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November 4 Hotaka Wasabinijo

Out in the Country and back to the City

Matsumoto morning: was out walking before breakfast, photographing and shrine-visiting. Returned to the hotel and had breakfast (served in an unusual buffet mode - all the Japanese-style components, like at the ryokan, plus some Western stuff like juice, coffee and cereal) in the restaurant downstairs, then checked out and walked back to the station, where I stowed my bag in a coin locker. Caught a local train out to Hotaka, to visit the Daio wasabi farm. Following the map they gave me at the visitor-info booth just outside the little station there, I moved through this little town, passing several dosojin. These are spherical carvings, about a meter and a half wide, described in some of the local travel literature as
"...round stones carved with the figures of two deities, a male and a female. On most of the stones, the couple is either holding hands or the female figure is offering the male figure saké. They are affectionate, charming deities that since olden times have watched over the fields and families and served as a focus of festivals."

"Dosojin are guardian deities who are closely associated with roads, travelers and local boundaries."

Eventually the buildings thinned out, leaving me walking along a narrow road through the fields. Low mountain ranges were visible in the distance and I realized I was out in the country - mysterious, unattended fires billowed smoke at the edges of the fields, and the only the occasional vehicle whizzed by as I plodded on, following the map. Presently a clump of buildings materialized at the end of the road, with a large parking lot out front. The autumn smell of burning leaves triggered nostalgic memories - curious that the American has to go to Japan to smell that fragrance. Finally, after walking a bit over a mile, I arrived at the big farm's store-showroom complex, a clump of buildings along side the shallow river where they wasabi plants are cultivated. The root of the plant, idolized here in the sculpture, is chopped up into the paste we're all familiar with that green stain in our sushi. Here was a restaurant with a set course meal emphasizing wasabi, and windows looking out along the river; a showroom with packaged goods for sale, including rice crackers, candies ("Wasabi Jelly Mouse" - sound good?) and dip, with free samples; and a short-order stand with wasabi ice cream - soft-serve which had little flecks of green but was so diluted I didn't taste anything.

On the way back I fell in with another walker on the road, a woman named Chikako I'd observed at the farm, asking about a bus, then heading out ahead of me. I suggested hitchhiking, and although she seemed dubious; when the vehicle pulled over got in too. I stuck out my thumb and, as I'd suspected, got a ride almost immediately - the second car that passed us. (I've heard tell the hitching's excellent in Japan, due to a positive reaction of the natives' curiosity about foreigners combined with their lack of fear of strangers.) Unlike Chikako, our youthful driver spoke hardly any English, so she filled him in about me based on the brief information we'd exchanged while walking. In the photograph, she's holding my business card, standing at the station - we'd just exchanged our meishi (although hers was for a job she's since quit) - and shortly thereafter, our trains arrived and we departed, travelling in opposite directions.

Back in Matsumoto I had lunch in a an old traditional restaurant called Kisoya, whose specialty is the grilled tofu called dengaku. Tasty!

Hanging around the Matsumoto station, waiting for the train back to Tokyo, I had an interior debate - the result was a significant jettisoning of cargo, to improve my health and well-being. All along during this trip I'd been dogged by my left knee - just before departure a doctor said there was no permanent damage, just an inflammation, ice it often and take lots of Ibuprofen; but now it seems I have a torn meniscus and Arthroscopic knee surgery is indicated. It's not serious but was most obvious during squatting: several photo-opportunities were thwarted when I tried, but a spasm of pain prevented my lowest down-hunkerings.1 This mobility situation was compounded by the Death Shoes: Skechers (Doc Martens look-alikes) I'd purchased for the trip as a lighter yet still weather-resistant alternative to my hiking boots. A mistake was made at the shoe store, however - I got a size too big.2 I thought I'd broken 'em in sufficiently before taking off, but I was in for a rude surprise - the heavy daily use I put 'em through raised some blisters the size of 100-yen coins - one was in a forward anterior position where I've never previously encountered a foot blister. The Death Shoes obviously didn't fit, and with the blisters, wearing them was now an agony - why was I carrying them around? I thought of just leaving them parked somewhere conspicuous, but it's doubtful anybody would claim them - first, the typical Confucius-influenced Japanese would just leave them alone; and second, they were probably way too big to fit any locally needy candidate's feet. And another problem: While I was thinking this through, I was siting on the upstairs floor of the train station, along the wall near the adjacent department store, because in Japan two things are (weirdly) rare in public spaces: chairs and trash receptacles. (A few places to sit are provided, but they're usually occupied.) Looking around, of course there was no big can to lob 'em into; disposal would be a little more difficult. Eventually I determined the capacity was adequate in the lower region of the department store's ashtray units, located just inside their entrance - no longer caring about appearances, I stuffed a single bulky shoe into each one. From this point on I'd be relying solely on my backup footgear, the sandals - these are neither mere flip-flops, nor the wooden geta everybody around me woulda been wearing a century ago 3 - rather, my Lands End pseudo-Teva 'sport' sandals.

Eventually the purple Azusa express pulled in to the station. I rode it through the increasingly dark countryside, occasionally punctuated by the lights of some town's pachinko parlor. Returned to Shibuya, walked back up the hill to check in at the Fukudaya. After settling in, went out for a bewildering walkabout over in the Shinjuku district. It's grown - vast new spaces and constructions; the Panasonic neon display adjacent to the Studio Alta-Vision screen was especially nice. (Glad I got to see the latter in its old monochrome-incandescent configuration.) Back to Shibuya for revolving kaiten sushi just before its closing time - this time the restaurant was a small one quite close to the hotel, I'd been passing it and finally succumbed to the raw fish urge.

Next: Shibuya


1 But if I don't try to compress my knee all the way, the affliction usually manifests itself merely as a dull pain, which comes and goes.

2 For some reason even at my advanced age I still have trouble getting the size right, and nowadays the help in shoestores is no help whatsoever - you know how it is, they just hand you the box, maybe they'll lace up the new shoes first - and that's all. No real guidance, except for "they usually stretch" - but sometimes they don't.

3 Yes, I could've easily purchased some geta, but I'd never wear them - not just because I'd look ridiculous - they're too noisy, those wooden clogs.

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