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Catching Our Breaths in Kofu, Yamanashi

山梨県甲府市、山梨市:ほったらかし温泉

sunny 6 °C

BGM: Don't Worry by Playing for Change

March 13, 2011

After 3 hours of continuous driving with no butt break, we stopped at the Hachioji rest area to stretch our legs. I bought more bread and coffee while my husband searched online for any open hotel in Kofu City that was still accepting late-night check-ins. We were lucky! An affordable one was just an hour's drive away. I couldn't believe how far from northern Kanto we were, yet how easily we could still feel the quakes down here. My husband wanted to top off the gas but all the stations in the mountains were either closed up or shut down. He pulled us up to an open 7-11 to buy some tea. But something really cool happened here: As soon as the car doors opened, our lungs filled with the sweet, soothing zing of fresh cedar and BAM! We were hooked! Neither of us had ever smelled anything like it before! How could we have lived so long in Japan and never known about this fragrance? We just stood there gasping under the stars, breathing deeply like hungry koi fish, realizing that there was way more Japan awaiting our discovery than we had ever imagined.

The drive through the mountain range west of Tokyo was relatively calm with nobody but us on the road. We zipped through the twists and turns, catching little sneak-peeks of Mt. Fuji glimmering in the silver moonlight. Passing hot spring after hot spring, I found myself wishing that we could linger, if only for a moment. But before I knew it, we started to descend out of the mountain pass down into a valley that sparkled with a million lights, twinkling like stars. It felt as if we were in an aircraft lowering onto to the tarmac of Paradise. The song Don't Worry was blasting on my iPhone (well, blasting as well as it could for an iPhone), and when the lyrics mixed with the ethereal sight before our eyes, we both felt moved to sing along in praise, feeling a sense of great deliverance. We had made it to Yamanashi, the Promised Land! With hundreds of mountains separating us from any possible nuclear fallout, we were safe! And with a killer view of Mt. Fuji, to boot!

All snuggled into our hotel room at the Route Inn Kofu, I can't tell you how refreshing it was to finally take a hot shower and put on some fresh undies. (I'm sure many of you travelers and college students can relate). Too exhausted to watch the TV, we passed out on the bed and fell instantly asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows. But somewhere around 5am the next morning, our cell phone earthquake alarms buzzed, scaring the bejesus out of us. For a second, I couldn't tell if the earthquake that followed was a dream or reality, but as my husband slept on, I bolted up and flicked on the TV to see what we'd missed: All network programming in the Kanto region had been taken over by the government. Between long stretches of weather and dismal news reports, the only commercials allowed to air were from the Ad Council, teaching kids and adults how to pretend to be happy and kind to each other. It didn't take long before we could accurately recite all the jingles.

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The explosion in Unit 1 the night before had injured 4 workers and the evacuation zone had been expanded to 20km. Lame. Unfortunately, our suspicions had been correct so far, though we still couldn't believe it at all. I opened the curtain to check out our view. We were completely surrounded by mountains. The Minami Alps further west, visible from the hallway window across from our room, were completely covered in shimmering white snow. I wasn't jealous, though. Our view was good enough for me. Any mountain view is always better than none.

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Groggy and stumbling in our poorly-fitting vinyl hotel slippers, we followed our noses to the first floor lobby. The Route Inn Kofu roadside hotel showed us an impressive breakfast buffet spread with everything from Japanese rice, soup and fish to Western omelet, croissants, salads and sausages. We took full advantage of it. It was awesome to have a hot, cooked meal, again.

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My husband noticed another tired-looking family in wrinkled clothes talking quietly to each other in the restaurant. He said he had seen their car in the parking lot the night before- packed to the ceiling as if they too had done so last-minute. Their plates were from Utsunomiya, Tochigi. Were they nuclear refugees? We had the feeling we'd be seeing more of them on our trip.

We agreed to just hang out resting at the hotel for awhile, researching the area online and waiting for the next sign from God, or wherever it would come from. We were nearly out of gas and still having trouble locating an open station, so we couldn't go far if we did go out. I called my head supervisor to inform her of our plans of waiting out the weekend in the mountains. She understood completely. Our company was still closed from the earthquake, anyways. After extending my holiday period to allow for whatever might happen, she gave us her blessing and well-wishes. (The world would be a better place if it had more supervisors like her in it).

Government spokesperson Edano Yukio; it was such a trip watching this guy in action! I'd like to say he always tirelessly gave us the official updates on the Fukushima situation, but with each telecast, he looked more and more exhausted. You could actually see his hair graying with every update! (Mental note to self: get more sleep!) He looked especially ragged whenever he mentioned radiation. That couldn't be good.

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The hotel staff told us of a nearby gas station and an open post office just down the road! We were saved! For our sanity, after fueling up, we went for a leisurely drive into the mountains around Kofu to explore the sleeping vineyards that produce the famous Yamanashi Kyoho grapes, a mid-summer delicacy. As farmers carefully pruned and re-staked the vines, we plodded through the brown underbrush, savoring the fresh mountain air (way different from Kanto smog) and soaking up the sunshine. We lingered next to a gorgeous white plum tree in full bloom, covered from top to bottom with intoxicating, sweet-smelling white flowers. Were we close to heaven or what?

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Back in town, we discovered a few small shopping centers and stocked up on provisions: plenty of bottles of imported water, some fresh fruit, veggies and iodine-rich foods like wakame and nori. We also bought a few salads and a package of Korean-style kimbap (rice, meat and vegetables rolled in seaweed). Not bad for a small town store! We could eat cheap, healthy salads in the hotel room while saving money for gas. Worked for us!

