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Part XXVI Japan on a shoestring and a rental car

May 11, 1999

OK, I'm back from my tour of Japan, and boy I can't remember any of it. We just saw too many things, and it all blends together. I looked through the pictures today (seven rolls worth) and I couldn't even remember stuff I had taken pictures of. But fear not -- where there's a Rafi, there's an amusing anecdote or two.

To give you an idea of where we went on this trip, it would help if you could look at a map of Japan. Got one? OK, good. Now, look at the left half of the map. Are you with me? We covered pretty much all of that. First, we took an overnight bus to Kobe, and we rented a car from there. In just under seven days we put exactly 1,492 kilometers on the car. Actually, I should say Jeff put them on the car, since he drove all but 0.5 of those kilometers (I drove the last 0.5, in case you are curious -- you know, they drive on the wrong side of the street here!).

I won't bother listing all of the castles, temples, and shrines that we went to because, like I said, I can't remember them anyway. I will say this, though -- whenever you are in Japan, try to get in touch with volunteer English-speaking guides. We used two of them, and they were both fairly nice and extremely informative. They volunteer as guides to practice their English, by the way, not just because they have a lot of time on their hands.

 The focus of the trip, for me, was Hiroshima, and I will do you all a favor by not describing it in detail. If I did, you might think that you don't have to go there. You would be wrong. The area of interest, at least as far as the atom bomb and its effects are concerned, is actually quite small, but its emotional impact cannot be overstated. There is only one surviving structure from the actual blast, the so-called the A Bomb Dome (obviously, it was not called that before 8:15am on August 6, 1945, a time and date which is continuously beaten into your head). It is simply the burned-out shell of a once-beautiful building, and only the structural supports still exist for the destroyed dome, but seeing it is a vital part of the Hiroshima experience. Only in the concentration camps of Eastern Europe have I seen such mute eloquence testifying to the horrors of war.

Hiroshima, however, was only one and a half days on a ten day trip. One of the other days contained another truly memorable experiences. And we almost skipped the whole thing. Harold (who, along with Kristin and Jeff were my fellow travelers) had seen a TV show about a special hot spring that was sort of on our planned route (the "sort of on" in the previous sentence should be read as "ridiculously far from"). Rather than simple pools of water, this was supposed to be a hot river, and even better, entrance was supposed to be free. Of course, we were a little hesitant, especially after Harold said that we might have to make our way through snake infested woods with flashlights to find the place. But, we figured, what the hell? (Actually, the rest of them figured "fine, anything to shut Rafi up.")

 So, after stopping and asking directions only once (a record), we parked and walked down to the river to check it out. It was just as described -- except that a resort town had been built around it, and it was 50 feet from the nearest road, and there were changing rooms near the water. I probably should mention what exactly is meant by "hot springs" in Japan. In one word, it means "nudity." You wear bathing suits to swim, not to bath, dummy. The hot springs are treated more like baths (which is another whole story, since in Japan you NEVER get into a bath if you are dirty).

Oh, and by the way, this particular hot spring was full of Japanese people (not surprising), and it was also co-ed (most of them are not). Yes, that does mean that this was a coed naked hot spring river thing. So, after a very short consultation we decided to go in anyway, and in no time at all the three guys were walking around with heads held high and towels held low. Kristin, being a bit more modest, wore her underwear (which looked decidedly like a bathing suit). Needless to say, we turned some heads. In another, more accurate sense, we turned ALL the heads. People in Japan never stare at each other, but for some reason they think it is OK to stare at foreigners. One group of young guys even followed us from pool to pool (the "us" in the previous sentence should be read as "Kristin"). We went to three different pools of three different temperatures, and it was very relaxing. The water was mostly about three feet deep, so needless to say the utmost care was taken whenever moving.

One basic fact about coed naked hot springs in Japan is that there are rarely many females between the ages of 8 and 80. It would be indecent for single women to go, and married men don't want their wives there for other men to look at (I'm not being sexist -- men in Japan still tend to dictate their wives' behavior; think of the US in the 1950's, and you'll have a better idea of gender relations). We saw only two or three young women, and they were without exception protected by a towel from collarbone to thigh. Now, if only the current had been a little stronger . . .

 After 30-40 minutes we had had enough, so we put our clothes back on and left. I think it is safe to say that a good time was had by all. More specifically, to quote Kristin, "It was fun to see all of your little toushies." I immediately corrected her, of course -- my toushy is not, and never will be, small.

 I will probably have more to say about the trip in future installments, but that's enough for now. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. If you really want to know where we went, get out at map and find Kobe (if you don't care, skip the rest of this message). Go North and West along the coast to Himeji, then due West to Okayama, North to Takahashi, then back to the coast a bit further West at Fukuyama. Then, to the nearby Islands of Innoshima and Omishima, and from there to Hiroshima and Miyajima. Continue along the Southern coast to Iwakuni, then jump almost due North to Hagi, on the Northern coast. Then East to Tsuwano, and North East all the way to Izumo and Matsue on the Northern coast. From there, we drove South East to Tsuyama (the hot river was there), and continued back to Kobe. Jeff and Harold took the train home, and Kristin and I continued South East to Nara, then North to Kyoto and East to Hikone (on the East coast of Lake Biwa). From there we also took the train home. For me and Kristin, the trip lasted from Wednesday night, April 28 until Saturday night, May 9. Jeff and Harold returned home on Wednesday, May 6.

 More fun and good times to come.