If you’ve been reading my blogs, I’m sure I’ve made it pretty clear that when I travel I’m basically just walking down random streets until I see something that makes me think “That’ll make a cool picture.” At which point I go there, take my picture, and start off again in whichever direction seems most interesting. If none have any peculiar characteristics, then I generally pick the most abandoned looking.
And so the plan to go to Fukushima started about that way. I wanted to go somewhere and I thought there might be an abandoned theme park there. Turns out there isn’t, or at least not too near or possibly destroyed, but the point is I booked it before having any set destination. I like it that way. I think I said this before but I will again, if you have a strict plan that you follow to the letter you will never exceed your expectations. No wonderful surprises or scenes you didn’t see a thousand times while looking at the travel site. That’s boring. So screw the plan, bring a GPS, and only use it when you turn around and realize you have no idea where you are or how you got there. It works. Trust me.
That’s not to say I make no preparation at all. I did end up with a general outline of going first to Aizuwakamatsu and spending the second day in Fukushima but that’s about as far as it ever got. And so that’s what I did.
The problem with riding a night bus out is that I don’t sleep on the way there. I probably got a total of like 1 hour of sleep, giving up at about 4:30, and arriving red eyed at Fukushima at 5 AM. The station hadn’t even opened by the time I finished my Natures Valley bars and taking some pictures. I was off to Aizuwakamatsu before 6 AM rolled around. I love train rides through the country. The scenery is so mesmerizing it is beyond me how anyone could close the blinds and sleep. On that subject, I hope I never would be one to ignore the beauty around me. Even if it is familiar, that familiarity can only increase that places wonder I would think; home always holds a special place. Kids always find great joy in all the little things around them. I think having the faith of a child is probably very similar to having their sense of wonder.
I fear I’ve gotten off track so we will get back to my getting off the beaten track. The first place to go in Aizu was fairly obvious; the giant castle. A 30 minute walk through shops not yet opened for the day led me straight to it and the surrounding park. There was a tour group there which was kind of interesting. Not really because the people were but because of the mentality that it shows. Japanese people almost always travel in groups from my experience. Most of the time, from what I see, well planned trips with set schedules are by far the most popular way to travel. That goes against everything I love. I can’t seem to understand it. A while back that question came up with the only real answers being money and safety. I don’t think that money is the main reason. Growing up I rarely thought of myself as a risk taker but now, upon going into college and studying abroad, I’ve found that “risk” bothers me far less than most. It is probably mostly arrogance, but I’m certain that wherever I may be, I am going to be just fine.
I’m rambling a lot this time. Eventually we’ll get this story told I promise. The gardens were very pretty as usual (but take note that even though they were “as usual” they were still wonderful). The castle itself was a replica built in 1965 but it certainly felt like something from ages long past when you were looking at it from the stone walls surrounding. You got a real sense of how awe inspiring it must have been centuries ago. It was a fairly high building by today’s standards but, in that day, it would have towered above the valley, asserting its dominance to all who entered that lord’s realm. I can imagine it reflected in the rice field that probably once surrounded it. That is a picture I wish I could have.
By 10:30 I had seen everything there was to see there and was off to find something to do for the rest of the day. I soon found myself in the Fukushima Province Geological and Cultural Museum. I could really care less about the geology but it did put the Japanese feudal system into better perspective for me. It was just like England really. Castles or a lord’s large manor was surrounded by thousands of acres of fields farmed by poor peasants. Actually, it still kind of resembles that system. The cities are surrounded by the country rice fields farmed by more traditional families and their traditional houses mirrored in their fields. The mountains are as they always have been; virtually uninhabited and filled with dark, green, and gods.
After that I headed off toward the side of the city that bordered the hills. There were lots of shrines there from what I could tell on my map. I was right and certainly glad I went. In reminiscence of my Kyoto trip, I got a bit lost in a graveyard. I somehow ended up on a hill that I could see the main road from but couldn’t get to it without walking through people’s backyards. “Don’t mind me; I’m just a foreigner who wandered out of the graveyard behind your house.” That would have been awkward, so I had to find my way back to the entrance. Very worth it though. Graveyards tell time with an accuracy empirical numbers miss. The recent is new, shiny, polished marble. The old are disheveled, but still in the back recesses of memory; they have mementoes of years past still lurking around. The ancient are far from the mortal minds’ memory but stone still stands testimony to that distant time. Even that too passes though. Like Ozymandias, no matter how great they once were they pass first from reverence, then from remembrance, and finally from remnant.
After that habitual graveyard visit I made my way up to some temples on the north side of town. I have mentioned that Japan has a lot of stairs haven’t I? Well it does. Temples have more than average. These temples had way more than average. I’d like to think I am in fairly decent shape but I was winded and sweating pretty decently by the time I got to the top. That would be so bad if 70 year olds weren’t already at the top. Apparently this city is where one of the famous fables of Japanese culture took place. A group of samurai soldiers saw the castle getting taken and, in a strange (but very Japanese) sense of loyalty, they were obligated to commit suicide. Perhaps even more interesting than this extreme value on “loyalty” were the two other monuments on that hill; one from Nazi Germany and the other from a Fascist Italy. They were given in friendship between the three countries just a few years before WWII. An interesting place to have those monuments placed; loyalty unto death. I suspect Hitler thought himself the lord.
