Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japan, April 6th - Kanazawa and Nagano

We took the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus today to see all of Kanazawa's sights. Miraculously, it didn't rain very much. In Omicho Market, we got tasty breakfast sushi from a fish vendor. In a Higashi Chaya District teahouse, we had matcha (green tea ceremony tea) and learned to play "sakura" on the shamisen (a traditional plucking instrument kind of like a banjo). We also toured an old geisha house, walked the narrow, winding roads of the Temple District, and visited Kenrokuen.

Kenrokuen translates as "garden combining six," which refers to its use of the six elements of the perfect Japanese garden: seclusion, spaciousness, views, antiquity, water, and (surprisingly) artificial construction. It's one of the top three gardens in Japan, and is built for large crowds. It was pretty, and offered an amazing hilltop view of the city, but didn't give us the same degree of seclusion we had felt last night when we were the only people in the garden of Oyama shrine. And the cherry blossoms aren't out at all yet. We were impressed with the huge number of wooden support posts under the long, drooping limbs of pine trees.

We also walked the grounds of Kanazawa Castle, where we found elderly groundskeepers picking up pine needles one by one off the lawns and doing something incredibly tedious with scissors. Sometimes it seems that Japan puts all its senior citizens to work as janitors and gardeners.

I had been to Kanazawa once before, when I went with my host family on a day trip in high school. I considered it a huge metropolis at the time, in comparison to the rice paddy isolation I was used to. This time around, it seemed much smaller, and a really pleasant place to live, if only it weren't known as "the rainy city."

Next stop, Nagano! We got some sushi to go and took a train along the west coast of Japan. At times, the ocean was only 50 feet from us on the left, and steep cliffs of the Japan alps only 100 feet from us on the right. As we turned inland through the mountains to approach Nagano, the snow got very deep, and the towns increasingly isolated. But things changed shortly before we arrived, and Nagano turned out to have a big-city atmosphere.

We had our first hotel booking strikeout today, and ended up in an overpriced, grungy business hotel. In our walk through downtown in search of dinner, we passed a surprisingly large number of chi-chi hair salons, but not many appealing restaurants. There were plenty in the red light district, but we didn't want to eat there, and eventually we landed in the back room of a smoky pub where we ordered green drinks (apple, lime, and melon flavored) and had tasty snacks like seafood pizza. (No, really! It's good!) We stayed there long enough to guarantee immediate sleep once we got to our hotel room.