When we last left our intrepid heros, you may recall that they – meaning we, I suppose – had just been force-fed a contorted carcass of a baby bird impaled on a wooden stake. Needless to say, after sleeping the tormented slumber of baby bird munchers, we awoke the next day unable to shake the feeling that we had in some way participated in making the world a less happy place (at least if you have feathers and live in Kyoto), and were eager to leave Kyoto, its seething crowds and the indelible stain of our sin against bird-anity and start on the next leg of our journey.
Though the morning started out normal enough, as we piled our bags into the car and started to navigate the convoluted expressways out of Kyoto, the skies began to turn alarmingly grey and menacing. Our streak of beautiful Autumn weather, it seemed, was about to be broken (only for a day though, it turns out) and just as we turned onto the highway, the skies opened up and it began to rain.
The gloomy rain notwithstanding, our destination this day was Himeji – home to the beautiful Shirasagi-jyo castle – the finest castle in all of Japan, and one of the few originals left standing. Rather than recount the general awesomeness of the castle, I’ll direct you to the wikipedia entry on Himeji Castle and let you read about it there.
By the time we got into downtown Himeji, everything was well soaked, dreary and cold. But always ones to make lemonade out of lemons, we parked the car, grabbed our umbrellas and trudged over to get our castle on.
I wish that I had better pictures to post here, but as mentioned, it was dark, grey and rainy, so there were limits to what I could get. However, this was not my first visit to Himeji castle – I stopped by there a few years ago on a day with entirely nicer weather, so if you would like to see some non-cloudy pictures, you could check that entry as well.
That having been said, we were fortunate enough to turn the corner onto one of the parapets to find a large grassy area with piles and piles of un-raked leaves! Now as you may have gathered, I love Autumn and nothing says Autumn like getting all down and dirty playing around with fallen leaves. My lovely travel companion regarded me with suspicion as I started frolicking about and reliving my childhood tossing leaves up in the air with an abandon I haven’t felt since I was eight. (the fact that I didn’t have to rake these up afterward only added to my abandon …)
But soon, she to was converted to the simple Autumnal pleasures in life and as passing grannies and families watched us with mixtures of concern and bemusement, we had ourselves a grand old time jumping about in the leaves. It was probably the most fun I had had in a couple of months up until that point and while I did get musty and sweaty (and had a few bugs crawl down my shirt, I’m sure), it was well worth it. Ahh… to be a kid again.
The rest of Himeji castle was not quite as exciting as that moment (though I still urge you to visit it if you ever have the chance, as it is breathtaking), and after we finished up our visit, we raced to the car to beat the increasingly insistent rain. Piling in we unfolded our map and charted a course to our next destination – the Naruto Uzushio, also known as the Naruto Whirlpools.
The Naruto Whirlpools are located in the Naruto straits between Awaji-shima, a small island off the the coast of Honshu, and Shikoku, the smallest of the four major islands that constitute Japan. There’s not actually all that much to see on Awaji-shima itself (except for, apparently, lots and lots of onions) and after a brief debate, we decided against spending the rest of the day there, and instead opted to check out the whirlpools, then go on to Shikoku and make camp for the night.
The problem with our brilliant plan came into focus after we stopped at a rest area just off the Hanshin Expressway at the top of the island and happened to talk to a young lady working the information counter. For reference, we were at the northern part of the island. The whirlpools are located on the other side, at the southern end of the island.
“So, those Naruto Whirlpools must really be something huh?”
“Yes, but only if you catch them during the prime viewing hours.”
“Oh, and when would that be?”
“Well…, there’s only two per day, one with the morning tide and one with the afternoon tide.”
“So umm… I take it we missed the morning tide. When’s the afternoon viewing time?”
“Let’s see… the schedule says it’s at 3:50 PM.”
“But it’s 2:50 PM right now…”
“Then I guess you’d better hurry, huh?”
Snarky desk clerks aside, in that split second my faithful travel companion and I had to make a decision. Did we risk tearing across the entire length of the island at top speed in a pouring torrential rain with low visibility in the vain hope of catching the us the tail end of some prime whirlpool viewing? Or did we say to hell with it, give up on watching whirlpools, and spend a few leisurely hours scouting out some sodden onion fields in the middle of a tempest?
Needless to say, we didn’t come all this way just to look at a bunch of soggy onions. Pausing only to grab a map from the information desk which we may or may not have had to pay for (ignorance is bliss, my friends), we raced to the car and peeled on to the road – the rear tires momentarily losing grip in a slightly disturbing reminder of an incident that occurred during a prior road trip a couple of years ago – and headed south at breakneck speed.
The clock read 3:43 just as well pull into the parking lot of the whirlpool viewing complex. Rushing to the gate, we paid for our tickets (about $5 USD, but you have to keep in mind, they are basically charging you to walk out onto a bridge and look at water. I guess if it’s good, it’d be worth it. But if it isn’t good…) and then dash out towards the viewing portals. It was prime viewing time and we weren’t about to miss it!
