For the second stage of my trip, I travelled alone. Although I’ve travelled quite a bit already, I’ve never actually travelled on my own before, so I was both very excited, but at the same time slightly worried. My friend’s dad was especially worried, which was really sweet. The night before my departure, the whole family spent the evening writing down my entire route, writing down what I should say in Japanese to ask for directions, who to ask etc. And because I can’t use my iPhone here, we also spent time researching the routes and then taking screen shots of each and every one of them. There was no way I was going to get lost.
The first thing I had to do was exchange my JR exchange voucher into the actual pass. Most big stations do this, but not all of them. You can find a list of stations and their opening times in the info booklet for your pass. Doing the exchange was very simple and only took about 5 minutes. Once that was done, I was ready to go! First stop: Hiraizumi. Hiraizumi is in the Tohoku region, north of Japan. Sadly, it’s the region that was most affected by the earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011, but there’s still so much to see and do. Many people are afraid to visit the region, but it’s an absolutely stunning place, and I would definitely encourage visiting it. When my train passed by Fukushima though, I couldn’t help but think about the earthquake and the current situation, and feel for the people that had lost their lives and their homes.
I was proud of myself for making it to Hiraizumi all by myself! I was an hour behind my planned arrival time (because I got a bit lost at Tokyo station), but I had made it. Now the great thing about Japanese train stations is that they all have coin lockers! That meant I didn’t have to lug my heavy backpack around with me, especially considering that where I was going required a lot of walking.
And where I was going was Chusonji Temple. Chusonji Temple is a world heritage site. The temple was built in the later half of the 11th century by Kiyohara Fujiwara who had lost his father, wife and children in the Oshu (northeastern Japan) wars. However, he realized that hatred and sorrow would never heal the sorrow and pain he felt, so instead he built the temple to “console the spirits of the dead, whether friend or foe, human or animal”. In essence the temple is a symbolism of peace.
And high up in the deep forests of the mountains (excluding the many tourists), you really do feel a sense of calmness and serenity.
Hiraizumi is also famous for their wanko soba. I had never heard of this till the night before. But basically, it’s a meal where you are served small dishes of soba which you can eat in several different ways. What’s special about this meal though, is that they keep bringing you bowl after bowl until you can no longer eat! I was definitely up for trying that. But on my way down the mountain it started pouring down with rain, and I had no umbrella. A nice oba-san walking by saw me, and asked if I wanted to share her umbrella. I took her up on her offer and we got to chatting. She asked me if I was on a 一人旅 (hitori tabi), meaning “travelling on my own”, and I explained that I would be for a couple days. She had also come to the temple on her own, and wanted to try the wanko soba, so we decided that it would be nicer to go together. She told me that when she saw me under the rain it had taken her a lot of courage to speak to me. She had been worried about whether or not I even spoke Japanese. So when I replied in Japanese and accepted her offer she was really happy. She called our encounter 一期一会 (いちごいちあえ): ichi go ichi ae. This means “a once in a lifetime encounter (and therefore should be cherished as such)”. I was really happy and touched to know that our meeting meant that much to her.
She insisted on paying for my lunch and then even offered to buy me an umbrella. When I told her that I couldn’t let her do that, because she had already bought me lunch, even the sales lady took her side and told me to accept her offer. I had been defeated by two oba-san. She then gave me a ride all the way to the train station. She was so kind and so sweet, she really made my day.
Unfortunately, I had spent too much time in Hiraizumi, and didn’t have time to stop in Sendai for the Tanabata festival, one of Japan’s biggest festival. I went straight to Watari (in Iwate prefecture) to stay at my friend’s uncle’s place. My friend’s uncle had two little boys that were 9 and 10. And apparently one of them had taken quite a liking to me, which he demonstrated through his various gifts. It was the cutest and sweetest thing ever!
The next day I made my way to Aomori to see another one of Japan’s biggest festivals, Nebuta. I would also be staying in a capsule hotel, which was really exciting.
When I arrived at the hotel, and was putting my things away, this lady suddenly came up to me and asked me if I wanted to wear a yukata and take part in the festival. I thought she had mistaken me from someone else, so I declined at first, telling her I didn’t know the dance or anything. She said it was fine, and insisted I join the parade. So I thought “yeah ok why not”. This lady, Endo-san, had come prepared with a suitcase full of yukata. I was not the only one she had asked to participate either! She had enlisted three more people, Junko-san, Koji-san and Takada-san. We all got ready in the lobby of the capsule hotel, and then set off for the one o’clock parade. It was SOOOOO hot, but sooo much fun as well! Of course, I was the only foreigner in the parade, and stood out. Plus I was wearing a yukata, which I guess is really rare. So people from the crowd kept encouraging me.
Another interesting thing about the parade is that all the dancers wear these bells on them. And as we danced, the bells would fall off, and we would then give it to someone in the crowd. According to Takada-san, the bells falling off of you while you danced symbolized “bad things” leaving you. But it was good luck for the people you gave it to. So a lot of the kids kept yelling out 鈴ちょうだい鈴ちょうだい! Give us some bells, give us some bells! I myself even picked up a rather large bell 😉
After the parade we all went to get ice cream and bought a watermelon to share. Along the way a few people asked to take my picture and thought I was かっこいい lol.
In the evening was a 2 hour firework display and a boat procession of nebuta (which I sadly missed). But during the firework I got to talking to a girl that was the same age as me and we quickly became friends. She again told me so was so happy to have met me and been able to talk to me. Again 一期一会.
(Please ignore the conversation lol I didn’t know how to remove it)
Now I’m on the train on my way to Osaka. Thinking back, these last two days have been absolutely amazing, and it wouldn’t have been this great if it was not for the people I met along the way. Definitely 一期一会…