One of the perks of being an English teacher with a private company in Japan is that I get holidays in summer and in winter. This gives me a couple of time windows in which I can go travelling. One summer me and my girlfriend went to Sado Island, off the coast of Niigata city. This picturesque and historical island is small enough to not have a railway system but too big to be traversed on foot. My companion and I opted to take the car.
And any decent road trip must be accompanied by a decent playlist. Turn the key, down the window, check the mirror, and press the button …
In Japanese summertime there is a particularly significant cultural occasion called Obon. At this time relatives gather to remember and celebrate the lives of previous generations. This means that for about a week or two around the beginning of August people all over Japan evacuate their tiny inner-city apartments to return to their ancestral homes out in the countryside. For those of us without roots in Japan this can mean that hotels fill up quickly and some services become limited. When scouring the Internet for a reasonable hotel on Sado Island I quickly realised that our options where limited, and were becoming more so by the hour. We eventually settled on a place that was way out of our budget but I rationalised the decision as both breakfast and dinner was included and the hotel had it’s own Onsen (Hot Spring) with lots of supposedly health-enhancing minerals and voodoo magic in it.
Seeing as we were driving we also needed to book a car ferry to get us to the island. This was equally packed and it was only thanks to my companion calling the ferry company to ask if there was space for an extra, tiny Kei-car that we got a spot on the boat at all.
The Japanese countryside is carved up by train lines, Highways (also called Express-ways or “The IC”), main roads, small roads, and even smaller roads. Before getting a smart-phone I relied heavily on a large map book and careful pre-planning. Now I rely even more heavily on the Google Maps App and its navi function. Perched on my dashboard a small, feminine voice regularly chirps out directions. Niigata prefecture is a fair slog away from where I live, so navi was given a lot of responsibility.
Our route took us along all kinds of roads, some with painfully restrictive speed limits. I never drove in the UK so I’ve very limited experience of UK road stations or rest areas. In Japan one can find some really interesting things at stops along the major arteries of the country. On this trip I expected to see specialist foods and goods for sale, maybe even the odd performance piece. What I didn’t expect was the chance to take a ten minute helicopter ride. There’s something quite enchanting about floating up above everything – time down below seems to slow.
We stopped frequently to switch drivers and stretch. The journey to Niigata city, and the ferry port held there, should supposedly take around five hours if done non-stop. With our numerous stops, lunch breaks and helicopter rides it took more like eight. Pulling in to the final road station before Niigata we were peckish and searched for sustenance. We found this:
Yup. A twenty-four hour, hot food vending machine.
We chose two items. The fried chicken nuggets and the hot dogs. Our money went in, we heard a clunk and the sound of a microwave oven. A minute or two later a chime sounded and we picked the warm boxes out of the drop tray. The chicken was soggy, but passable. The hot dogs were, well …
Like two slender buttocks fresh from an hour soaking in the bath.
However, I will say this: The hot dogs had whole-grain mustard on them. How’s that for class in unlikely places?
I’ve been on a couple of ferries in the UK and a couple in Japan. There’s not much to tell them apart except that a UK ferry is usually inundated with seats, whereas a Japanese ferry only really has them for the first class and infirmed passengers. Regular travellers on a Japanese ferry have large open rooms of carpeted flooring to sit down on. These rooms are often divided into smaller areas, each with it’s own TV (seriously, you can’t get away from TVs in Japan!). At first this openness kinda freaked me out, but then I realised the key advantage of this set-up: You can lie down. And I’m not one to pass up the chance for a nap!
On this occasion we opted to sit on some seats out on the deck to enjoy the warm weather (so … I guess I am one to pass up the chance for a nap …). Other people sat, walked, and ran all around us. One woman had clearly decided she couldn’t wait for the beach and had laid her towel out on the deck. I spent my time reading and subtly scowling at the woman who was encouraging her toddler to feed snacks to passing seagulls. I used to live in a sea-side town so I’m well-acquainted with those winged vermin. The more you feed them, the more they return, the more vicious they become. I sat in silence, picturing the moment when one of those beastly birds would swoop down and grab a finger instead of a snack.
We arrived at the port on Sado in the early evening. I quickly flicked the navi back on and we set off for the hotel on the other side of the island …
We arrived ten minutes before dinner time was scheduled to finish. We rushed to our room. We were in our room long enough for a sense of sinking disdain to creep into my mind.
We paid how much? … For this!?!
The room was bargain quality at best. There was no movie service, WiFi or room service available and the stained yellow wallpaper reminded me of a retirement home I’d visited once. The price tag for this “luxury hotel” flashed across my thoughts again and again as we hurried to the dinning area. My frown steadily deepened.
We were seated in a large hall dotted with tables. There was only one other group in the room. It felt bare and uncomfortable. On the table were a number of small dishes, each containing a colourful something. The typical setup for a posh Japanese dinner. My heart hopped with the first bite. It skipped with the second. It positively jumped with the third.
“So this is where the price comes from” I thought, loud enough to be understood. The various little bowls and plates on the table, plus the subsequent additions to the set meal, were largely filled with exquisite local sea-beings. All of which presented in classy displays of culinary excellence.
One especially unexpected piece of “cook it yourself” fancery was this valuable local delicacy that … um, wriggled…
My frown dissolved and my drive-weary butt-cheeks relaxed. We had arrived and it was time to start enjoying our summer holiday on Sado Island, Niigata, Japan.
It took a whole day to get to Sado. We spent the following day traversing the island, wandering through mines, floating about in boats, and drinking sake. More on all that, coming soon!