Floats and spirits glow/Ride with no destination/Home of Mikako
I think I am still drunk from the night before with Sato and Erika–either from the sake or the 3-hour traverse across open water. Or maybe a combination. I am certain that I am swaying with the same rhythm as the ferry had been. To be clear, I do not feel dizzy or uncomfortable, simply my body has the sensation that it is being carried across the sea on a large ship. This continues until I eat.
We pay for the hotel’s breakfast. I eat mostly yogurt as I am not a fan of tomago (an “omelette” that looks a bit like tofu but is instead rectangles of sweetened scrambled egg) and though I have impeccably prepared similar fare at the ryokan we stay at a few nights forward, I find myself unable to ever feel excited about rice and soup and dried fish and pickled things for breakfast. An American ex-pat we meet later in the trip shares with us that American brunch is what she misses most.
We check out of the hotel and load our bikes. Today we will visit the Nebuta Museum thanks solely to our chance meeting in Sapporo with Natsumi. She goes to university in Aomori and strongly urged us to do this one thing when in town. What a recommendation it turns out to be. We ride our bikes to a station that has bike parking and coin-operated lockers across the street from the museum. We lock up our bikes and put the panniers safely into a locker.
(Above is just a quarter of the bike parking across from the Nebuta Museum. In the background is Aomori Bay Bridge. We rode across this bridge after getting off of the ferry last night. The bridge was built to alleviate cargo ship traffic.)
The exciting design of the museum’s exterior is a prelude to what’s inside. We purchase our tickets and the docent rushes us into the main room for a demonstration starting in 5 minutes. We enter the darkened main museum elevated at eye-level of the glowing floats which tower above at 16 ft when standing on the floor beside them. The colors are bright and exciting, the scenes of warriors and snakes and horses are 3-dimensional and dynamic. The floats are made of wire skeletons which are then covered in panels of paper which are finally painted. Internally the structure is full of lights. It is hard to do the dimension and vibrancy of these pieces justice, but they are stunning and we are overcome. We spend hours photographing and basking in the glow, a virtual wonderland. The demonstration we arrived just in time for includes traditional festival music of taiko drums, flutes, and cymbals along with traditional costume and dance all performed by students. The beat is powerful and brings me to tears. I cannot imagine what the outdoor festival must be like considering the power of this indoor display.
It is hard to leave but we must. Jason needs to use a laptop computer for some business he cannot do on his phone. We notice that there is a “library” on the map close to where we are and hope that it will have computers for public use. In fact, when we arrive to the 5th floor of the mall in which the library is located, we find that it is only computers for public use; not a book to be seen. We get set up on a computer by one of the staff at the help desk who also converts the keyboard from kanji (the adopted Chinese logographic characters used in modern Japanese writing) to the Roman alphabet. We complete our work and decide to grab a snack. The library shares a floor with an arcade and soda shop. It is Saturday and teeming with teenagers. Total western-style mall vibe. We order a matcha ice cream cone but have trouble communicating an order of french fries to the woman behind the counter. Jason enlists the help of four teenage girls nearby. They giggle through the whole thing and in the end we get our order. Once settled at a table the girls return and challenge Jason to taste a “very spicy” snack—some sort of heavily seasoned potato sticks. He takes a bite and they eagerly await his reaction. He disappoints them when he shrugs his shoulders and tries to explain using google translate that he is from Texas and has a high tolerance for hot things. They giggle as they had back to their table.
We run some errands for supplies, eat a lunch of bad ramen (it’s all going to be bad after last night’s but this one is legitimately bad), and head to our bicycles. We’re organizing our things before taking off when someone who is interested in our trip stops to chat. He happened to run the 5k that was leaving from the museum when we were there. The runners wore silly wigs and outfits and smiles beneath sunny sky. I felt a connection to them as it reminded me of our fun runs here in the states. He was impressed with our trip and with my shirt. Jason told him we picked it up at the museum. They had t-shirts and short-sleeved button downs designed by float artists and I wanted one. It was a hot day and I had changed into it immediately.
(Good bye Aomori)
Our goal is to get at least 6 miles outside of the city in order to find a place to camp for the night. We have identified what looks to be quite a bit of green space on the map but do not know if it will work for our needs. There are no official campgrounds marked on our Mapple. We head out through the urban sprawl until we reach quiet neighborhoods. It begins to get dark. The windows in houses are black. We are feeling a bit desperate. It’s time to enlist our “emergency” card which Jason has printed off of a Japanese camping site and laminated for just such an occasion. A key ingredient in utilizing the card, however, is other people. There are few visible. We approach a man who reads the card but seems confused and simply shakes his head “no”.
A group of women in skirts and high heels are walking along the side of the dark street but we pass them by to look for another man we saw at a vending machine earlier. He is gone but a woman is coming toward us running in sneakers, technical clothing and cap. I flag her down and show her the card, lighting it with my phone for her to read by. She reads and nods in understanding “My home. I have a garden. Follow me.” I am dumbfounded but she has already turned and started running back in the direction from which she came. Jason and I follow. We arrive at her home. We three locate a spot in her driveway to pitch our tent and then encourage her to finish her run. She heads back out and Jason and I look at one another and smile. This is something special.
When the woman returns she invites us into her home to use the toilet. She sees that I have been walking about barefoot outside and brings a wet rag for me to wash my feet with before slipping on the provided house slippers and then exchanging them once at the bathroom for the slippers there. It is common in homes and guest houses and ryokan to have separate slippers for the bathroom from the ones you use while in the rest of the house. Afterward, she gives me a pair of flip-flops to use outside and says “present, gift”. In her home we find out that her name is Mikako and that one of her sons was the 2012 Karate World Champion and another a championship skier. We ended up with the right woman. She gets us and is excited by our adventure.
Once again outside, in my new flip flops, Jason and I contemplate setting up our camp stove. Before we have a chance, Mikako comes out with a tray with two cups of stew, sliced apples, and bread. She tells us that she will be picking up her husband later and to knock if we need anything. We enjoy our food and go to sleep in the tent in Mikako’s driveway.
(View from camp in Mikako’s driveway the next morning)
I have to admit that I feel a little uncomfortable being taken in, that we are imposing. However, Mikako seems genuinely happy to do it. The next morning she and her husband, Soma, make us breakfast and spend time with us. We drink coffee and eat sausage, smoked salmon, milk (whole milk—yum), fresh soft-boiled eggs (have we talked about the eggs yet? No matter where we eat eggs here, they have thick, bright orange yolks and are delicious), miso soup, and a salad with vegetables from their garden.
We tell them that it is our honeymoon and there is celebration. We talk about their kids and what an active family they have. Soma and Mikako are ski instructors during the winter. Mikako and Soma also happen to know the owner of the ryokan we will be staying at tonight, just about 30 miles away. They tell us that the route is rolling and Soma assures me that my tattoos will not be a problem in the onsen. While we chat, Mikako whips up four onigiri with the leftover smoked salmon, wraps them in saran wrap, and hands them to us along with two apples to take on the road.
We pack and I ask Mikako if we can see her garden. Soma has already begun his Sunday chores and is sitting outside on a stool with a bucket of water into which he is throwing edamame that he has picked off of the vine. He scrubs them with his hands as Mikako shows us her hoop house (we see many hoop houses) and then has us follow her into their two garages and climb precarious stairs to the attics, one by one, to show us first their bikes and then their skis and waxing station. They also dry chestnuts and “edible plants” in mesh sacks hanging from rafters.
Soon Mikako and Soma are encouraging us to head to our next destination with hearty cheers of “Go!” but not until they get some photos. I set one up as well to get all four of us in; our surrogate family for one night in Japan.