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01/15/2009: "Chubu Tour Pt.1: Shizuoka"
Purchasing a car in Japan is a long, over-complicated, and difficult task. I understood this coming over and still I planned to get a car as soon as humanly possible. First I got my license, and then eventually my Skyline. Living in Tokyo is convenient and getting around is almost always done by the unbelievably punctual train system. Because of this, many of my classmates at my university were mind boggled why I'd go through the trouble and cost to get a car. Of course I first explained my passion for cars and drifting, but that wasn't the only reason.
When I planned to live in Japan for as long as I am, I wanted to get the true feel for the country. I don't mean hitting up some karaoke bars and having a few beers around Tokyo, I mean really feel Japan. Being here for two and a half years and sticking inside just Tokyo would be a true shame, and I knew that. I explained this to my classmates and they scoffed at me citing how convenient the Japanese train system was. They're right, it is, but trains can only go so far. The most popular site seeing spots are of course serviced by trains, but I wanted to get in the nitty gritty and go far off the beaten path. I want to go places foreigners normally don't go. With a car I could do it, and on my own terms. No train times, no backpacks, just straight-up road trips to the rarest places.
Now I've been to several places that fit that description thanks to my Skyline, but over the past two weeks, I took on my biggest road trip adventure yet. My Fall 08' semester has ended and I got almost a month of break before Spring semester started. Starting from right after new year, I planned a two week-ish road trip through the Chubu region of Japan. Because I saw so much, I will break up my trip into many different posts in a hopefully chronological order. To help me better illustrate where I went, I must first introduce you to some simple geography of Japan and the area in question (please excuse my homebrewed style maps and sub par photoshop skills).
This is Japan. It's an island country. Japan has four main islands. The main island is Honshu which translates to 'main state'. Honshu is the biggest island which has Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka on it. The northern island is called Hokkaido (translates to north sea road), the southern island Kyushu (translates to nine state, dunno why), and the fourth sitting under the west side of Honshu is Shikoku (translates to four nation). Honshu is split up into about five regions: Tohoku (north), Kanto (tokyo area), Chubu (highlighted area), Kansai (Osaka area), and Chugoku (west area). For this trip I hoped to tackle all of the Chubu region.
Chubu is the area between Kyoto/Osaka and Tokyo. For reference, in the above map I put those cities. I'll be referring to this map from time to time to show where I'm going. Japan has 47 prefectures which is their version of states. I live in Kanagawa prefecture just south of Tokyo and so my proposed road trip will take me west into Shizuoka, then to Aichi. From there I'll head north to Fukui and Ishikawa. Then I'll go slightly east to Toyama then south into Gifu. Finally, for the last leg, I'll go east into Nagano and Yamashi finishing back at Tokyo.
Here's Shizuoka (click map for a blown up version). Shizuoka is famous for a lot of things, most notably Mt.Fuji. Also, if you remember from previous posts, I've visited the Izu peninsula and Hakone directly south of Fuji.
Ok.. Now with that out of the way, let's start the trip. Japanese roads lack names to help you get directions or know where the hell you're going. This is great news for car navigation companies, not so much for me. In place of road names, the main roads/routes have numbers assigned to them. Before you start thinking, "oh, that isn't so bad.." let me tell you that more frequent then not, bisecting roads will share the same number. This makes road signs both comedic and tragic. There are some convenient roads though. One of these roads is Route 1. Route 1 pretty much goes end to end through Japan. If you follow 1, you'll likely hit a major city. This is the blue line I put on the map. So I started my trip by getting on 1 and driving west into Shizuoka and past Izu and Hakone.
Once you're more into the countryside in Shizuoka and past Numazu city, you began to really see some of the agricultural beauty of the prefecture. Shizuoka is famous for tea and tea leaves and you can see the pride they have in it by the massive "TEA!!" kanji character grown into the mountainside.
The tea leaves are grown in a similar style to grapes in wineries. They need alot of sun and because of the mountainous terrain of Japan, most of the bushes are grown in man-made land terraces as you can see in the above picture. Don't let the sunny mountainside fool you though, it's freezing cold right now.
I left Kanagawa kind of late at around 1 or 2pm and because of the winter season, it gets dark at around 5pm. So the first day we spent just driving as far west as we could. We stopped the first night in Fujieda (see map). Fujieda pretty much has nothing of importance to share and overall was a disappointment of a town. People at a local restaurant told me it was just used as a bedtown for the nearby city Shizuoka but I didn't wanna hear any lame excuses, they should be more interesting.
Early the next morning we headed out to our first site seeing spot. The biggest city in the west portion of Shizuoka is Hamamatsu. Hamamatsu is where Honda was founded and where Yamaha and Suzuki motors is headquartered. They also have a few musical instruments manufacturers. At the very south of Hamamatsu city, they have a famous shore region known as Nakadajima sand dunes.
I'm always a fan of sand dunes as I'm sure you are too, so it was of course a must-see spot on the trip. These sand dunes ended on the sea and happened to be where Pacific Ocean dwelling sea turtles lay their eggs in spring.
If I had come in late spring or summer, I could've seen baby sea turtles crawling to the ocean to begin their turtle lives. Also, these dunes are especially famous for watching the first new year sunrise.
After I finished making sand angels and soaking up the sub-zero ocean air, I worked my way back to the city to see their historical landmark, Hamamatsu Castle.
