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Wednesday, April 19

Hiro neighborhood
Our neighborhood in Hiro is surrounded by lush hills and small farms.

When our aunt came to pick us up Wednesday morning, the sky was a bright, flat white. A thick haze diffused the sunlight. I had been given a choice to spend this day either touring the city of Hiroshima or our aunt's favorite spots in Kure countryside. Even though I thought that Hiroshima was a place that I should see, for some reason I couldn't bring myself to spending my last full day in Japan in another city, particularly one that an American bomb had once leveled. I could easily save that for our next trip.

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

We headed south towards Kure's coastline and came to a beautiful, new suspension bridge with a lovely park at one end and a tollbooth extracting a hefty fee at the other. The bridge led to the small islands of Kamagari and Shinokamigari. It recently replaced a ferry that was the only way to reach the island and the improvements being made to the road that hugged the main island's coast were still in progress. Three busloads of junior high students had just arrived at the park and they were noisily filing into a circular plaza with one of their teachers working to bring the noisy group to order. I spoke briefly to their English teacher, a young man who said he was from Kansas and had been living here for the past two years. He said that he found Japan easy to adjust to culturally, but he was still in awe of its diverse geography. I assured him that, even coming from Northern California, I was quite impressed, as well.

We continued on, following the new coast road. The island was hilly to an extreme. Geometrically patterned concrete walls rose to buttress the sections of hillside that were carved away to make room for the road. This was a place were people lived and worked. Houses, small factories and boats crowded small harbor villages and we could see homes of various sizes and levels of luxury along the side of the road.

After driving for several miles, we pulled into the nearly empty parking lot of a small resort and walked through it and across a carefully manicured athletic field to a wide beach on the other side. The sand was dark and gravelly under our feet. The haze had thickened, dulling the white sky to a middle-gray. The water and air were still and calm, small waves hissed along the shore. If it were clearer, from here we would have been able to see the large island of Shikoku, one of the four major islands that comprise the archipelago of Japan. Today, however, there was just an obscure line where a gray sea blended into a gray sky.

A Salt Factory

We drove a little further down the road and stopped at another of my aunt's favorite local attractions, a small factory famous for manufacturing a local salt that is rich in flavor, minerals and heath benefits. Three, dark-suited salarymen were walking out, talking and laughing loudly as we entered--most likely an out-of-town client being entertained. We browsed through the small exhibit area in the lobby, showing the long history of salt-making on the island and peered through glass walls at the work being done on the factory floor. Salt water was cooking down in two rows of stainless-steel cauldrons. A worker in a white jump suit and black rubber boots was hosing down one of the vats, apparently preparing it to be refilled. He seemed to be the only one working there today. Another man in a white shirt and black tie appeared in the office area on the other side of the building when a phone started ringing. I thought that this must have been a skeleton staff remaining here while the others were taking their lunch.

We doubled back and stopped again at the resort for our lunch in their large, beautifully rustic restaurant. The ceiling was a web of beautifully finished logs and timber an the floors a highly polished gold-colored hardwood. For our lunch, we had large portions of very fresh-tasting sashimi. The fish probably came from one of the small villages we passed on the way. After lunch, we stopped at a souvenir shop in the lobby and my wife, our aunt and our mother all bought packages of the local salt. By the time we walked out the car, a light drizzle was falling.

A Bath Stop

We followed the winding road across a modest bridge to the second island and stopped at a popular local onsen or hot spring. The quantity of these onsen is a testament to the popularity of bathing and the prevalence of volcanic activity below the surface of Japan. This was one of over two-thousand natural hot springs in the country receiving over a billion visits each year. This was an indoor bath, fed by a nearby spring. We paid the modest admission fee (seven dollars, each), were given a towel and a key to a locker. I went into the men's bath and my wife, mother-in-law and aunt went into the women's.

The bath was fairly typical of resort-type onsen. In this one, there were three pools. One was from the natural spring, diluted with heated fresh water, another, with green-tinted water was enhanced with a popular, pleasant-smelling bath salt and the third was directly from the mineral-rich hot spring. A large picture window looked out on the green hills and lowering overcast skies. A few other men were there, talking quietly. I washed myself in the area adjacent to the baths then took my time to savor all three pools. When I was through, I dried off and took advantage of the amenities that were provided for post-shower grooming.

I found the women waiting outside and we retired to the tatami room provided for rest and relaxation after the hot bath. Spending a half hour or more in a very hot tub of water will generally make one very sleepy. All hot springs have this rooms, usually supplied with futons and small, firm pillows for after-bath naps. I thought that it would be hard to fall asleep "in public" as it were, but I closed my eyes and slept soundly for over a half hour. When I woke up, I felt refreshed and invigorated. That is not normally how I wake up from a nap. The light rain continued as we drove back to the mainland.

The Rainy Mountaintop

Our aunt realized that our next destination would probably be an exercise in futility, considering how the weather was closing in, but the view from the summit of Noro Mountain was one of her favorite and she was determined to try anyway. The mountain's summit is the highest peak in Kure (I apologize for not having the exact figure available) and is the centerpiece of a large, regional park. As we drove, the ascent became steeper and the curves sharper. Here and there were a smattering of guardrails protecting the most precarious of the turns, but they were still few and far between. As we went higher, the rain got heavier. Large pieces of the gray clouds had seemingly broken off and crash-landed on the hillside.
As we went higher, the rain got heavier. Large pieces of the gray clouds had seemingly broken off and crash-landed on the hillside.

The panoramic views were obscured by the overcast which now surrounded us as much as sat on top of us. Even still, the scenery was spectacular, with lush, deep green forests speckled with brilliant white, blooming cherry trees and dramatic, rocky crags and cliffs rising vertically hundreds of feet. On a clear day, from near the summit, the large island of Shikoku is easily visible off the nearby coast.

