Aug. 20, 2006: Arakawa and Nagatoro
We all (minus Keisuke) piled into the van and headed for the hills, not very far away, to spend a Sunday at the Ara River (Arakawa). On the way, we spotted a line of about 75 people on the sidewalk in front of a small restaurant, waiting patiently in the blazing sun. Our hosts explained that they were queued up for an opportunity to shell out 600 yen for a frappe, for which this establishment was famous. Evidently so.
We also passed an onsen, one of the hot springs resorts at which tourists and natives alike famously pamper themselves in the mineral baths–an especially welcome indulgence in the winter. We expressed an interest in dropping in, even though it’s the middle of summer, but it’s unlikely that we’ll be unable to swing it. Maybe on our next trip to Japan!
After parking the car beside the road, we took a brief hike to a picturesque spot with a waterfall, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch. We then hiked a trail to the top of the waterfall, and even farther–about 50 feet up a steep hill with the aid of a chain installed for that purpose.
Halfway up was a miniature shrine, which only the dedicated and/or hardy may access. Another mini-shrine, at which a number of passersby had deposited coins, stood back near the parking lot (if such a teensy patch of ground can be called a lot).
On to our destination, a resort town called Nagatoro. We saw a sign on a shop that advertised “Custom Painting Produce”, and asked “Would you like original paint only you?” This is one of the few cases of fractured English we’ve encountered (although an English brochure at Edo Wonderland declared that geishas “readily function in public”), which is really amazing considering that one sees signs in English everywhere–a far greater number than we’d anticipated.
In Nagatoro, we pulled up at a tour office and bought tickets for a boat ride on the river. Yukari and Toshihide elected to sit it out, as they’d already been there and done that. So we were left with only Ayaka to be our guide and interpreter, and to scuffle with her American brother, Zephyr.
We embarked in a large wooden boat that held about 25 people, plus two steersmen who propelled the vessel with poles–at one point, the pole slipped from the grasp of the lead pilot, and Dennis became a momentary hero by snatching it out of the water before it floated away.
Initially, it seemed a possible cause of concern that even though the seats were padded with flotation cushions, there were no life jackets. And we noticed several kayaks and whitewater rafts manned by people who did have life jackets. But it turned out that even though they were headed in the same direction we were, they adhered to a slightly different–and more turbulent–course. On our itinerary, the water was never more than 3 or 4 feet deep, though we did hit a few rapids to make the ride more thrilling. But thanks to a sheet of plastic attached to the inside of the boat, we were able to shield ourselves from getting heavily splashed. About 5 miles down the river we meandered, past bathers, fishermen, divers from the bluffs, and campers in tents.
The bus picked us up at again at the end of our cruise, and carried us back to our departure point, where we were rejoined by Yukari and Toshihide. Then we strolled down the main thoroughfare of Nagotoro, lined with shops and restaurants thick with tourists. The town brought to mind memories of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
At one of the cafes, Yukari and Toshihide bought us a serving of a little treat that they really wanted us to try. They referred to it by a couple of names, including “devil’s tongue”, which is perhaps the most appropriate designation. It was a roughly fish-shaped thingamajig on a stick, starchy and gelatinous, yet rubbery at the same time. Only the dark sauce for dipping it in made it palatable at all.
None of us could finish it, and when asked what we thought of it, we replied that it was certainly different. (The Japanese usually don’t say bluntly that they absolutely don’t like something, but instead offer a more diplomatic “amari suki ja arimasen”, i.e. “I like it not so much”, or even “so desu ne…”, equivalent to “let me see..” or “well…”) We looked for a receptacle where we could dispose of these “treats” discreetly with no one being the wiser. Trouble is, while recycling containers are plentiful here, trash cans can be virtually impossible to find. And yet you seldom see litter–do people just carry their garbage back home with them?
We walked all the way back down to the river and watched the boaters for a while.
Even more so we, like many other spectators on the banks, were watching and applauding a diver, a man (and not a particularly young man at that) who would climb onto perches 30 or 40 feet high on the opposite side and make spectacular plunges into what appeared to be perilously shallow water. Either the water was deeper on the far edge than it appeared, or else this fellow was extremely skilled.
Back at home, we all partook of a delicious peach that was sent over especially for the occasion of our visit by Toshihide’s father. From what we’ve seen and read, the Japanese don’t eat very much fruit–one reason being that it’s prohibitively expensive. Or is it expensive because people don’t eat it much? In any case, we’ve heard of apples selling for the equivalent of 5 dollars each; and while we haven’t seen them that high, we have seen them for at least 2 bucks each. And until now we hadn’t seen a peach at all. This evidently was a rather uncommon treat; it certainly was a tasty one.
Tonight we watched a rerun of an old TV show about Toyamano Kinsan, the folk character we learned about yesterday. Again, however, it was really the double-identity female who saved the day. We were told that the series was really dramatic rather than comic, but this particular episode was full of broad, campy comedy, rather like the play we watched yesterday. One character thought he could make himself invisible by holding his hands in front of his face in a T shape, somewhat like the timeout sign in basketball. We were to get a good deal of mileage out of imitating this gesture in the days to come.