoyed the day and strolled back.

On our next train, I found myself in a four-seater area, diagonally across from an older Japanese woman. I don’t recall how we got to talking, but she seemed encouraged by my Japanese, and spoke animatedly to me about Japanese music and singing; apparently, she’d been a singer and a music teacher in her youth. I found it difficult to keep up with her Japanese, in part from my narrow vocabulary, and partly because she spoke quickly. She was patient, though, and very pleasant.

Our meal at the Toba Seaside Hotel. I tried, but simply couldn’t eat everything.

We arrived and caught another bus to a place called 鳥羽 (Toba), specifically to stay at the Toba Seaside Hotel, located on a bay filled with islands. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and the scenery was gorgeous. The hotel was a 旅館 , or Japanese-style hotel, meaning the rooms had tatami flooring and a low table for eating, which was moved before bedtime by the housekeeping staff and replaced with futon and bedding normally stored in a closet. The four guys were in one room, while the girls occupied the next room over. We ditched our stuff and enjoyed the view for a while before heading out for dinner in our honor. We’d been encouraged to wear the yukata provided for us, but since I’m bad at sitting on the floor, I’d have ended up revealing too much, while the girls chose to wear their street clothes, so only the other three guys wore them. Dinner was in a room just for us, and it was a Japanese feast comprised of seafood, vegetables, and tofu fit for nobility (with a large bottle of Kirin beer for those of us who wanted one). Of course, I didn’t like everything in the dinner, but I damn sure tried my best to eat every bite of it. This meal was pretty big, and they brought us a couple more small dishes, so I was unable to finish everything like I’d done with the last two traditional meals simply because of the volume. When we were finished, the hostess offered us the use of a karaoke machine, but they had no songs I wanted to sing (and few that I knew at all).

After dinner, I looked for the pay phones so I could coordinate the following day’s visits with my Japanese friends. It took some doing (Hachiko was working, so I only got his voice mail), but we worked out a schedule. I realized afterward that I had the room key, so I started to look for my roommates. While doing so, I ran across a drunk man in the hallway, face painted with cat whiskers, cheeks rouged. Obviously a businessman at some party, especially since some of his coworkers came along. He apologized, saying he was an adult, but I told him I understood, and not to worry. He seemed vaguely embarrassed, but I assured him it was fine, and eventually said (in Japanese), “Sometimes, it’s best to screw around.” The guy’s face lit up, and he called to his coworkers, “He understands!” He seemed grateful, as did one of the office ladies with him, and we parted ways. Soon after, I found my roommates and handed off the key.

This was a superb hotel, really; they had an outdoor hot spring, an indoor hot-spring pool, two outdoor swimming pools (which didn’t seem to be filled for the season just yet), and a small beachside access. Warren wanted to try the beach out, so we went down to the nighttime waves to play a bit. I had no swimming gear, so I went up to my knees in the chilly water, while a few of the others dove in and romped (yes, romped). I eventually decided I’d rather try the indoor onsen, so I took my leave and went back to our room.

Because tattoos are associated with Yakuza in Japan, people with tattoos aren’t allowed in public bathing establishments, and the hotel was no exception. Four of our eight sported tattoos. There was a private bathing area they could have used, but it would have cost them, so they declined.

My first trip down to the bath house, I realized I didn’t know exactly what to do, though a pleasant gentleman just finishing up advised me of which towels I’d need and confirmed what steps were necessary first.

On my way back down (after getting my other towel), I met Warren and Heaven just coming back from the beach, and Warren said he’d be down shortly. The men’s bath house was excellent, by the way. There were shelves for your slippers, and cubbyholes with baskets to put your clothes. The lobby itself had hair dryers, combs (with a place to put used ones, likely for later sterilization and reuse), disposable razors and shaving foam, hair tonic, mirrors, a cold-water cooler, and a few chairs to sit in, plus a window that looked down on the outdoor spring. Inside, there was a large area with handheld shower heads, shampoo and rinse, soap (both bar and liquid), buckets for rinsing, and low stools to sit on, plus the pool, which was fed by a constant stream of very hot water. I sat down and washed myself throughly — which I needed, since it had been plenty humid that day — and as I was finishing, Warren came in. I slid into the pool and relaxed, feeling the muscle soreness and fatigue drain away, and Warren joined me shortly. We were the only ones in the place, so we could talk as loud as we liked. I spent maybe 10-15 minutes before exiting and rinsing off. Warren stayed behind, swimming a bit, as I made use of the lobby’s hair dryer and combs. He came out a bit later, and the two of us headed back upstairs.

After a good soak, I lay down and did the last bit of vocabulary homework for the trip, then went to bed.

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