Approaching the summit, we pulled into a wide, empty parking lot next to a large, lodge-like building that appeared fairly new, but was empty with it's windows partially boarded up. Neither my wife nor our aunt to could explain why. A warm, steady rain was falling as we walked by it and followed a narrow road that curved into the forest. It would have been beautifully quiet and peaceful, but aunt and mother were still immersed in the conversation that had continued without pause since we left home that morning. From the way they were motioning and the few words I could catch, I could tell they were discussing where the road went and if it was worth continuing our walk.

The ladies stopped in a rest room and suddenly it suddenly fell quiet. I was immersed in the beautiful sounds of a mountain forest rain shower. Beside the road, there was a narrow pond with a long, wooden dock and I walked towards it. The air was full of the rich, piney smell of wet evergreens and damp earth and the rain coming down on the leaves and pond sounded like eggs sizzling on a grill. Somewhere in the distance, a bird sang a sad but beautiful song and nearby, another answered. At that moment, what may have been the deepest sense of peace I had ever felt came over me. I stood there entranced until I heard my wife calling my name. As we drove back down the mountain, I knew that was a place to which I must, someday, return.

On to Ondo

When we reached the bottom, we turned onto a road that followed the coast to the harbor town of Ondo a the edge of Kure. This long, well-protected straight was a place of great strategic significance throughout Japan's history. In 1961, an unusual looking bridge was built to link the mainland of Kure with the island of Kurahashijima. Built from hill to hill, the roadbed was nearly three-hundred feet over the surface of the water, allowing more than enough clearance for any ship to pass. The road leading to the bridge on each side rose in identical, circular spirals, creating a most unusual appearance. We stopped for coffee at the Ondo Lodge, high up on a steep hillside, overlooking the strait. It was becoming rush hour and I watched a number of ferries (including one that was moving so fast it must have been a hydrofoil) come and go. In spite of the fact that it was a gray, rainy late afternoon, the scene was still remarkably beautiful. The coffee shop was quiet and we were the only customers. The owner was busy folding napkins and sorting silverware for whatever dinner customers may appear on this rainy night.

Kure Gridlock

When we finished our coffee, we continued home in the darkening dusk and thickening traffic. Even though Kure is far from being a major city, it's commute traffic was still too much for the narrow, two-lane road that was it's primary thoroughfare. I could see our aunt growing more and more frustrated as we inched along. Abruptly, she darted down a side street and took a narrow back road beside an embankment next to the water line. She zigged and zagged a few times and managed to get around the bulk of the Kure traffic and her look of frustration changed into a slightly self-satisfied smile. This was clearly a woman after my own heart.

In spite of that little victory, we still had over an hour of traffic to crawl through before we got home. The Kure traffic jam merged smoothly into the Hiro traffic jam and as night finally fell, I began to recognize where we were.

We spent most of that evening packing and re-packing, trying to distribute all the gifts we received and the gifts we were taking back in a way that would fit in our suitcases. As it got later, the rain was getting heavier and was turning into the most steadily intense storm we had experienced on our trip. I took a break from our packing and walked to the room next to ours to step out onto the narrow, covered balcony to watch the rain. In California, I had started to miss the variety and diversion provided by occasional rainy days throughout the year. There were weeks at a time during the winter that were an endless series of storms. Then, throughout the spring and summer, there were months of nothing but cloudless, blue skies.

Below me, water was rushing vigorously through a maze of concrete drainage channels towards the river. It seemed that everywhere in Japan, runoff from the rain was handled professionally and efficiently. In spite of the steady downpour and the steep hillside we were near, the channels were handling only a small fraction of their capacity. I imagined that during a monsoon, it would be a very impressive sight. In spite of the rain and the increasing wind, the night was still fairly warm. I remained out there so long, my wife came to see if there was anything wrong.

A Dark and Stormy Final Night

We finished packing and watched TV for a while before going to bed. Even though our belongings were neatly stowed away and our tickets and passports out where we would remember to bring them, it still hadn't quite sunk in that our journey was virtually over and we would be on our way back to America the next day. Even though this was my most enjoyable part of our trip, I had become used to the pattern of moving from place to place and adventure to adventure. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had somehow completely managed to block out the realization that I didn't want to leave.

For the first time in the past two weeks, I felt painfully aware of my limited knowledge of Japanese.

We turned out the lights to go to sleep and I sat listening to the rain. When the wind blew, it sounded like tiny grains of rice hitting the window. It was almost exactly the same sound I heard on the bullet train to Tokyo. When the air was still, I could hear the rain softly sizzling on the leaves of a tree outside our window. That sound brought me back to the quiet pond on the mountain top. As the image filled my mind, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Several hours later, I awoke to a sound like an electronic alarm clock beeping loudly outside the window. It was still dark and he house was quiet. After about thirty seconds, the beeping stopped and was followed by the "do-mi-so-do" chime commonly heard on public address systems in Japan to politely get attention before an announcement is made. This was followed by a twenty-second announcement in Japanese, followed again by the beeping. The cycle repeated itself one more time and ended with the beeping echoing through the long valley.

For the first time in the past two weeks, I felt painfully aware of my limited knowledge of Japanese. The first thing that came to my mind was the dam just upriver from where we were. Could it be in danger of breaking? I didn't hear my wife, generally a heavy sleeper, stir and there was no activity anywhere in the house. Outside, I strained by ears to listen for the sounds of a mass evacuation, but I could only hear the rain and the gushing of water rushing though the canals to the river. After a while, I became satisfied with the fact that we were not in imminent danger of being washed out to sea fell back to sleep.

Next: Going Home




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