Japan by Motorcycle

Day 14

August 11, 1999


A Night in a Temple

Nagano, Niigata and Toyama Prefectures

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    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 clerk.
    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.

World War Two Tunnels in Nagano

Gassan WW2 Tunnels

Gassan WW2 Tunnels

    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 planet.  Whew.
    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.

Tenkoji Temple & Youth Hostel

Tenkoji YH

Tenkoji YH - Temple Altar

Fellow Travelers

The girls' room on the other side of the altar

Me next to the alter

My fellow travelers and I

 

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Just The Stats

Day 14

Odometer

Time

Place Weather
Start: 48300 13:00 Nagano City, Nagano Pref. Mostly Sunny/Hot
Finish: 48480 18:00 Asahi-Machi, Toyama Pref. Rainy
 
Totals: 180km 5 hrs

Expenses

Gas: 700 Food: 1,150
Highway Fees: Youth Hostel: 2,800
Internet Cafe: 850  

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Created: Feb 22, 2001
Last Updated: Oct 2, 2002

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