Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Amazing Summer Vacation with Mom: Shirarahama beach

Friday July 30th Mom and I arrived at beautiful Shirahama beach around 1:30. Even though we left fairly early, the journey took about five and a half hours. Originally we were going to take the regular trains, which would have been a fifth the price of the Limited Express, but we would have had to change train six times instead of just twice, and it would have taken all day. Only later did I learn that there are buses running directly from Osaka to Shirahama! Oh, well, next time.

One interesting thing that did happen on the train was meeting up with all the elementary school students on their way to school. Mom was shocked to see all the seven-year-olds traveling by themselves. She couldn't stop staring at them; they were so cute! They all wore little straw hats with red ribbons, and suspender skirts/shorts. When she got out her camera to take a picture of the rather annoyed little girl with pigtails who did NOT want her picture taken, I turned away, totally embarrassed. Gosh, American tourists! Are we really that bad? I wanted to shout in Japanese, "I don't know her! Even though we're the only two Americans on this train and we happen to be sitting together and she looks just like my mom..."

At first it was just that lone little girl, but after a few minutes her friends from other stations started to join her. They all grouped together in a little huddle in the middle of the train, stealing glances at us and whispering behind their hands. Finally, one little boy got up the courage to talk to us. He approached Mom first.

"Cato ga ski deska?"

Mom looked at me, puzzled.

"He's trying out his English," I explained. " 'Ski deska' is 'do you like.' 'Cato' is Engrish for 'Cat.' He's asking if you like cats."

Mom nodded, "Yes, I love cats."

They stared at her, clueless.

"Hai, cato ga daiski desu," I translated.

This sent them running away squealing in delight, back to their huddle to debate what they should ask us next. The same brave boy approached us again.

"Dogu ga ski deska?"

This time Mom was ready. "Hai, dogu ga ski desu." She's a fast learner.

This sent up more squeals of delight. I leaned over and whispered in Mom's ear. "The really funny thing is that they actually believe they're speaking English. This is how they're taught in elementary schools; isolated vocabulary with little to know context. And people wonder why Japanese English education is failing. You have to set up the right foundation from the beginning."

Then the only problem was, the kids couldn't thinking of anything else to ask us, so they just stared, giggling awkwardly. That's when I decided it was time to pull out cultural exchange tool #1. Pictures.

"Minasan, chochi mite," I beckoned them.

As soon as they realized there were pictures on my camera, they ran right over and swarmed around me.

"Minasan, kore wa nan deska?" I asked. (Everyone, what's this?)

"Fuji san!" they all screamed. (Mt. Fuji!)

So I showed them all my Fuji pictures, my Osaka Tenjin pictures, Kyoto, all the places Mom and I had been, famous places they had heard about, but never been. They were all ooing and awing for the next ten minutes, and when I ran out of pictures, it was song and dance time. We did the "ABCs" and "Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes," which they all seemed to know. Then it was time for them to leave. One rather precocious little girl asked us where we were headed and gave us precise directions of how to get there (in Japanese, of course). All the kids were really good about telling us how many stops we had left to our station. They all waved to us as they got off the train. There were quite a few relieved sighs from the adults when they did. I don't think they appreciated the commotion I was creating with all those kids. But I can't help it. They were sooo cute, and I'm a born teacher. It's in my blood. I see random unattended children and I MUST engage them.

So, after another four and a half hours, we finally arrived. Shirarahama beach in Shirahama is probably the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, with a blue-green sea filled with coral and pure snow-white sand. It`s also the most popular one in Japan, and that weekend it was jam-packed for the fireworks! Mom and I found a little cove off to the side where it was a bit less crowded and enjoyed swimming for about two hours.

Then we went to find our hotel. I had spent a lot of time selecting it; originally I had just wanted to go camping but it was supposed to rain, so I searched all over the internet, making many awkward broken-English/broken-Japanese phone calls until I settled on Hotel Meiko, reasonably priced but nice, and according to the advertisement only ten minutes from the beach. Well, after half an hour of wandering and asking directions, we still couldn`t find it! I finally stopped in another hotel, thinking we could just stay there if nothing else. But when I told the clerk about our reservations, she jumped to her feet and led us there! Can you believe it? A bored hotel employee actually took half an hour, climbing uphill in 100 degree heat, to show us where a competitor was! That`s Japan for you. They almost always go out of their way to help you, and businesses don`t typically see each other as competition. Banks of different companies are even known to bail each other out in times of financial struggle!

That said, we should have stayed at that other hotel. Imagine my shock when Hotel Meiko charged me double for two people! Who does that? In the U.S., you usually pay by the room; four people in a room costs the same as one person in a room, or in the very least the second person is half off! But no, they charged double for two people, despite the fact we were sharing a room. I almost stormed away, but Mom was tired, and there was the matter of the reservations, so I shut my mouth and paid the money. Then we checked out our room. Ha. More like a closet. Mom couldn`t help but complain that we had to sleep on stained futons on the floor, the showers/bath were public (something I was expecting, but it shocked Mom), and she kept asking where all our fluffy bath towels were. Sorry, they don`t make fluffy towels in Japan. They only provided us with one small hand towel (but they give you all the free toothbrushes and toothpaste you could ever want, plus a bathrobe to borrow, which I ended up using to dry off). At least the tiny air-conditioner worked, once they showed us how to use it in rather irritated Japanese. (The advertisement said their staff spoke fluent English, but that was about as far from the truth as a duck speaking fluent Chinese. I could understand their Japanese OK in the beginning, but when it came to asking the clerk on duty for complicated directions at 5:00 in the morning, I got a little sick of being yelled at in a slurred Wakayama accent I have yet to decipher as an intelligible version of any language.) Later they gave us a free ice cream sandwich and some very bland white bread, as if to make up for it. Mom and I reflected how different Japanese hospitality is from American. For $100 a night. Moral of the story: don`t stay at Hotel Meiko. You`d have a better time camping, and spend about 1/3 the money. Also don`t eat at any Shirahama restaurants at high season. We went to this Italian place and they charged us $25 for one eight-inch pizza. And that was the cheapest place. Yeah.

OK, OK, enough complaining. We got back to the beach just as it was getting dark and did what we should have done instead of the restaurant: bought food at the festival stalls. Japanese festival food is soooo good! It was Mom`s first time eating a crape. Besides that we had fried chicken and barbequed corn on the cob with soy sauce! Of course there were some rather…interesting things too. Encounters with those usually went something like this:

Mom: Hey, Laura Jane, what`s that over there?

Me: You don`t want to know.

Mom: Oh. (Face turns green.) Is it…squid on a stick?

Me: Yep. (teasing) You want some? I`ve had it before; it`s not bad if you can get past the little suckers on the end of the tentacles.

Mom: (Hands me the rest of her fried chicken.) I think I`ve lost my appetite.

We sat on the steps to the beach and enjoyed our not-so-strange dinner until the fireworks started at 8:00. Wow. That`s all I can say. If we did nothing else in Shirahama but see those fireworks, the trip would have been worth it. They were shot up over the ocean from boats so all the colors reflected in the water. I`ll just have to show you what they looked like. Here`s the beginning:

And here is what I call “fire from heaven”or "golden rain." It also reminds me of the "thread" in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series that falls from the sky to destroy the world. Who knows, maybe this is where she got the idea.

A chandelier:

The screamers I was raving about at the Nabari fireworks:

And the finale:

They lasted for a full forty minutes. I was crying they were so beautiful. You just NEVER see that in the United States. Who cares about an over-priced sleazy hotel?

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