Northern Treks (Day 3)

Well I begin this post back in Tokyo, with a full day of lazy recuperating behind me. It was actually unbelievably warm in Tokyo yesterday– a high of 75 degrees, and stunningly sunny the whole day long. Unfortunately for me I hadn’t slept much at all the previous night, so rather than walking around Kichijoji and drinking in the gorgeous sunshine, I threw open all the windows of my little corner apartment and laid on my couch watching movies while the warm spring breeze gushed in and around my living room. It was actually a very pleasant day. But I have much to say about my third and final day trekking the north, so without further delay…

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Cafe in Morioka– last day’s breakfast

As I said at the end of my last entry, the plan for my final day in Iwate was to travel to an onsen (hot springs) village to the west of Morioka called Nyuto onsen. This village is actually just beyond the border of Iwate and into the neighboring prefecture of Akita. Everything in this northern area of Japan is pretty spread out, and in fact the best (and sometimes only) way to get around is via short shinkansen (bullet train) rides. To get to Nyuto, you have to take a quick 25-minute shinkansen ride to the nearest train station (Tazawako), and from there a 50-minute bus to the entrance of the onsen village, followed by a 45-minute walk through the woods to the most famous onsen (Tsurunoyu onsen). I started my day a bit later than I should have, arriving to Morioka station in time to catch the 12:35pm Akita shinkansen. Now I’ve obviously been through countless train stations all over Japan at this point, some with English some without (Morioka is one with plentiful English), and finally can accomplish the whole procedure very fluently. I found the track for my train (platform 14, I remember), and confirmed several times against both the English and Japanese displays that this was  undoubtedly the correct train. I did notice something odd as my train pulled into the station, though– the train was decidedly 2 distinct bullet trains, one pale green the other pale pink, attached to one another at the nose. But I only noticed this cursorily before quickly boarding the train, since it would likely only stop at Morioka for less than a minute. Oddly, the train parked in the station for a solid 2 minutes, so that it departed at 12:37, not 12:35 (completely insignificant by most train schedule standards, but unusual for the machine-like regularity of the Japanese system).

Finally, the train pulled out and began zooming through the countryside at amazing speeds, cutting through the wind like a knife, diving in and out of tunnels such that I lost my cell phone signal. And slowly a strange feeling started gripping me, and the impressions from the platform started to weigh on me deeper and deeper, like something in my mind was put slightly askew and I couldn’t account for it…why had there been two connected trains?…why did the train delay 2 minutes before departing? So I took out the map on my service-less phone, and just stared at it fixedly, waiting for the train to emerge from the tunnel and reveal my whereabouts. And suddenly the train flew back into the sunlight and my blue dot appeared, placing me over 100 kilometers north of Morioka–in a different prefecture and an entirely unknown corner of Japan.

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I didn’t piece this all together until later that night, but here’s what happened: The 2 shinkansen trains that I had noticed connected at their noses were in fact going to completely different destinations–one to the north, one to the west–even though they arrived on the same track in Morioka. At Morioka, the trains detached, with the pale pink train at front leaving at 12:35 westwards towards Tazawako, and the pale green one that I had unluckily boarded leaving at 12:37 northwards.

In a panicked daze, and without speaking to anyone, I disembarked at the first stop–a port city called Hachinohe, and sat inside the ticket gates for about 20 minutes trying to decide what to do. At this point, it was too late in the day to possibly make it to Nyuto onsen in time before the onsens closed around 4pm. I considered sneaking back onto a bullet train towards Morioka and hiding in the passage between cars hoping the conductor wouldn’t approach me (after all, no one had approached me on my last train ride)…and then I would think of something to tell the Morioka station agents. But that would mean spending my last day back in Morioka, which I had already explored thoroughly and disenchantedly. Another option was just to exit here, at this unknown city, though that would mean paying for the proper shinkansen ticket in order to exit the ticket gates, which was twice the cost of the one I had purchased to Tazawako. But that’s what I finally determined on doing– I couldn’t think of a better plan. I waited until there were almost no other commuters in sight, and then with the feeling of entering a police station to turn myself in, I walked up to the station attendant and began in Japanese with, “I made a huge mistake.”