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March 14, 2011

We spent the next day in a similar fashion, searching for a spare gas tank and misc. supplies while exploring our new environs. The mountains of Yamanashi are edged with charming little towns comprised of Showa-style farm houses and vast fruit orchards. Fresh mountain water flows in from the snow-capped peaks, running throughout the valley via gutters, canals and irrigation ditches. In other words, the land here is quite blessed. We could only imagine how gorgeous it looked in summer!

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Though we enjoyed being outdoors, the ground still shook regularly, so we did our best never to stray too far from the car. As we checked home centers and farming supply shops, our efforts to secure the ever-elusive gas tank came up fruitless. This time, however, everywhere we went, the store lights were turned off. TEPCO would be imposing rolling blackouts throughout Kanto from the 15th onward, yet Yamanashi had already been doing this on a voluntary basis. It was a bit inconvenient. Still, it was also kind of fun shopping in the dark -that is until we got hungry. The grocery stores in Yamanashi completely locked down for those three hours without power. With fewer cargo ships on the sea and no trucks on the highways bringing in supplies, many everyday items were completely gone from the shelves. The locals had also bought up all the cooking gas cartridges, candles, instant noodle soups and batteries in preparation for the next few weeks of mandatory power outages. Even this far away from the disaster area, people were still being affected. It was incredible. But everywhere we went, there was still lots of candy! (Not that we'd ever eat it...)

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I informed my husband that we were near another hot springs town. Fortunately for me, he agreed that a good soak would do us some good. Our little car diligently climbed up the steep mountainside, past cherry and Asian pear groves to Hottarakashi Onsen, Atchi no Yu, Kotchi no Yu (ほったらかし温泉:あっちの湯こっちの湯). We spent a good thirty minutes trying to get a decent shot of Mt. Fuji in the blinding sunlight, then continued to the top of the mountain where we had a beautiful, healing soak overlooking the whole valley, with a perfect view of Fuji from our respective hinoki wood tubs. The clear, silky water felt incredible, leaching out all the stress of the week from my pores. I stared at Fuji, glowing regal in the setting sun. From here, the world looked just fine. A small crowd of ladies had gathered around me as I retold my personal account of the earthquake. I felt a bit like Threepio describing the past two Star Wars films, resorting to pantomime and sound effects when my knowledge of Japanese vocabulary failed me. Somehow, they seemed to understand me. Though I had experienced practically nothing compared to the millions still dealing with the aftermath, they kindly listened to my story with sympathetic ears, anyway.

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My husband met me in the gravel-covered courtyard under the hot spring's yard lights. A small group of people were drinking beer in front of a warm, crackling fire. They asked us to join their group. We had fun trying to communicate in mutually poor foreign language skills while cheering "kampai" with our cups of soda. Since we didn't drink alcohol, my husband bought us each a cool, creamy vanilla ice cream cone and we enjoyed the jolly company of our new friends until the hot springs closed for the evening.

That night on the TV, we heard that there might have been another explosion but nobody was sure if it was radioactive or not. My Japanese friends kept saying I should return home and wait it out. But my husband said we should hang out in the mountains just a little bit longer. We would know more in the days ahead.

March 15, 2011

Despite all the chaos that surrounded us, my husband was rapidly falling in love with Yamanashi. We booked a few nights at an inexpensive hot springs lodge up the highway and before pulling out of town , we shared a cheap boxed lunch at a nearby park, enjoying a moment of serenity.

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We were nearly 5 minutes away from our next hotel when news of Unit 3's second explosion suddenly reached our ears. We then dropped all of our plans and reset our course for Osaka, where we could hopefully catch a free plane to California, since my government was encouraging all Americans to leave Japan. Hundreds of foreigners around the country had already left by this point, heeding the desperate calls of worried family back home.

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The government and TEPCO insisted that the blast wasn't radioactive, but we weren't convinced. Isn't it strange how an event like this can suddenly turn everyone into a nuclear physicist? Everybody with a mouth suddenly knew everything about the nature and effects of radioactivity. Most of our Japanese friends simply repeated what the media told them and hinted that we were bordering on irrational. We could honestly say though that we were both acting on instinct alone. We tried to tell our closest friends with children that they should consider getting out, too (since the effects of radiation usually take a generation to manifest) but we were either met with cold silence or a hopeless sense of resignation. It must be a cultural thing, we concluded. If our own people had known that three explosions occurred at their local nuclear plant, they would've cleared out by themselves without having to be told and without being paid. But this was Japan, where your duty was to your company and your community, first. Besides, they had their whole lives here. As expats, we didn't. Without roots, indeed, we were isolated. But the upside to that was having true mobility.

So now it was a race against time. Hard spring rains were expected over the week for Kanto and we had to get as far away from them as possible. (What goes up must come down, right?) We got an offer to hide out with some work affiliates who lived in Osaka, so my husband immediately set the GPS co-ordinates for Kansai. Once there, we could apply to get sponsored passage back home to the States. This wasn't the way I wanted to say "sayonara" to my Japanese Dream, but it was looking like I no longer had a choice.

(All content copyright GenkiLee, 2012. No part shall be reproduced without the expressed written consent of the author).

Posted by GenkiLee 18.09.2012 07:28 Archived in Japan Tagged yamanashi kofu hottarakashi_onsen atchi_no_yu_kotchi_no_yu

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