Recently I went with my coworkers on a weekend retreat in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture. I arrived at our junior high school at half past seven, and by 7:45am we were in a charter bus and on the road. Our bus driver did not say much of anything before, during, or after the drive. But the young woman accompanying him would be our guide, entertainer, and attendant for the duration of the trip, offering us games, refreshments, area facts, and a constant smile all weekend long.
Within 15 minutes of our departure we were offered various alcoholic beverages, of which many of the staff accepted, myself not included of course. I sat alone in row seven. Most of the people around me were paired up with someone. I spent the next several hours sitting by myself while my coworkers carried on and played group games I did not understand nor was invited to join.
As we climbed the hills and mountains towards our destination, the scene turned from dull and overcast to foggy, rainy and snowy. I attempted to nap at times, as there was little else to do and my head was hurting from wearing a pair of glasses with an old prescription.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant and gift shop that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere; by now we were well into the hills and the roads had narrowed to pinpoint widths, even as other buses and trucks and cars passed in the opposite direction. The restaurant was on the second floor of the building and had one wall affixed with tall windows, creating a nice view of the mountains while letting in loads of light. The meal was a familiar nabe style with ten or so little dishes. While the food was good, I felt a little ill afterward.
Hours into the trip we stopped to sightsee, taking a cable car to a higher point on the mountain. We were intending to take yet another cable car – a double decker one – up even further, but were told the winds were too strong to safely transport us up to the top. So we settled for a small wildlife museum and more gift shopping.
I should note that in Japanese culture it is customary to purchase gifts called omiyage (oh-mee-ah-geh) for friends, family and coworkers back home. This seems to apply even if you travel only a few hours from home, or take any amount of time off for any number of reasons. My coworkers purchased gifts at nearly every rest stop and shop we came across. As for me, I spent all of $10 on someone else.
We arrived at our hotel by 5pm and were given number tags for our shoes and slippers for our feet. I had no idea what was going on as troops of teachers marched to different floors to take residence in various rooms, so I just walked with everyone until the school’s head of education said that we were sharing a room together along with the head teacher. Cool, so I’d be with important folks. In truth they probably didn’t know what else to do with me, and the shortest straw was drawn and that was that.
An older woman escorted us into a room with tatami floors and invited us to sit at a low table situated in the middle of the room. We were served hot tea and she began to explain all the perks and rules of the ryokan. The main draw for this place was its onsen – baths with hot spring water coming directly from the mountain. The reason for staying there was precisely this. The one thing I couldn’t do was join in. Why? Because I have tattoos. Japan has a long-standing aversion (discrimination, perhaps?) to tattoos as they had been associated with its underworld mobsters. And since I clearly look the part of a Japanese thug, there is little chance I can step into a public onsen anywhere in Japan. There are of course a few exceptions, but this was not one of them. So my two roommates decided to head to the onsen while I just...sat around. I wrote some postcards and eventually fell asleep on the floor, using a chair cushion as a pillow. When I woke up I found my two roommates had returned, and were also napping by the table.
At 6pm the staff met for dinner at another part of the building. Most of them were dressed in the hotel-provided yukata, since most of them went to the onsen. I was in my street clothes, since there was no onsen for tattooed me to enjoy. I was quickly asked to change into my yukata since there would be picture taking at some point. I obliged. A few others were asked the same, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.
Dinner was preceded by some speeches and a slideshow presentation about our principal, who will be retiring at the end of this school year. Dinner itself was pretty stellar – another nabe meal consisting of 15 or so courses that tingled and teased my tongue and palate in various ways. While everyone else sat where they chose, I had an assigned place since my vegetarian meal was arranged ahead of time. It was certainly very thoughtful of them, and I appreciated it. One dish in particular really wowed me. It was a plate of vegetables grilled to a divine black and topped with a flavorful, savory matcha tea sauce. I would have asked for the recipe had I known how to do it.
The thing about these group meals is that people don’t stay sitting at their places, but instead they get up and greet others. This usually begins with the visitor brandishing a bottle of alcohol (or tea in my case) and topping off the host’s glass, whether or not it is full. The host is to first take a sip of his glass, hold it out to be topped off, and take another sip before placing it back down. It is an interesting and kind cultural tidbit, however I really wanted to eat and did not enjoy being interrupted every few bites in order to have another obligatory sip of tea. Granted I enjoyed the visits, but my belly is only so big.
After dinner the troops dispersed. Many went to their rooms, while others went to drink more. I was abandoned in my room and decided to walk around the hotel a little. Situated between two connected buildings was a pond of koi – there must have been about 50 or so – featuring water cascading from the mountains. The buildings and connecting hallway had windows all around it so you could see the fish no matter where you were inside that part of the structure. I made my way to a lounge area, which I found quite peaceful. One of the teachers, who arranged the trip, wandered in and sat across from me. We chatted for nearly an hour, discussing the koi, the school, our families, hobbies. While the communication was a bit difficult at times, it was a nice way to end the evening. It was the first time that day that anyone spent any length of time talking with me.
When I returned to my room one of the teachers was laying half on his futon and half on the floor, almost as if he was shot to death and collapsed right there, in no planned way. I got ready for bed and fell asleep on my thin futon.
The next morning we had to be up early in order to get breakfast which was being served from 7am to 8am. After that we would check out and be on the bus by 8:30am. 8:30am didn’t happen as there was some picture taking and dillydallying and confusion and whatever. But 8:45 did happen, and off we went down the same twisty, narrow roads that led us to our mountain destination. Our main stop of the day was in Nagano to visit Matsumoto Castle. We had free time to wander around and get lunch on our own, and of course shop for gifts for those people left behind six hours away.
Many of us opted to take a self-guided tour of the castle, which consists of six floors but appears to only have five. This hidden floor, called a dark floor, has no windows and is designed to give the castle an appearance of having only five floors. It’s also much shorter than the normal room height, so one must crouch to navigate around in it. This floor was used by samurai to rest and to store food and weapons. The staircases on each floor are not connected and appear random. They are remarkably steep and were designed this way intentionally to make it more difficult for intruders to make their way up into the castle. Also, the king’s chamber was way up top, with very tall, steep, and narrow staircases leading to it. This again was to make it difficult to access in the event of an attack. Now that’s thinking ahead.
The castle also housed a gun museum consisting of a collection of arms and munitions that looked fancy, old, and too damn bulky and heavy to bother to carry around if you ask me.
During and after the tour one of the teachers and I hung out. I think in a way he had taken me along with him to keep me from getting lost or something, since my ability to communicate in Japan is presumably nonexistent. (Some teachers later said, when they hadn’t seen me during the afternoon, that they were worried that I might be lost and not make it back to the bus) We walked along the streets of the town, making our way to Frog Street, an old, narrow street with lots of vendors and cute little shops. And frog stuff everywhere.
I made it back to the bus well before we departed, taking my lonely seat and relaxing for the rest of the ride back to Sano. When we arrived outside of the school, everyone grabbed their luggage and dispersed with zero fanfare. And the day was over, and Monday came again.