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Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture

The station agents were all extraordinarily kind, as it turned out. I no longer felt panicked, but rather resigned and ashamed, so my Japanese came out slowly and calmly, and we had no trouble understanding one another. They were a little surprised at my decision to disembark at Hachinohe rather than just return to Morioka, but I explained that I didn’t have time to follow the plan I had laid out for the day anyway, and made copious use of one of the most overly-used Japanese expressions: shoganai ( basically, “nothing to be done”). Despite their surprise, they dealt with me gently and matter-of-factly, so exceptionally careful to avoid shaming me. They acted as though there was nothing unusual in my requests–as though I had simply chosen option “C” from a list of perfectly legitimate ways that one could’ve used to arrive at Hachinohe station. When I told them I’d be returning to Morioka later that day, they found me the cheapest round-trip ticket available, took from me the Tazawako ticket I had bought earlier, and simply charged me the difference, so that my blunder ultimately cost me about 2000yen, rather than the 4000yen I had been expecting.

So somewhat relieved and calmed, I finally left the station and stepped out into Hachinohe. It was supposed to have rained all day in Nyuto onsen, but in Hachinohe it was breezy and partly cloudy, with the sun occasionally bursting through and showering the salty air with its warmth. The area around Hachinohe station I found to be pretty dull after a few minutes of walking, so I turned back and boarded a local train out to the coast a few kilometers away.

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Hachinohe coast

The local train stations outside of Hachinohe station were all quite small and remote of people (no foreigners at all). Needless to say, I aroused a few curious but not unwelcoming stares from the fellow passengers. At one point, after sprinting undignifiedly onto a train just as it was about to pull out of the station, with my light-colored hair strewn out and wavy from the run and the salty air, two high-school girls stared at me intriguedly as I entered, and when I passed them softly exclaimed “kirei! (beautiful!)” at the same moment, and then giggled at their simultaneity.

When I left the coast-adjacent station and walked towards the sea, I found the beach to be even more deserted. Even though it was breezier here, it was still comfortably warm, with now an overcast of silvery clouds. All along the coast black cliffs jetted into the water, with the foamy tide crashing against their sides again and again. The air had the most incredible sweet mixture of sea salt and wheat or wood chips. I found a pedestrian walk that snaked up and over the cliffs, through a small forest, and all along the coast, and followed it for about an hour, drinking in the delicious coastal scent.

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When the sun started to set, and dusk started falling thicker and thicker, I wandered over to the main road, and followed that for another hour or so, up and around the dark hills with the sea visible all the while far off to my right. I was actually stopped twice by passing Japanese drivers wondering what I was doing walking alone at this hour and offering to drive me to the next train station. The first I turned away, though I felt immediately that he was harmless and trying to be helpful, because darkness hadn’t quite fallen yet and I really was enjoying my solo walking, but as he pulled away I wondered if I had made the right decision. Only a few minutes later, another man stopped me, this time slightly more imposingly and persistently–almost certainly with benevolent intentions, but the slight feeling of unease that he inspired in me was enough for me to turn him down positively and continue on my way at a brisker pace. I managed to make it to the next station just as is was getting fully dark and starting to rain. Around 7pm my adventure came to an end as I boarded the (correct) shinkansen back to Morioka.

I’m not sure how I would’ve chosen if I had the day to do over again. I’m sure a large part of the charm and mysteriousness of Hachinohe came from how unexpectedly I came there. But, then again, when I picture the winding wooden footpath, the bluish gray sea smashing up against the coastal cliffs, and above all, the perfect remoteness…this was all really just what I had been after in my impulsive solo journey to the north. So maybe I’ll just leave it at that– no lesson or comment on fatedness, just that beautiful picture in my mind of the dusk falling heavily around me, clinging to the trees and the snaking road, and dissolving into the sweet smell of the ocean.

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