Along the way, we kept staring out the sides and down these little plexiglass portholes that were cut into the floor, asking each other “can you see it? can you see anything yet?”, only to reply in the negative each time. For the record people, this is what we were told to expect:
my apologies for the crappiness of this picture, I snapped it whilst dejected, soaking wet and standing exhaustedly in the lobby of the world’s most disappointing “attraction”.
After walking for a while we reached the end of the bridge viewing area. In the dark, unlit concrete and steel cage, we looked around confusedly for where we were intended to go next. However, we found no way to proceed out further and after spying a sign on the wall directing us to a plexiglass viewing portal in the floor, we realised that this was the supposed to be the prime viewing spot for the whirlpools.
So to recap, we were in the prime viewing spot during the peak of the prime viewing time. So why, lovely readers, is this the sight that greeted us?
Behold the majesty of the world’s shittiest “whirlpool”. Folks, I’ve made more dramatic whirlpools in my cereal bowl when I wolf down my Cheerios too quickly. I’m not sure “disappointing” really does justice to thoughts going through our mind at that moment, as we sat soaked, hungry and exhausted on a rough, unfinished concrete abutment sticking out of the wall, saying nothing as the coldness and darkness of the surrounding expanse wormed its way further into our bones. I believe this picture pretty much sums up how we felt:
After was seemed an eternity of sitting in the unforgiving darkness, a disembodied voice floated out over the intercom, announcing the end of business hours and instructing anybody stupid enough to pay 500 yen to see these imaginary non-whirlpools to come to the front of the gate, or else face being locked in for the night and forced to ponder over their gullibility until daybreak.
We glumly head back to the gate where the staff wave to us with a smile (a smile born of having fleeced yet another pair of suckers out of their hard earned yen, no doubt) and point us out towards the gift shop (AS IF!) and the door.
As we make our way to the lobby, I spy a guestbook laying out for people to write comments in. In the spur of the moment, I have to confess that I did something that I’m not particularly proud of – in the middle of all the ridiculously flowery comments talking about how sugoi (“awesome”) the whirlpools were, I – and in my defense, I was spurred on by my travel companion here – wrote something along the lines of :
Actually, the whirlpools were kind of disappointing.
I was turning to leave when instantly I began to regret what I wrote. For one, I wrote it in English, and the last thing I want is for the Japanese that read it after us to think that all gaijin were jerks. And two, I felt really bad for writing such a downer comment in the middle of all these people’s happy comments (I have no idea what the *bleep* they were looking at that they could think this crappy ass non-attraction was sugoi but still I don’t want to be the guy that steal’s people’s sunshine). Alas, I had written the comment in pen, and I couldn’t erase it. Struggling to think of what to do, I remember writing some crappy afterthought along the lines of
But the bridge was pretty cool
(yes, I even put a stupid smiley face in there). It was pretty clear that it was a forced afterthought, but I didn’t have time to do anything else as one of the staff was starting in our direction and I knew that we had to get out of there before they trapped us next to the guestbook and saw my shameful little act of impudence emblazoned in black ink for all of time.
Some of Awajishima’s famed onions for sale…
So we beat it, but to this day I feel really bad about that little bit of pouty self-indulgence. It’s such a little thing, but it’s just not me, and it’s just not the image I want to portray about foreigners to the Japanese. It pains me to think that Japanese people will read that afterward and think “what a jerk! why’d he have to ruin such an otherwise happy and jovial page with that negative comment?”
Being in a foreign country forces you to think about the way in which your actions are seized upon by others to act as a basis for stereotypes and misconceptions about your entire people and nation. It’s not right of course, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t do it, so we need to be responsible and ever vigilant of our actions abroad and how they will be regarded by those around us. I slipped up and I really regret it, but I guess there’s nothing left to do now but to try to make sure I am even more vigilant in the future.
Anyway, with the disappointing non-whirlpool pathetically sloshing around behind us, we climb back into the car and head south, into Shikoku, where we make camp at a highway stop for the night. All in all, it was a pretty blah kind of day, hampered by the rain, cloudy skies and some disappointing attractions. But you’re bound to have those kind of days in any extended road trip and fortunately for us, the next day would more than make up for it, as we were about to embark on a journey into one of the most beautiful and remote areas of Japan.
But for that story, you’ll need to stay tuned.
Now listening to: “The Notorious B.I.G. – Everyday Struggle”
Hard to believe that this song dropped way the hell back in 1994 (more than 15 years ago!)… to this day it remains one of the best rap songs I’ve ever heard. Biggie just absolutely tears it up on this track. And his flow set against those snare beats… it’s just freaking insane.