Saturday, September 23, 2006

Deep afield, and on the national news!

Yesterday, we spent a fabulous day exploring the depths of the mountains North of Tochigi, and ended the day witnessing a bee attack that made it on the national news!!! First things first though...

We started the day with a quick breakfast at home before heading out around 9AM. As we stepped out the door, we were greeted with the majestic Nantai-san (I will forever curse Japan's overabundance of above ground power lines), putting in an appearance and showing us we had a great day ahead of us. Also got a nice profile of a pigeon resting on my neighbour's antenna.

The plan was to head into the Northwestern most area of Tochigi Prefecture, bordering on Gunma and Fukushima prefectures, in search of what proved to be the elusive Heike Village which I learned about from this site. We never did end up finding the actual village, but we couldn't have been very far since we found both the waterfalls and the geyser noted in the site. Oh well!

As we headed past Imaichi and into unknown territory, the road took a turn for the curvy and we ended up driving the rest of the way up winding mountain roads with dramatic views of the surrounding mountains. This is a panorama of 5 pictures I took when we stopped on the side of the road.

Our first stop was Oozasa farm, where I was told we would find some of the best soft ice cream in the country, made from fresh milk from the farm. I wasn't disappointed, it was fantastically creamy and won!derful! And the pasture area has quite the view as well.

Since we were there, we took the opportunity to bum around the farm a bit and perform a quick meet & greet with the animals.

This goat seemed quite proud to show off his dental work, this shot has made me laugh innumerable times throughout the day as I flipped through my pictures and landed on this one!

After a quick look at the map, we decided the area of Heike village was within striking distance and set off again into the hills. To say we were deep afield at this point is no exaggeration. Only one road leading in, branching off into smaller and smaller roads, precipices on alternating sides of the car, the drive is almost worth the trip in itself! We did a quick pit stop to admire Jao Falls, after making our way down a series of treacherous steps.

While you sometimes have to close your eyes to certain aspects when visiting Japanese nature (ie. the 30 centimeters of water where there used to be 10 meters) you do find some surprises along the way. In this case, a segment of the Kinu river which is concreteless... Here are the falls, with the sunlight reflecting harshly in my lens... hadn't brought the lens hood along... shoulda.

We eventually made it up to Kuwamoto Lake where we took a quick break.

Not much further up the road, we stopped for a quick lunch at a VERY rural restaurant.

How rural? There were pictures of the owner gutting and butchering deer and bear on the walls and the menu contained such interesting dishes as Shika Katsudon (deer) and Kuma Ramen (bear) but that wasn't the end of it! When asking for our order, the woman said: "What do you want?" instead of the much more polite variations we're used to in the big city! The horror! After finding out the deer katsudon wasn't available, I settled on mountain mushroom soba, nothing too exciting but we did witness people at the table next to us try roasted salamander on a stick to the giggles and sounds of disgust of their friends. Out front were a series of meat-on-a -stick concoctions I would have tried were they not sitting in the sun for most of the day.

Duck, Deer, Bear and others (including the salamander) were up to be fried on the grill here, but I passed.

As we neared the end of this mountain road, we did manage to find Heike Onsen, but no sign of the historically recreated Heike Village where a clan of warriors escaped to after losing a battle some 800 years ago. We did manage to find the geyser mentioned on the web site and played with dragonflies until she decided to blow for us. This reminds me of a conversation Yoshiko and I keep having when we travel. Things just kind of work out for us wherever we go. Train cancelled by bad weather? another option puts us in at the same time. Get lost down some forsaken forest road? Find a quaint place to take a rest. In this case, we had turned down a road thinking it would take us to Nikko, but were not reassured by the condition the road was in and decided to turn around to double-check the road signs. As we confirmed it was in fact the road to take, Yoshiko caught a glimpse of the sign for the geyser which we knew was in the area and we stopped by the side of the road to check it out. The sign which times the geyser's spray was out of order, so we ended up having a quick snack which we waited for it. Others came and went after spending a few minutes, but when the geyser finally blew, we were alone. We click and complement each other very nicely, I guess that's why I'll be making her my wife in a few weeks!

