Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Three Mountains

(August 5-31, 1998)

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Saturday August 22nd, 1998
So yesterday I mailed home the walking stick that I carried up Fuji. Today I had planned to get up and mail a box of presents home before getting on the trains to go somewhere remote but, dunce that I am, I failed to note that yesterday was Friday... so the post office is closed today and tomorrow. So I either had to stay for two more days so I could mail off the box, or take it with me.
UPDATE 2001: while small local post offices are closed on Saturdays, the larger post offices that sort and route the mail are always open on Sturday. I could have gotten rid of that box, had I only known!
So, hands full, me and the box were on our way to Yamagata Prefecture in the north of Japan, to locate the three sacred mountains in that area. Following what I know of the three mountains from the PBS Travels episode I saw, I don't have the time to walk the whole route that the narrator of the program walked; so I'm short-cutting as straight as possible to the first mountain as I can... that would be Mount Haguro.
The closest the Shinkansen could get me to Mount Haguro was Yamagata City, in Yamagata Prefecture, which isn't very close; from there, I would have to take local trains. In Yamagata, I looked around a little... I had intended to stay at a hotel there, but it was only three o'clock in the afternoon when I arrived and I had an itch to get as close to Haguro as I could. So I pushed on, however smart or dumb that choice may have been.
You see, the maps I have don't show where Haguro is. They do denote the location of Mount Gassan, the second of the three moutains, but they also fail to show Yudono, the third mountain. So before I left the USA, I transfered the approximate locations of the mountains, as shown in the Travels episode, onto one of my maps, and I marked off all the towns that the narrator visited. So I was following this trail of towns and trying to triangulate the location of Haguro, and I probably should have done this tomorrow morning instead, when I'd have plenty of daylight to work with. But I didn't.
Basically, I knew that the narrator had turned towards Haguro at a town called Mogame; but it wasn't on the map either. So I was following the towns I knew of that were on the map, and had already decided that if I didn't see Mogame I was going to stop for the night in what looked to be a large town... a place called Tsuruoka.
I didn't get that far.
The local trains were really slow; and I did finally see a sign that said Mogame. It was just starting to turn dark; and to say Mogame is small would be a tremendous understatement... there was no good chance of there being a hotel among the seven buildings I could see. The train sat there for fifteen minutes as I considered what I wanted to do; in the Travels episode, the narrator had stopped here to head for Haguro mainly because she had friends living in the area. I didn't.
So I stayed on the train. I decided to continue forward until I found the first place that would have a hotel, and stay there for the night. I can return to Mogame tomorrow, when I can see better. Soon the train rolled on.
The next place that looked good to try stopping at was the next town that was actually on my maps... Amarume. The station looked promising; it had a building with actual staff, unlike the empty wood platforms at many of the small places I'd just drifted through for several hours. So I stepped off the train and into Amarume, and got lucky; right across from the station is a small Japanese style hotel... and they had a room. So I've settled here for the night.
What do I mean by "Japanese style hotel"? It's called a ryokan in Japanese, and basically it's a home with rooms you can stay in. These have very traditional rules... you take off your shoes when you enter and switch over to slippers, there's a communal toilet and bath, and you get a room with straw matting, no chairs, and futons to sleep on. If you can handle the rules, it's definitly a wonderful place to stay (if you want, you can read more about ryokans). Unfortunately, I could only get one night... during August, the big O-Bon festival season in Japan, most ryokans near pilgrimage sites are pre-booked for the month, so I was lucky to get the one night! Tomorrow, I'll get a room somewhere else and explore the town some... and Monday I'll get rid of my box of presents, and be off to explore some of the temples in the area. At least, that's the plan.
Since I had never been to a ryokan before, and my Japanese was shaky, the hostess kindly guided me through the conversations. I was shown to my room (on the second floor), and sat down to fill out the paperwork as the hostess stepped out. She returned in a few moments with some tea. I had arrived too late to get dinner, but there would be breakfast included in the price of the room; she asked me when I would want to eat, so I asked to have it at about eight in the morning. For tonight, I had to fend for myself... but that's okay. I wanted to look around town some before I called it a night.
From my brief wandering tonight before bed, Amarume appears to be a "road town". There is a freeway running right through the middle of town, filled on both sides with fast food places, shopping malls, hotels, and questionable amusements -- porn stores and gambling joints. Behind all the clutter along this central road, the rest of the place is just small-town Japan at it's best... lots of small specialty stores that close before eight at night because the families running them live in the back (or upstairs).
I found a conveniece store, and got a box meal; I also found a Shinto shrine area in short walking distance of the hotel I'm at. Overall, Amarume will be a nice place to wander through tomorrow, after I find another hotel and drop my stuff off.

On to August 23rd, 1998

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