Published: September 21st 2008September 18th 2008
There's been a flurry of activity here in Japan, apologies for those who like their updates small and irregular.
Because of the way scheduling here works, we rarely get the chance to have prolonged time with friends, as they have different days off (and their own lives). This has been said before (and will no doubt be repeated in the future) but it is one of the biggest drawbacks of our lives in Japan. I have a wee clutch of really good friends, and two thirds of them are James and Amber. Americans, but still cool people. A fortuitously placed National Holiday and some flurried emailing managed to get five of us together- Amber, Mayumi, James, Mitsu and I. We organised ourselves to meet up after work on Saturday and drove (massive thanks for the car, Mayumi-san) to Okayama Prefecture, one prefecture away from Hyogo, two from Osaka. The prefectural government there runs a number of 'International Villas' at very cheap prices. You rent rooms in the house and pray to the gods that the other people staying there are groovy. Or that you've got the place to yourself. You can book the whole place, but this only works if
Not quite ripe.
there are enough of you. (These places are under threat, please see the footnote.)
About two hours after setting off, we rocked up at Hattoji International Villa- up a monster hill somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Initial exploring exposed a traditional Japanese country house, all wood, tatami, old-style bath tub, open fireplace and sliding doors. I don't know anywhere else that gives you the chance to experience this. We were the last to arrive, a Japanese couple with their son and a pair of American Ducati-fiends were already ensconced around the fire. We quickly settled in for dinner and as many beers as possible.
Morning brought the chance to check out our surroundings. Hattoji is a gathering of about ten traditional houses (some uninhabitable/-ed) and a few temples, perched up in the mountains- the nearest town is 20km away. We were surrounded by rice fields and tree-clad slopes. Boo-yah! There was also a pond with four frogs and a black snake which was trying to make a meal out of them. Snakes both fascinate and scare the Bejesus out of me (and James), and the pond was a source of regular interest/horror for all. (At the time
The view, one way.
of leaving, all four amphibians were still outside the snake.)
A brief perusal of the touristy maps revealed a 'hiking trail' around the countryside which looked like it could be fractionally adventurous so we loaded up with water and set forth. It turned out that the trail was a single-track tarmac road and could be walked in about 40 minutes. Still, the countryside is great and there was a restaurant with comically slow service somewhere on the route. Were were very much the city kids - giddy when it came to 'wildlife'. Every frog, snake, grasshopper, preying mantis and other creature was pointed at or teased, picked up and exclaimed over. Mitsu used to be a country tom-boy and acted as wildlife guide for the rest of us, she was the queen-instigator for picking stuff up. Just can't help herself!
The hike was about it in terms of local entertainment so we got back in the car and went to replenish our beer supplies in the local town (we'd underestimated our ability for consumption the night before). That in itself was interesting enough, I don't think they see many foreigners out there. Added to this is the fact
that James is freakishly tall by anyone's standards- he is the object of continual staring. Then it was home for afternoon drinking and music. We had the place to ourselves until the Ducati people loudly returned and started bitching about the NHS. (I should bloody cocoa- 45 million plus without any healthcare in the wealthy US.) They were nice enough, but it would have been been far better to have the place to ourselves. Next time. There will definitely be a next time if the places are still open next year. The evening otherwise went well, we cooked a mass of chili and guacamole and continued our journey into the beers. Quite early in the evening we tucked into the bottle of sake and James made considerable headway into that one, something he would pay dearly for the next day. The only downside to traditional Japanese houses is the lack of soundproofing. Our neighbours make motorbike noises while they're slumbering, too, and it ripped through the whole building. Fortunately we were all drunk enough to be able to sleep.
We reluctantly checked out of the house on the Monday morning and made our way to nearby town of Bizen,
The other way.
a centre for a famous style of ceramics in Japan. James was not feeling very pukka at all, and we had to stop on the way for him to expel some unidentified orange stuff. Once in Bizen, we got the chance to try our hand at some pottery. (Well, four of us, our tall friend slept in the car.) The girls all created vaguely elegant looking cups while mine were a little on the solid side, but it was really fun. We left our details and once our masterpieces are dry, they'll be glazed and fired and posted out to us. It rained all day, and we decided the best idea was to get lunch and make our way home. Mr Feeling Like Death came more and more alive as the journey progressed (ably aided by granola bars and Coca-cola) and for the last hour was very involved in political discussions and our games of twenty questions. Amber didn't initially understand the question limit and rapid-fired away chances in the first few rounds. I was king, 'toenail' being outside everybody's scope of imagination and lines of questioning. Traffic got heavy and slow, but the games, discussions and odd bouts of
singing (or bouts of odd singing) made the time pass easily.
All in all, it was a top weekend of hilarity and quality time with people I don't get to see anywhere near enough of. Road trips are something we never/very rarely get to do here, being reliant on public transport and mostly car-less. It's an experience which will have to be repeated, and we'll be planning the next one once we see the other side of winter.
N.B. Footnote...the International Villas are in serious danger of being axed as part of a money-saving drive by the prefectural authorities. If you live in/visit Japan, please stay in them. There is a chance that they'll be saved if enough support is shown to keep them running. they've got to be about the cheapest, hassle-free option for interesting and well-placed accommodation in the country, and they're great places. To check them out: www.harenet.ne.jp/villa/
There are more photos below