Friday, October 13, 2006

Niigata, Japan

Friends: As I pulled into a rest area early yesterday morning to replenish my water bottles, I noticed off to the side against a curb four full 16-ounce juice and soft drink bottles that must have fallen from someone's vehicle that night--a mini-bonanza for me. As I neared them my heart sank, as one of the bottles was a coke bottle filled with an all-too-familiar pallid yellow solution. Foiled again. Discarded bottles of urine are a frequent item along the roads here, more than I've ever encountered, despite the abundance of toilets at rest areas and convenience stores. The truck drivers, like all the Japanese, are relentless in their diligence to their work.

I first became aware of urine in bottles in Chicago's downtown as I messengered, thanks to the
city's cab drivers. After having been tricked into thinking I'd come upon a bottle of Welch's white grape juice once, I look very closely at the seal and contents of any bottles I find along the road. Most bottles are just partially filled, but there is that occasional bottle, masterfully filled to the top. My grape juice happened in the dead of winter and was frozen solid. Fortunately before it had thawed, my eye caught the word red on the label and I was saved. Wash cloths are another item I see with regularity along the roads here. But like the many gloves I come upon, they
are not a discarded item, rather a lost item from someone bound for and leaving the local bath house or hot spring.

Girlie magazines, along with the urine bottles, are about the only true litter I find. On Hokkaido
hardly a day passed that I didn't come upon at least one magazine. I always stop for them thinking there might be a worthwhile interview or article and that I might learn something. Plus I'm cleaning up the roadside and maybe saving some youth from corruption.

After a while it began to be a problem of how to dispose of all the magazines I was collecting, evidently the same problem faced by those who were tossing them. About the only litter receptacles I see are outside the convenience stores for recycling and its hard to be discreet
there. There are three categories--combustibles, plastic bottles and metal cans. The
combustibles container is often overflowing, with a pile of small plastic bags full of litter
piled in front of it. Japan burns 75% of its refuse and the people seem very diligent about recycling. I had noticed an occasional garbage receptacle along the highway that were on posts so one could just roll down their window and deposit their garbage. After a while it dawned on me I was only seeing them on inclines. I thought maybe it was because I was going slower and paying more attention. They had windows and I could peer in and see plastic bags inside. At last I had a place to discreetly discard the magazines. It was then I discovered they were filled with bags of sand for stuck motorists. Still, they offered a nice place to place my magazines, a treat for someone in need. I placed enough that I could well have started a trend. I'll have to come back in a couple of years and see how well it has caught on.

Yesterday was a day of being misled. I thought I had discovered peanut butter. Among the jams were small card-board containers, the same size as the jams, with nuts on them. It turned out to be some sort of peanut jelly that was almost caramel-flavored. I treated it as peanut butter anyway, spreading it on my bread and adding jam and making a sandwich of it--open-faced though, as the bread is sliced so thick one needs a mouth the size of a sumo wrestler to fit two slices into it. The standard loaf is six slices, lily-white, and priced from 128 yen on sale to 208 yen. I'm not sure of its nutritional value.

I finally found a bowl of noodles with a distinctive and pleasing flavor that I search out in
the usual aisle full of such items. And at 841 calories for 176 yen, it well exceeds my three
calories for one yen buying criteria. It is nice to have something that pleases my taste buds to look forward to, as I had been growing weary of my heavy noodle diet.

I'm often up and on the road by six a.m. trying to maximize the minimal daylight. I occasionally hit a tourist site well before its opening. Like the Sumo Museum on Hokkaido, they are sometimes open anyway. Such was the case with an Ainu Village in Hokkaido, a cluster of the large-scale, Mauri/Polynesian-style thatched dwellings of the indigenous people of Hokkaido.

Yesterday I arrived at a Buddhist Temple that housed a mummy of a famed monk at 7:30 a.m. It wasn't open yet, but shortly after I arrived the caretaker drove up saying he would open it momentarily. It gave me a chance to wander the grounds of small temples and Buddhas and a pond of gold fish and cemetery. When I returned to the temple the caretaker was awaiting me, wearing a black robe and reeking of tobacco. He pointed at my feet and said "shoes," reminding me to remove them, and then ushered me to the mummy in a glass case. It was sitting in an
upright position with legs crossed, head bowed and hands opened upward. It was one of 20 such mummies in all of Japan, 16 of which were in these region, a most holy area of Japan. This monk had followed a procedure of starving himself to death and achieving "Buddhahood in the flesh." The caretaker monk offered me tea and then pored over a map of the region advising me the best way to continue on. I had been hoping to take a small side road but he said it was
gravel and very rough.

Later, George

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