The Osaka weekend certainly was an experience. On the one hand, it was a fine example of what goes wrong when you don't plan ahead. On the other hand, it was a fine example of how nice things can turn out if you just go with the flow. Let me explain.
We set off for Osaka on Friday morning at 11am, two hours later than we'd planned. We took Route 117 down to Nagano where we would take the expressway all the way to Osaka. This was all going to plan, except we didn;t realise how bad the snow could get. There was quite a bit of snow on Route 117 but it wasn't impossible to drive in. We plodded on assuming that the expressway would be ploughed, gritted and cleared. We were wrong. The expressway was as bad, if not worse that route 117. Parts of it had been ploughed but the constant snowfall since had created a pretty dangerous, icy surface to drive on. The falling snow also collected on the windscreen which the wipers, bending as they froze, striggled to cope with. We stopped several times to clear the ice from the windscreen and the wipers. After a couple of hours, I took over driving from Debs just as the conditions were getting worse. The snow deepened so that the only part of the road you could drive in were two narrow tracks left by the previous cars; if we moved outside of the tracks, we'd get stuck in the piles of snow either side.
So our progress through Nagano prefecture was slow, a lot slower than we anticipated. By 6pm, the time we thought we'd be in Osaka, we were still 200km away, and we still had to get past Kyoto. We had been warned that there could be a lot of traffic near Kyoto and there was. The tailbacks were hugh and we were stuck in them for hours. We tried a shortcut, but the road was closed and we had to go back to our original route. At 11pm, we left the expressway and we were in Osaka. We met Aimee and Shin-Osaka station at 11.30pm and found our hotel at 11.45pm. We managed to check in quickly and we had drinks ready as the TV countdown read "1:19". At the stroke of midnight, we all toasted and hugged. We'd made it to Osaka in time and managed to toast the new year!
The hotel staff were very understanding and they allowed us to have a small party in the hotel's restaurant area. Aimee and I headed out to get some beers from the local Seven-Eleven. On the way, we heard a temple bell peeling and decided to investigate. It indeed was a temple, and the family who looked after it welcomed me and Aimee inside. Their daughter was ringing the bell and when she finished they offered it to me and Aimee, so we rang it too. They gave us some soup and then showed us into the temple which was beautiful. The priest explained to us about the temple and the new year traditions and let us take photos. I also got one of him and his little son who was very cute and had spent the whole time running around like a whirlwind.
Aimee and I said thank you for everything and left for the conveinience store. They didn't have a licence so we couldn't get beers and decided to go back and use the hotel vending machines. We sat and drank in the restaurant til around 4am before we went to our rooms. So, I missed out on temples in Kyoto because we didn't plan ahead enough. But, I got a private tour of a temple because we went with the flow. It's strange, but happy accidents like this happen to me in Japan all the time. It's great!
We got up late on Saturday and found we had a small crisis. We had little cash on us and all the post offices and banks were closed. Luckily, I could get cash out of the Seven-Eleven ATM and was able to lend money to the others until we could find a bank.
We headed into Osaka and went to Osaka Castle. It still amazes me how different Japanese Castles look to British ones. To me, British castles are generally very large and bulky, fashioned out of large blocks of stone with strength the priority over beauty. Japanese castles on the other hand look very elegent yet strong at the same time. A lot of the defenses of the castle lie in surrounding moat, which is wide and deep, and the outer walls, which are tall and almost featureless. Also, the route from the outer gate to the castle takes you through a series of right-angled turns, which would slow any army trying to charge into your compound. So with all the defences taken care of by the walls, the castle itself can be as elegent as possible. Anyways, the results is that I think Japanese castles are much more beautifuller than British ones.
After the castle, we went for coffee and headed back to the hotel to get ready for going out. While we were waiting for teh girls to get ready, Ryana dn I watched a footy match that was entertaining, but not the best display of football. It turns out that it was the final of the Emporer's cup, Japan's premier trophy tournament. It has a long way to go before it rivals teh FA Cup.
We left the hotel for our night of drinking and clubbing. We went to an izakaia for some food, then found a bar where ryan asked where a decent club could be found. The first club wasn;t too bad, but a bit empty. The music wasn;t brilliant so Ryan asked the barmen where we could find another club. The barman was really friendly and gave us directions and a round of shots which was nice. The second club was busier, the music better, but it was full of gaijin geeks. We steered clear, had a few drinks and danced til around 2ish before grabbing a taxi back to the hotel.
On Sunday we got up, checked out by 11am and started our journey back to Tokamachi. We stopped of for some breakfast before we hit the expressway, which was a great idea because the were stuck in traffic jams between Osaka and Kyoto. It eventually cleared and we were able to make our way up the coastal route to avoid any snow in Nagano. The route was really pretty, taking us through snow topped mountains and offering glimpses of the sea. We took a detour to find the coast, which we did just as the sun was setting. We stopped the car to watch the sun disappear, which was beautiful. Then we headed back to the expressway which would take us to Joestu. I took over driving again which was fun except for one small crisis. I forgot to keep an eye on the fuel gauge and when I did finally look, the needle was pointing at "E". A small amount of panic crept up on me. We hadn't seen a services sign for miles and we could run out of petrol at any time. We took the next exit, paid the toll and asked for directions to the nearest gas station. Luckily, it was a short ride up the road, and even luckier, it was open. So with a full tank of fuel, we rejoined the expressway and headed to Joestu where we stopped for some food.
We went to Cannary Row, a place I'd been taken to before by some local ALTs. We had a bit of trouble ordering. We were all tired and speaking japanese was a little difficult. Listening was difficult too, especially since the waitress insisted on speaking as fast as she could. We eventually manged to get three pizzas and a rissoto out of them and were soon on our way to Tokamachi. We got back around midnight, so our journey was a lot quicker that before, even if we did take a longer route.
This morning, I drove Ryan back to Debbies so he could pick up his car and head back to Niigata. I tried to get my haircut today but all the barber's are closed. Instead I met up with Debs and Hannah for a coffee before goingto Komeri to buy a shovel. There must have been a lot of snow in tokamachi this weekend because my little car was almost buried by the snow. So I've been moving teh snow with my new shovel. The Japanese have this ingenious system to get rid of the piles of snow too. There are big storm drains that run either side of the road. At some points, there are metal trap doors which can be opened up so you can shovel your snow into the drains. There is so much moving water that the snow melts and is carried away. Genius!