We then headed back down the mountain road which linked this area to Senjogahara and Lake Chuzenji from where Utsunomiya is just a quick jaunt. Along the way, I noticed a car stopped up ahead and saw a large animal bounding across the road. When I said: "Monkey!", Yoshiko didn't believe me and said it was too big... must be a dog. Turns out I was right, that was one big monkey! Turns out the area was practically crawling with them, we spotted a few more groups as we made our way down the mountain. These guys were afraid of people, must not see too many out here. The first thing Yoshiko did when she saw me open the window to take pictures was to hide the food and drinks... the ones in Nikko are very aggressive and will come right into your car to snatch things from you. All these little guys did was run away.

As we passed through Senjogahara, where we hiked a couple of weeks ago, we decided to pull in to a little gift shop\restaurant jobby next to the Koutoku picnic area. As we neared the parking lot, I happened to look out my window and saw the strangest thing. This old man was looking at me with wide eyes from the woods, his head and upper torso covered with a jacket. Having seen many drunk folks in many places, I didn't think too much of it until we noticed people swatting around their heads and running from the forest. After we had parked, it quickly became clear through the shouts of "hatchi! hatchi!" that someone had disturbed a nest and the inhabitants were less than pleased. A few people were on the ground, and the staff from the restaurant did their best to help, but anyone who got close would also get attacked. I would have gone in myself, but was wearing a short sleeved dark shirt and didn't have anything to protect my head with, I would have gotten eaten alive! What I can't understand is why the people stayed there and didn't try to get off the road and into the parking lot, presumably away from the nest. The police arrived within 5-10 minutes and this is the point where I got really perplexed. They drove right by 2-3 people who were on the ground and proceeded into the parking lot where they started to take down reports!

Forget about helping the people who are hurt or anything... dumb asses. One officer did head down towards the area of the attack armed with a clipboard and pen, but he made no attempt to get the people out of there. At the very least they should have gotten their rain suits to help protect the people or something... but it seems the paperwork is more important. After a while, the bees seemed to calm down and the injured were able to walk out into the parking lot with help from some other people. As we left, the ambulance was just coming in. We then proceeded home where, after stocking up on gyoza, we had a wonderful meal. While watching the news, we were surprised to hear a report on the bee attack on the national news. I'm often surprised at the news that makes it into a newscast out here, must be a slow news country. Seems the group which was attacked was a bunch of school teachers from Kanagawa Prefecture who were out with a tour guide for the day. Nobody was seriously injured, though they were taken to hospital to have stingers removed and stings treated. I think the reason this made such big news was that a woman was killed by bees in Nasu recently... not sure if they're more active this time of year or what... maybe just more people in the woods enjoying the cool weather.

Today was spent relaxing around the house and starting to plan our Vietnam section of the trip. We've reserved a hotel for the first few nights, and will probably make a decision for the rest once we're on the ground in Ho Chi Minh City. We did eventually leave the house for coffee and ended up at Round 1 Stadium, a game centre to kill a couple of hours. I had the upper hand at ping pong and pool but I got my ass kicked by Yoshiko at basketball, archery and Taeko drums. A fine day! The most intriguing game was an arcade version of arm wrestling where a machine applies increasing levels of force to a mechanical arm. Being the modest feller that I am, I selected the 5th hardest level, and beat it pretty easily. Noticing no one had beaten the top level yet, I bumped up the difficulty to the top and was able to beat the machine with some difficulty. The next challenger (level 1 plus?) was a bit tougher though, and we ended in a draw in our first round, and I had to cheat on the second cause my arm was about to give way. Flipping drill cards in a classroom sure doesn't prepare one for arm wrestling, let me tell you! To top off the weekend, we grabbed some subway and ate it at home, and now here I am at my home typing this up. And the best part is, there's one more day to go in the long weekend! Woohoo!


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