Morning found me on a real bed!
And not only that, the girl I had taken to bed with me looked as beautiful
in the morning as she had the evening before. Luckily, at least the
real bed part, wasn't just a dream. And a real shower in the morning
felt pretty darned good besides.
I had breakfast at McDonalds -- two McDonalds meals in
a row -- and stayed there writing
in my diary while I was waiting for an Internet cafe around the corner to
open at 10:00. I don't recall how I found it. I must have
asked at the front desk and received some directions from the hotel
In the cafe, I was able to check my email after an
absence of two weeks. It was probably the most I had been away from
my email since I had become email-enabled several years ago. While I was
there, a "foreign" girl sat next to me. I was able to
assist her with some computer problem she was having. It turned out
she was new in town and there to start a gig teaching English. That
wasn't a surprise since that is the typical reason you'd find any young foreigners living
in Japan outside of any of the big cities. It was 2.5 hours before I
left the cafe. By that time, it was already after noon.
The only thing I wanted to see in the Nagano area was
Gassan, a network of tunnels built by the Imperial Command in the Second
World War. No Japanese I know (except the person who told me about it) has
even heard of the place. I didn't know where the place was so I found the tourist information center at
the train station. Both the station and the center were quite new
and impressive; the fact that the Nagano winter Olympics were less than a
year prior had a lot to do with that, I'm sure. I thought maybe they
would feign ignorance about my destination -- an ugly relic of the
country's wartime past -- but the tourist information person at Nagano Station was
helpful in telling me where it was and even had a tourist map on which it
was marked. So it
was listed as an official site after all but it certainly wasn't publicized.
I drove to the edge of town and eventually found the
entrance which was not well marked at all. The place was essentially
in the middle of a rural neighborhood so it wasn't obvious. When I
got there, there was a camera crew of some sort -- probably news -- taping
a segment. Entrance was free and there were hard hats for one's use.
Gassan is a vast network of underground tunnels big
enough to drive tanks and armored vehicles into. The army had planned to
use it as their headquarters in case they were forced to retreat from
Tokyo. There were even tunnels and chambers built for the emperor
and his family. The terrible thing about it is that these tunnels
were built at a horrific price -- the lives and toil of thousands of
conscripted Korean laborers. Most of the vast network was walled off
but a small section was open for self-guided touring. The tracks
from armored vehicles made over fifty years before were still
visible. It's one of those places where you think, how could things
have come to this? And it makes you feel ashamed that one's own
species is capable of such inhumanity.
I didn't get out of Nagano until sometime
in the mid-afternoon. I stopped in Hakuba for gas -- it was weird
traveling through famous ski resort towns in the summer. I moved on
trying to put some distance behind me. I was planning to at least make
it back to the coast of the Sea of Japan before having to stop for the
night. I was threading my way through mountains the whole way and went
through countless tunnels on the way. The longer ones were so full of
exhaust, it felt like taking a carbon-monoxide and soot bath each
time. Before entering, I'd try to grab a breath of fresh air and hold it as long as I could. The level of toxins in those
tunnels have got to be higher than any environment standard anywhere on the
Route 140 took me into the southwestern tip of Niigata
Prefecture. When I hit the ocean, I went left on Route 8 heading
southwest. The road here actually went over the ocean in some places;
these were places where the road was built around sea cliffs rather than through them.
The route continued on into Toyama Prefecture. To my right, beautiful
dark clouds were rolling in over the ocean. They were beautiful but I
wished they were not there because they were probably a harbinger of the
rain that was forecast for this region.
The weather front came right on in and, indeed, the
weather turned to rain and I had to stop to put on my rain wear. It
was getting near dusk; it had become a real gray, dull evening. I
stopped and pulled out my trusty youth hostel guidebook and tried to locate
lodging for the night. My strategy for the most part was to camp if
the weather was nice and try to find a youth hostel if the weather looked
like rain. It was clear that my little bivy tent would be practically
useless in the rain. My cell phone wasn't getting a signal so I
stopped at a pay phone. The Toyama YH was already fully booked but the
one in Asahi-machi which was even closer had vacancies.
It wasn't clear to me how to get to Tenkoji Youth Hostel
so I ended up finding my way to the Asahi-machi train station. I was
dripping wet in my rain gear and only took off my helmet once I got inside
to keep from getting my head wet. I went to the entrance wicket and
asked a station attendant for directions. To my surprise, they had
photocopied directions on how to get to the place. I guess it was a
common destination of out-of-towners.
Even then, it wasn't all that easy to find but I was
eventually able to get there. I was glad I had the bike because
it would have been a long walk. It was only after I got there that
I realized the YH was actually a Buddhist temple. In hindsight, it had been
obvious from the kanji meaning "temple" in the name but I hadn't
given it a second thought. The place was quite nice and I could see
why being a priest is such a good job. Living in the temple, the
priest and his family got far more living space than anybody except the
ultra-rich could afford.
There were several travelers already there, four girls
and five guys (two of them were bikers as well). Everybody was
traveling alone or in pairs. One of the bikers had come all the way
from Tohoku -- the distance I had traveled in the last three days -- in one
shot. When he came in he was gray from head to toe -- his white
t-shirt had turned to a nondescript gray. We all took turns taking a bath
in a small family-type bathroom with only enough room for one at a time.
Our rooms were either side of the altar, the girls on one
side and the guys on the other. It was kind of strange -- we were
basically sleeping in the functional area of the temple and walking in our
bare feet around the altar. At one point, we had a bit of excitement
when a big-ass cicada somehow got in our room and fluttered about.
Harmless though it might be, I can't get comfortable around 2+ inch buzzing,
flying bugs. Somebody somehow got him out of there and on his
way. Later, the priest did his nightly okyo -- chant -- in
front of the altar, ringing a bell at short intervals. We were in
the room next door and everybody continued talking as if nothing was going
on. His chants only took a few minutes, maybe ten at the most. I
thought for sure we'd be woken up at 5:00AM with some more chanting.
Everybody continued socializing until midnight when the
priest's assistant (or son, perhaps) told us it was time for lights
out. We had already set out our respective futons, all we had to do was crawl
under the covers which we soon did. One thing about riding a
motorcycle all day is that it is a lot more tiring than you might
think. Within a few short minutes I was out for the night.