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Stabbing Westward: Shizuoka, Kyoto & Osaka

静岡県:身延、京都府:先斗町・南禅寺、大阪:難波・道頓堀

overcast 6 °C


BGM: Redemption Song by Bob Marley

While cruising down Highway 52 en route to Shizuoka, I was glad to see my husband finally begin to relax and enjoy his view from behind the wheel. Towering brown mountains streaked with cascading rivers gave way to pastoral expanses of rice fields and vivid green tea plantations. In a picturesque river valley near the town of Minobu, we noticed an enticing little soba shop that was still open for business. Jr. high students were just getting out of school for the day. Some of them looked a bit nervous. The huge earthquakes of Tohoku had set off a chain reaction throughout the entire East Japan fault system, causing places as far away as Shizuoka to be suddenly inundated with earthquake swarms of their own -which was the last thing anyone needed.

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We got out of the car and stretched our weary bottoms, gazing out across the clear waters of the rushing Fuji river below. I could see some carefully manicured tea fields in perfect little rows sitting on the opposite bank. Shizuoka green tea is considered the finest in Japan. Worried about the fate of Kanto, I found myself saying a little prayer for these precious fields, hoping they would remain untainted out here in this fresh, brisk mountain air.

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As spokesperson Edano droned on heavily about radiation and evacuations on the soba shop's big-screen TV, the sweet old lady preparing our meals listened intently to our recount of the earthquake. She said that her little shop shook so hard, she was afraid it would plummet down the cliff into the river below! Fortunately for all of us, that didn't happen, yet she expressed that everyone in her community seemed to be fearing a final blow that would take everything out in one fell swoop. Minobu is situated rather close to the western flank of Mt. Fuji, a volcano starting to show signs that it might be finally waking up from its centuries-long slumber. Though the conversation wasn't the best for a relaxed meal, her hand-cut soba noodles were earthy and exquisite! You could easily taste the ground buckwheat they were made from! (At times like this, I'm very thankful that I'm the kind of person who can find complete joy in food).

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Soba noodles, deep-fried pork cutlet with rice, pickles & miso soup.

I found myself attracted to the rich, natural interior of this restaurant that doubled as a community center with its own mini farmer's market. The place even had its own mascot! This little cat followed me everywhere but wouldn't pose for my picture nor let me pet it.

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Back on the road, we drove nervously along the Shizuoka coast down Highway One as our phones squawked with more nerve-fraying earthquake alarms. Somewhere around Hamamatsu, we felt the car jiggle as a M6.4 rocked the prefecture! Were these quakes following us?! Was it really curtains for us while we scurried about in vain to delay the inevitable? My husband wouldn't have it. He buckled down and concentrated hard on driving fast but safe as I scanned the Web for nearby hotels.

We found another Route Inn in Gifu City that still had plenty of open rooms available on the top floors (the ground floors were all booked up for obvious reasons). We were ragged and desperate so we gave in. The aftershocks kept us awake half the night but the awesome breakfast spread made up for the lack of sleep.

The gallon of coffee I chugged at the hotel gave me the hyper buzz I needed to get through the endless monotony of Nagoya City. As open-minded as I try to be about Nagoya, I still can't get over how incredibly boring it is, at least, the entire stretch along Route One. Sure, Route One is Honshu's most important commercial highway, linking Tokyo with Osaka and all major cities between. But all we could see for miles was an uncreative entangled mess of concrete infrastructure, tacky "love" hotels, blaring pachinko parlors and ramen shops- businesses catering only to the thousands of hungry truckers. It made us appreciate the stress that they obviously experience.

We finally rolled through my beloved Kyoto around 8pm and quickly settled into our very cozy room at the Kyoto Garden Hotel. My husband and I agreed we'd had enough depressing news for awhile. This was his first time in Kyoto and I was dying to show him around! To help us get over our fear of shaking buildings, I suggested we ride the seemingly endless "escalators to nowhere" at Kyoto Station. He resisted the idea for a few minutes until he noticed the unique design of the building and decided to give it a go. We ended up doing the entire circuit twice and finally rode all the way to the top to enjoy the city lights from up high. We couldn't feel a single tremor out here! Were we still in Japan?

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The chilly Kyoto air made us a bit peckish, so we hit the izakaya with the best-smelling wafts of chicken smoke emanating from it. A draft beer for him, an Uji matcha green tea hi-ball for me, plenty of grilled chicken bits for the two of us and we were on our way to drunken heaven. As our tensions melted away, we found ourselves laughing for the first time in days. Thank God for alcohol!

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We just couldn't get over it! The earth wasn't moving out here at all! We kept expecting earthquakes to jolt us out of our joy but not a one! Relaxed and in the mood to explore, we spent the next day wandering listlessly around Nanzenji Temple, calming our weary hearts with some peaceful Zen landscape art.

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Since my husband likes old districts with traditional Japanese architecture, we took a mellow evening stroll down Pontocho Alley and ducked into a quiet dive alongside the canal for some Okinawa-style udon. We gobbled up it before we could take a picture of it, but I can tell you that it was savory and rich with slices of fatty SPAM and bitter gourd strips. (Can you believe SPAM is a delicacy in Japan? I can't, either!)

