Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sept. 8: Ogaki, Gifu

Was it hot this morning? Texas-like; Karen had visited here last year in September, and warned me that I’d encounter “Houston Weather,” but I’d secretly decided it would be early fall, and had packed accordingly. Stupid. We headed out for a coffee and roast-chicken-and-mayonnaise-on-spongey-bagel sandwich, then went back, packed, went to Shinjuku, and rode over to Tokyo Station.

The first order of business, of course, was to buy bento for ourselves, and then Carl had to buy gifts for his girlfriend Yoshiko’s family. Then we found our seats on the famous Shinkansen bullet train, where Carl decided to hop off for a minute and get drinks to go with the bento. He got back on, and said he’d found Fuji-san-side seats up front, so we hustled down there. The train is not only fast, but remarkably steady, unlike the TGV. We rocketed through an urban landscape, with only little pockets of agriculture, and gradually mountains -- or at least large hills -- started to appear. The day, however, was too hazy for Fuji-san. Hope I’ll see it on the way back to Tokyo.

Carl worked nearly the whole way -- he says he has no spare time between now and leaving for the America-Barcelona trip on the 22nd, and it would appear he’s right. However, about 30 minutes out of Nagoya, he remembered the bentos, and we ate. Mine had vegetable sushi, fried chicken, an awful gray yam-jelly cube, cucumber pickle, pickled huge black bean, and he’d picked up another small side of fried octopus, chicken, and whole shrimp. The drink he’d gotten me was Grapefruit Water, which was unfortunately skewed towards the sugar side, not towards grapefruit or water, but it was okay.

We wrestled our luggage through Nagoya station and got the local to Ogaki, and it was, if anything, hotter than in Tokyo. My hotel was the APA, a nice place right at the station, and I had to “join” APA Hotels to qualify for a ¥1000 discount, but once that was accomplished, I went up to the room for a minute before we went back to the station to deal with my travel plans for tomorrow. The electricity didn’t work, and when I went back down, Carl laughed and pointed out that I had to insert the keychain in a slot in the wall to make it work. This saves energy, but would seem to defeat comfort, in that the air conditioning won’t work otherwise, nor will the refrigerator.

The guy at the station said I didn’t need reservations for the train to Takayama, so Carl went back to the house and I went to the room to watch TV and enjoy a cold can of Love Body, Coca Cola’s green tea in a can. Carl had suggested a nearby town as being colorful and interesting, but it was so hot I didn’t feel particularly adventurous, so I just sat around and watched TV until dinnertime.

Japanese TV certainly was interesting. I was looking for commercials, which are my usual barometer for a country’s commercial culture, but it was hard to tell what was a commercial and what wasn’t, except in very overt circumstances where the production values were far greater than what I’d been watching; for instance car ads. For a while I watched a channel where a couple of young women went here and there, ooohing and aaahing about everything in and around a totally over-the-top Swiss chalet kind of vacation spot: the rooms, the beds, the onsen, the food. It looked like an infomercial, but Carl claims that these are informational programs about vacations, and although some “promotional considerations” exist, they’re really not ads. I’m not so sure, myself.

From there, I found some news, with footage of the fire in Shinjuku which had killed 44 people a couple of weeks ago in a multi-story entertainment building with a mah-jongg parlor and a “sexual harrassment clinic.” There was also a piece which showed cops crawling along a highway and a rectangle outlined in dark plastic. This turned out to be news of the arrest of a schoolteacher who had killed a 12-year-old girl. She had called her mother on her cell-phone and told her she’d be home in a minute, and five minutes later she was found dead and handcuffed by the side of the road. Crime isn’t common in Japan, but when it happens, it’s weird, and this looks like a real strange one. (Later, I found out more about this case; it turned out that the teacher was running a dating service using middle-school girls, and she was part of it. This is apparently not an uncommon phenomenon, apparently not seen as immoral or weird, for some reason, and these girls make extra money having sex with these older guys. One disturbing detail I read in the paper was that she’d told him she was only 12, and he’d said that was okay, he didn’t mind. So...what was she thinking? And where are the parents in stories like this?)

Flip, flip, flip, searching for ads, and suddenly everything was food: a fishing show which seemed to be hyping a reel with a LCD display attached to it which gave you various data on what your line was doing, “sponsored” by the manufacturer, and a thing on “pimen” growing, ie, pimentos. And guess who wound up eating the pimen? The ooh-aah girls! Then there were two teenage girls visiting the site of the ‘98 Winter Olympics, doing their own oohing and aahing, and a report on exotic animal smuggling on the Vietnam-China border.

Carl called about 7:10 saying we were ready to go get some sushi in Gifu. As he called I was watching a commercial for a Pringles-like product in which the words “Angry European Potato” flashed by. I never saw it again, although Carl did: there’s a guy lying in a field eating these potato chips, and an animated potato comes up to him and asks him for one. The guy says no, and that’s when the flash happens. I want an angry European potato!

The sushi place was magnificent. When we walked in, all the sushi chefs started yelling greetings. “Oh, you’ve been here before,” I quipped. But it turns out that’s what the Japanese do whenever anyone enters a restaurant or a store. Makes you feel good, initially, although I would soon get very, very tired of it. They also say good-bye the same way, possibly with even more gusto, considering, in this place, how much money they’d just made. The old guy who ran it was in the hospital with a hernia, evidently, and the crew for the evening was mostly his sons, but they had all manner of great stuff, including a tank in the back which had fish swimming in perfectly clear water, as opposed to the sick fugu we’d seen while wandering around Shinjuku. We started out with a selection of sashimi, octopus, maguro, toro, salmon, shrimp and sweet egg omelet, then went on to the sushi: crab legs, whale, horse, huge shrimp, and I finished off with the Platonic ideal of grilled eel. I passed on crab brains and squid guts, though, and, although he made fun of me, I notice Carl did, too.

The night landscape of Gifu was so much like America, with its neon and chain restaurants and stores that it was a study in cultural confusion: what were all these Japanese characters doing there? And why were we driving on the wrong side of the road? There were just enough American chains mixed in to heighten the confusion. One pachinko chain I saw twice featured a huge Statue of Liberty flashing various lights and with a truly psychedelic torch. Back in Gifu we delivered a bottle of wine to a bartender at what Carl said was Ogaki’s only decent bar, Barrel, and I was rewarded with a shot of Old Fitzgerald 1849, which I haven’t seen in years. Outside was a bridge with a historical marker about a local stonemason who had erected a milestone there (it’s still there) in the 19th century telling people how to get out of Ogaki, which, I gathered, was Ogaki’s only historical monument, but a useful and thoughtful one. Back to the hotel and to sleep, sorta, although the pillow sure was hard. The solo journey starts tomorrow.

No comments: