We should spend a day living like a tourist in our own town. When we explore a new place with a day off from work, doing the laundry, and paying the bills, we actually stop and smell the roses, literally and figuratively. Today I was a tourist in a small town, but I could spend a day the same way in my own town and make new discoveries and acquaintances.
Since I’m currently in the country with no means of transport besides my feet, I had two choices. Stay home or spend nine hours straight on foot in a nearby town with my baby. If you know me, know I picked a day of adventure, baby and all.
My first thought was to take a train to somewhere new. I spent thirty minutes staring at pamphlets, maps and brochures, all in Japanese, pretending I. Lull piece together a plan despite being illiterate. All I could understand is that every highlighted attraction, including waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, and old-fashioned villages, were all far from the train line and required a car or taxi. The younger me would have picked a random stop on the map and bought a ticket, but the current me is responsible to another life.
The more secure alternative dawned on me. I could stay on the train and take in the scenery. People go on train tours of the Canadian mountains and Siberia, so why not the Japanese Alps? The brochures were filled with pictures of the antiquated local train chugging through fields of wildflowers and mountain ranges. I walked up to the ticket window and asked the cashier whether to go north or south for the best view. He said there was no view. How about to see the flowers? Not really he replied. Then my romantic dreams of peaceful scenery transformed to images of being stuck on a slow train to nowhere with a fussy baby. Thanks but no thanks.
The back up plan for the back up plan was nine hours of carrying my baby and my backpack through the sleepy town…and so I did! My host told me the town did not offer much to see, but as a foreigner, the mundane becomes interesting.
The time is now 10:00 and most restaurants and shops are closed. The streets are quiet as everyone is at work or school, except for the old ladies and me. Near the train station, most restaurants are only open for dinner and then close late at night (or early in the morning to be technical). The restaurants near the train station make up the main night life. The Japanese culture is big on eating and drinking with co-workers after hours and socializing often occurs at restaurants and bars rather than in the home. As I walk around, I see the are is filled with restaurants that cater to evening dining and drinking. There izakaya places, which are like Japanese tapas, small plates, meant to accompany drinks and socializing. Another late night favorite is Kishinev, deep fried skewers of meats, vegetables, and even fruit and mochi. I see the kanji for jus image no fewer than four times in three blocks. Another popular option is barbecue places where you grill your own meat. There are also a plethora of sake bars, often tucked into old wooden Japanese-style buildings with twine-wrapped sake bottles, lanterns, and metal liqueur plaques.
Surprisingly, I had to walk three blocks to find a place open for breakfast. Amid the more traditional storefronts, I found a modern cafe with earth tones and natural wood through out. It had air conditioning, which is hardly given in older Japanese neighborhoods. And it was open, so it was an easy choice! Inside, the soft-spoken owner greeted me. She helped me navigate her case of fresh baked breads, the menu of homemade soups, and variety of drinks. There chocolate orange buns, red bean custard buns, cranberry cream cheese sourdough twists, curry donuts, and more. While I should have ordered a hearty soup, I chose homemade pudding because of its cute glass milk jar. In typical Japanese fashion, the decor was simple but meticulous. Although the pudding cost around $2, she served it up on a decorated tray with a little Madeline cookie and lemon infused water. She even brought an extra set of cookie and water for the baby.
Delightful! Baby Leo and I were the sole customers, so she invited us to make ourselves at home. Leo enjoyed exploring the cafe and I made full use of a tarp I bought at the 100 yen shop for an improvised playmat. The owner and the other worker came and sat with us. They brought a box chock full of trains, cars, a wind-up panda in a hamster wheel, and numerous board books in Japanese. I read a book about yummy carrots to Leo while the owner helped me with the Japanese kanji (characters). We talked about living in Iida and Vegas respectively. Leo and I both enjoyed the company and the pudding.
Afterwards, I strapped Leo into the carrier and headed for the Main Street of town. Shortly after World War II, a big fire destroyed the city center of Iida. The town decided to put in a long median of apple trees down the main road as part of the revitalization project. As I mentioned in my previous post ( Hokkaido! https://misomommy.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/153/comment-page-1/), the Japanese place a strong identity and pride on regional food. In Iida, the staple product is apples. Apparently, the higher elevation creates tasty apples from the large range of temperatures. There is no mistaking the strong link between apples and the city. There are numerous shops selling apple juice and other apple products. The railings along the street and parks are made of red metal apples. The main street runs along the long row of apple trees. Even the sewer drains are ornately designed with apples.
See, even a sewer drain is interesting when you travel and explore!
i strolled uphill along the path of apple trees. The place looked like an urban center in U.S., with buildings close together and a wide array of shops, restaurants, and small businesses. Yet, there were few patrons and few people out and about. I wondered how all the businesses survived in the slow and quiet pace of the city. It seemed like the perfect combination to explore with a baby in tow. I peaked into sweet shops. I browsed through clothing boutiques and accessory shops. There were specialty stores for Japanese dishes, letter stamps of Chinese characters, custom built kimonos, old-fashioned camera shops with actual film and disposable cameras, futon shops, home good stores, shops just for slippers and another just for shoes.
Despite the sleepy pace, lunchtime crept up on me. I contemplated a ramen shop but changed course when I could not feel any air conditioning. I walked towards an elaborate dragon statute only to discover it was a Korean restaurant. I decided to stick with traditional Japanese food and stumbled upon a restaurant with homemade soba (buckwheat spaghetti). Again, I enjoyed nearly undivided attention from the waitress and the chef. They brought over a sample of their special plum sauce and offered to entertain the baby so I could eat. I ordered a cold soba soup, with a refreshing medley of sliced cucumber, green onion, and shiso leaf. I also had a side of vegetable tempura, full of local vegetables fried to order. Leo devoured the noodles and a great time was had by all. I even managed to read some of the menu unassisted.
All stuffed and ready to explore off the carbs! Next, we head to Iida’s most famous attraction, or so I think. The Kawamoto Kihachiro Puppet Museum. It houses around 100 of the intricate hand puppets I’ve encountered. They are all in ancient Japanese and Chinese clothing. The women are adorned with over ten layers of kimono fabric and the men are decked out in Chinese armor. The puppets were part of a hit Television show about an ancient Chinese kingdom. While I am no puppet expert, the intricacy of the puppets was enjoyable. If you ever find yourself in Iida in early August, the city hosts the largest puppet festival in Japan (is there more than one puppet festival?).
I spent the rest of the day exploring alleyways, pastry shops, and even returned for homemade soup at the cafe. After nine hours of baby carrying and humidity, I had an excellent sleep.
My day in Iida reminded me that there are new experiences and faces around very corner, wherever I find myself. When I’m back in Vegas, I plan to take a day trip in my own neighborhood and try out a new cafe and new cuisine. There is no reason not to explore my own backyard. Wherever you find yourself, stroll down a new road and pop in a new door and share what you find.