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Back at the hotel, as the evening rain turned into gently-falling snow, we got news that hard rain had finally fallen in Kanto, bringing all that airborne radiation down to the ground. Our mouths dropped when we heard that our town in Ibaraki was on the list of locations with undrinkable water. Our tap water was now contaminated with iodine 131 and possibly cesium! Were we going insane? Was this really happening? Friends on the phone were telling us horror stories of damage, supply shortages and aftershocks back home. We felt really bad for leaving everyone behind. But we had our families to think of -and they wanted us out of Japan.

The reality had suddenly dawned on me; we were finally leaving.

Early the next morning, wondering how to leave behind our beloved little Subaru, we drove to Osaka and went straight to the US embassy to see if we could get passage to the States. When I saw that American flag flapping proudly in front of the embassy building, my heart swelled with a familiar, patriotic hope that I hadn't felt in nearly a decade. America wouldn't fail me. I was one of her children! My husband would be able to meet my family! He could eat a real hamburger! He could start his own business with no red tape! He could...

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Nope! Looks like he couldn't. My government was only flying out military personnel and their families. The embassy staff happily told me I would have no problems if I repatriated by myself. Thanks to new Obama legislation, it was now harder (and more expensive) for foreign-born spouses of American citizens to stay in the country longer than 90 days without a green card or a work visa. But when you're a tighter couple than John Lennon and Yoko Ono, living in a country without your significant other is NOT an option. That wouldn't work for us at all.

Just then, I experienced the strangest feeling in the world; I felt horribly let down by my own country, yet I was simultaneously thanking God to be staying on in Japan. Wounded or no, she was still my true home. I honestly didn't want to leave this beautiful place. On the front steps of the embassy, I told my husband I wanted to stay here and take our chances in Kansai. At least life wouldn't be boring in a place where everything was new to us!

As we waited on some paperwork to be processed, we spent the next week exploring Osaka, the food capital of Japan. (There's a saying that no matter where you eat in Osaka, it's all cheap and good! We certainly put this theory to the test!).

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Cook-it-yourself okonomiyaki (savory pancake) at Nikonikoya pub. Metcha umai! (way delicious!).

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Mutant tempura at Dondon Tei (this was insanely good!)

At one point during our stay, inspired by the escalators at Kyoto Station, my husband lost his marbles and told us we needed to top that with the Umeda Sky Building- on a rainy day, nonetheless. So we rode the world's highest escalator (40-stories up) and had an ice cream soda at the observatory. It did us some good, though we're never doing it again. (We'd had enough swaying buildings for a lifetime!)

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We explored a few malls in the area just to see how different it was. People chattered and laughed unabashedly in their charming Osaka dialect. There was a positive charge in the air -a freedom of expression that just didn't exist in Tokyo. My husband marveled at how similar the place felt to South Korea. We really enjoyed the liveliness of Osaka (and Kansai in general!). This wouldn't be a bad place to live, we thought.

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Our hotel staff told us we couldn't visit Osaka without checking out Namba (難波), the most famous part of the city.

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Here we saw all the famous icons of Osaka: like the retired Kuidaore Taro of Dotonbori Street (道頓堀):

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...and the huge Kani Doraku Crab

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...and my favorite: GLICO MAN!

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Meanwhile on TV, the ever-energetic Edano told us not to eat spinach from Ibaraki or drink milk from Fukushima. Since we had both of those items in our refrigerator back home, we were totally screwed.

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But seriously- EVERYWHERE we went in Osaka, the food was absolutely delicious. But hands-down, our favorite spot we found completely by chance: a Chinese restaurant near Shin Osaka Station called "Taiyouken." Everything here was savory, garlicky and mouth-wateringly awesome! We had never tasted Chinese food this good in all our travels! This place alone convinced my husband that indeed, we should move to Kansai.

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In the heavy evening mist of spring, we floated around the eerily enchanting Osaka Castle, glowing in the half-light like a ghost. The intoxicating perfume of a million plum blossoms graced our every breath. We quietly plotted our next course of action. We would return home to Ibaraki, settle the apartment and say our goodbyes. We finally knew what we had to do. We realized that the whole world could disappear at any moment, but at least we had THIS moment. We were still alive and breathing. We were grateful for this much.

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As soon as dawn came, we loaded up our tiny Subaru (we lovingly call him "Puppy") with a 2-week's supply of fresh water, an extra tank of gas, batteries and fresh food and headed down the road towards a still-shaking Kanto. We decided to be low-key about our decision to leave Ibaraki. Some of our acquaintances wouldn't understand. But after tasting life in Kansai, we knew we wanted to live in a place where we wouldn't have to scour the town for a single bottle of water, or wait hours in line for a tank of gas while rolling blackouts plagued the land. We just didn't feel the need to compete that hard for resources with everyone. The people who really needed to stay there could have our share. We didn't mind. As for friendships: friends are friends no matter where in the world you live, right?

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Our portable information/communications center: internet, TV, GPS navi and phone all in two devices! Gotta love the techno age!

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I was so glad to see the National Defense Forces on the highways, heading for Tohoku to assist in the rescue efforts. Bless them all!

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Piping hot oden stew in Shizuoka City, our last pit-stop before returning home to Ibaraki Prefecture.

Posted by GenkiLee 30.09.2012 21:31 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto osaka earthquake escalators okonomiyaki green_tea shizuoka minobu fuji_river oden nanzenji_temple kyoto_station taiyouken osaka_castle pontocho_alley soba umeda_sky_building namba dotonbori glico_man kanidoraku_crab nikonikoya yakitori kuidaore_taro

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