It was only like 4 pm but, due to my lack of sleep and long walk I was getting fairly tired. I decided to go to the hotel, clean up, get dinner, and retire for the night. Dinner was wonderful as you can see.
The bed might have been hard. I didn’t notice; I was asleep before I hit it.
In the morning, this time a not-quite-so-early 8 AM or so, I spied again the giant statue I got a glimpse of on the way in. Well I couldn’t say that I saw a giant statue and didn’t go and so my next destination was set. After an abundant free breakfast I was off to the train station and soon back to walking down the road.
I walked in and no one. I didn’t see a soul in that giant park. After a minute and walking in a little way a gardener noticed me and led me back to the empty ticket booth to collect the fee. It was nice having the whole place to myself but I suspect that tourism in that area is suffering and Fukushima city just further confirmed that suspicion. Well the Buddha (or Buddha’s Mother, whatever it was) was huge. Like 100-200 feet tall. I really couldn’t tell other than it was huge.
That little excursion was quite fruitful. I got to take pictures of rice fields (which I love) and, more importantly, I SAW MY FIRST SNAKE. He was only out for a second. Our eyes met for half a second and he was gone. Completely disappeared in foot high weeds. I wish I had a picture but I’ll settle for the memory.
Fukushima’s main attraction, as far as I could tell from the map, was a big park on the north side of town. Well it was obvious that tourism had died and rotted there. Most of what looked like former tourist shops were closed with the shutters closed. There were no signs or directions to the park. If I hadn’t had a GPS I would have never found out how in the world to get in. Once in, it was empty except for the few residents. (It is a public park but it seems like some residents were probably grandfathered in.) This was my abandoned theme park. First thing I saw was this creepy octopus thing. Picture pretty much speaks for itself there.
Well on the way up I notice this old building and thought it looked kinda cool with all its vines. There is much more to hear about that later.
At the top of the big hill was a shrine with “the worlds largest grass sandal.” Seems like something you would see a sign for on route 66. That shrine was just odd. I assume in some sort of connection with the sandal, there were prosthetic legs all around. Post-apocalyptic world came to mind. Everything closed, no sign of humans, and prosthetic legs. Well on the way down from that I saw the first person I had seen since entering the park and I think he was just going to the top for exercise.
I started to go by that overgrown structure and I noticed a little path. I had lots of time till my 1 AM bus and what did I have to lose? I certainly had everything to gain. That innocent little path made my trip. It was an abandoned house. Not just abandoned. I’m talking ghost town. You know how in apocalypse movies how houses are disarrayed and half destroyed but almost everything is just left. You are getting the idea. I came around to the back to see a big hole in the side of the house with the sink on the ground, a pot still hanging from the sagging roof and a couple of glasses in a long-rusted rack. Brush and spiders had covered the floor but the cabinets were still standing full of cups, bowls, etc. I couldn’t resist. It was wonderful. It was a treasure. It was everything I imagined that abandoned theme park that first enticed me could have been. I pick up a stick to fend off the spiders and prod the floor and headed in. The kitchen was fully equipped with what was probably a lower-middle class couple’s austere cupboard. Cheap cups, simple bowls, and some rusted pots and pans. In the hallway to the front door there was a shrine. The little lights were still plugged in, incense in the drawer, and decorations on the counter. Nothing had moved. In the bedroom the dressers were still full of clothes. On the floor there were shirts still on boxes. They looked new. They had never been touched. These had probably been sitting on the ground half a century in a box, untouched. I walked into a time capsule. The floor had rotted, dust have covered everything in a thick layer, and heat, water, and time had done their worst but nothing could nothing could mar the sense of stepping into someone else’s life. Where had they gone? Why? How? What compels someone to abandon everything? The house never left the past; I was the ghost of present. My treasures all came from a little dresser/shelf near the door. On the bottom shelf was a tea pot. I love tea pots here but an antique one from this house was invaluable. Above that were some painted cans and I decided one would make a nice colorful addition to my shelf as well. In a drawer I found a milk bottle. I didn’t realize the full extent of this discover until after I got home. It says Fukushima Milk Pronto. It isn’t just a milk bottle; it was delivered to these people decades ago via the local milk service. I was about to go when I notice a piece of paper and thought I might as well see what it said. Great decision. It was a calendar from 1962 depicting cars which seem to be coming from a man’s mind and drawn up to a magnet held by a hand at the top. The bottom is rotted and torn from all that time in the dirt and rain but I hope I can preserve what is left.
I somewhat regret not taking more now but I suppose I left someone for the next adventurous person. I hope there is one.
To finish off my time in Fukushima I wandered around the city taking pictures of old and abandoned buildings. Oh, and there was this cat that had an excellent performance. He walked out just in front of me, stretched, meowed, and then followed me for 30 feet meowing. If I had any food, even if I was starving, he probably would have gotten it.
And two days passed.
(All those plus a few more in a slide show)