Riding my bike is a high-tension experience, because I am waiting every second to get hit by a truck, or run into a pole, or tip over in a dramatic crash landing. The latter was bound to happen at some point, considering how I'd seen two boys wipe out that way in the first month alone. Yesterday I somehow managed to fall over while standing still at a crosslight - my pants leg caught on a pedal and in slow motion I began to tilt. It was one of those very clumsy days - just before leaving work I reached for my tea and knocked it over all over my desk. So it was probably for the best that because of an all-teacher meeting the kids were sent home early. Who knows what I'd have done with a full day.
We decided, spur-of-the-moment, to take a trip into Ustunomiya, the biggest city in the prefecture with about 500,000 people. There's a well-known mall there that we looked for, but finally settled on a smaller mall that was ten floors tall but very narrow. I found it interesting that there were no interior walls - each store opened directly to a walk around the escalator. I didn't buy any clothes - you have to be a certain sort of pretty to suite Japanese girl's fashion, or you have to be the sort that doesn't care, and I am neither - but there was a Kinokuniya at the top - a bookstore that I loved the branch of in Seattle - so I spent some time and money there. Speaking of which, I've finally reached the end of the cash I brought with me for a starter - it lasted this long, and that's even after putting 50000 yen into my bank account. I'm proud of myself for being that frugal, and I'm grateful to you for all the help you gave me towards the opportunity to be so.
My favorite part of the small adventure, though, was rounding a corner between department stores in this modern city and finding a lovely ancient-looking shrine. There's a tiny one in my town, but I hadn't seen a big one in person before. There's this incredible set of steps up to it:
I especially like the mini-drama playing out between the girl and her worn-out boyfriend: "Mou... I don't want to shop anymore!"
To one side of this tub there are little gold dippers to ladle out water to wash your hands and, theoretically, mouth (don't worry, I didn't go that far) :
The strips of paper in the background are "omikuji" with fortunes written on them. (The other day I tried explaining the notion of "fortune cookies" to a Japanese teacher and got a stare. "You eat this outside part?" "It doesn't taste very good," I offered. I'm not sure why I thought that would make it better.)
Look at the beautiful bunches of origami cranes:
Those are "ema", wooden plaques with prayers written on them. There are often horses painted on them, and the kanji for 絵馬, e +ma means "picture horse" because rich people used to bring real horses as offerings to the shrines, and then to bring huge boards with paintings of horses, and finally it shrunk to these:
I'm not sure why the mice, though. I really hope no one tried offering those up at the shrine. Speaking of unsavory thoughts, we were teaching questions like "have you ever eaten" and while there are plenty of things in various parts of Asia that we wouldn't dream of eating in America, for the life of me I can't think of the opposite. Our cuisine is only notable for the large serving size ("hot dogs THIS long!") and coloring not found in nature, especially beverages - can we say gatorade?
I know he's supposed to be impressive but the eyes just make me laugh - they look like they were drawn on in marker. I'll take the New York Public Library lions any day.
And speaking of NYC!
I bet these are well-feed pigeons. What is hilarious is that as you walk through the shrine gate it's like being transported back centuries, and then as you turn to look back at the arch you realize to one side is a row of vending machines, including one for popcorn.
All in all it was a very fun little adventure, and now that I've got the idea behind buying train tickets hopefully I can have many more such outings.