There are a ridiculous amount of castles in Japan I found out, at least one per prefecture, sometimes more. This specific castle though is famous because of it's former lord. In Japanese history, there are three predominate people who are credited for uniting Japan as one nation from a collection of warring clans. Among those three men is this man, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa is responsible for starting Japan's Edo period of history, or samurai movie period as I like to remember it. I'll talk more about him later in this trip but this castle belonged to him in his younger years when he wasn't such the country unifying badass that he is now remembered as.
Here's the main tower on the castle grounds. Inside the castle there was a small museum you can view for a reasonable fee. You also get to wander through the interior of the castle and see a good view of the city from the top floor.
Next to the tower entrance they had this small shrine with three shining red torii gates.
and they had this carved rock commemorating Tokugawa.
Now they said pictures weren't allowed inside of the museum but... I'm what you might call a maverick, one who takes photos with flagrant disregard for the the man and his oppressive rules. This suit of armor was actually used by Tokugawa in his middle-aged years. The boomerang shaped object on his helmet is his key signature decoration on his armor. Another version of that on some other suits of his armor is a boomerang shape made to look like two gold branches of a plant/tree held opposite to each other. Actually getting close to the man's real armor was both eerie and exciting. The symbol on his chest plate was his family's crest and is often seen on many castles, places, clothes, etc. to show his power during his family's reign.
I'm not 100% sure on this suit but I was told this was the armor Tokugawa wore in his younger years when he was lord of Hamamatsu castle.
The last point of interest in the museum were these original swords. These specific katanas were used by Tokugawa's nephew (whom I believe eventually got the castle). Seeing a katana at the mall novelty shop back home and seeing one that was actually used by an actual samurai are completely different experiences. It's amazing seeing how much detail and quality went into the blades.
After the castle it was time for lunch. We headed towards the city center to find some famous eats. After parking the car, we ran across this rather unusual rare car. I must say I've never seen this car in the states let alone in Japan. You would be surprised how big the following for American classics is in Japan. This car though is just crazy, all 1930's Dick Tracey looking. I was almost expecting to see a tommy gun lying in the back seat.
There's one of these in Shinjuku, Tokyo as well but I never stop getting a kick out of these things. They're giant robotic moving crabs at the entrance of crab restaurants. They look like they're scaling the side of the building. Mmm delicious.
What the hell!? This restaurant may be selling pork items but their decorations are a little creepy. Look at the pig hanging out the right window practically saying, "please try these delicious dumpling filled with my ground up family members!" The other pig on the left window looks like he just lopped off his leg and is offering it to customers enting the restaurant. It's just sick...
On to lunch! Like Izu, Hamamatsu is famous for its unagi (eel). Hamamatsu unagi is caught in the lake directly west to the city and is prepared fresh at many restaurants throughout the city. I personally love the taste and soft texture. If you ever get a chance to come to either Hamamatsu or Izu, give it a try, it's incomparable to the unagi in the states.
If my recommendation isn't enough for you, look how excited Miki is about it.
After lunch we looked around Hamamatsu a little more then headed back on route 1 heading west towards Aichi prefecture. We have one last stop we need to make in Shizuoka before we leave. On the way there, I snapped this picture of an advertisement for a love hotel. If you aren't familiar with what a love hotel is, think of a hotel that is rented by the hour and used for various adult activities and you pretty much got it. There is a ton of these hotels throughout Japan, and they all seem to strive to make the weirdest English names possible.
Route 1 for the most part follows the southern coast of Japan and is quite a beautiful drive. It often has bypass regions such as this one which allows speeds close to highway speeds without you having to pay the excessive tolls of a highway.
Last stop for the day is Takeshima (not to be confused with the islands Japan and Korea are fighting over). This small island is connected by a bridge to the mainland and has a temple on the top. It's extraordinarily beautiful and a great place for some good site seeing.
The bridge was a cold but beautiful walk filled with violently hungry seagulls.
At the end of the bridge you can take the stairs directly to the temple or take a small path which walks the circumference of the island.
Boy look how cold we are.
One of the views from the walk around the island. Those lamps are placed all across the outer rim of the island and are lit during the night.
The path walking around the island. Quite breathtaking.
From part of the walkway looking back to the mainland.
At the back of the island there is another set of stairs up to the temple. From the top, you can see how pristine and clear the ocean water is around the island.
And here we are at the main temple. I don't remember what this temple is famous for but maybe it's luck for marriage or something along those lines.
Hey there's Miki again walking around.
And here's the rest of the temple grounds. Temples like these often have small shops selling protection charms for various purposes that are kept on key chains, in cars, or on cell phones. At a similar island in Kyushu I got a safe driving protection that sticks with a suction cup in my Skyline's window and at this island I got a good wealth protection. They're neat trinkets to help you remember.
After getting the wealth charm, we headed towards the stairs taking us back to the bridge and back to my car.
Back at the parking lot I ran across this guy. Maaann way to fail at life. I'm not personally a big fan of Porsches but this makes me hurt for the Porsche community. First this tool goes and buys a Porsche then tries to attach this wing that's practically the size of the entire car. It's retarded! What's wrong with you guy!? It looks like a damned park bench bolted to the rear of your car. You should be punched in the neck and have your license taken from you. Way to ruin a car.
Anyway, back to the road west. Next stop, Aichi prefecture!