We started early this morning and met at Alex's apartment, where he and his wife had graciously invited us over for breakfast. Having heard me whine about only eating pastries and sweets in the morning (if you were wondering, that's the secret to my chiseled physique), he had even more graciously procured a selection of goods, which we accompanied with a cup of coffee. Sugar'd and caffeine'd, we made our way to the rental car agency, and with Alex behind the wheel, we somehow navigated out of the heart of the city.
Tokyo sprawls on forever. It's not American sprawl; that cancerous blight that destroys everything it touches and covers it with strip malls, but moreso a continuation of the distinct neighborhoods that make up Tokyo proper. Yes, it gets a bit more industrial, and yes, there's much less neon - but on the other hand there aren't roving packs of shrieking school girls. I have learned that Alex has a problem with the latter, that they "Hang out in front of the 7-11 on weekends, thinking they're soooo cool in their stupid uniforms." I can't say I've seen any evidence, but I don't live here. Regardless, Tokyo spread out, and as the city relaxed, we relaxed with it. It has been a long week, involving a lot of walking and a lot of crowds, and all of us were excited to get out of the insanity, if only for a day.
We had procured, the day before, a selection of goods to dye. On our way through Nippori fabric market, Alex and I purchased a bolt of sashiko fabric - we inquired after seeing the store's roll of charcoal-dyed sashiko whether they had the same in a natural indigo, and were told that it would be cheaper to "just dye it ourselves." I am not certain if the sales associate thought we'd follow through, but I am not one to turn down a good idea. Later, in Ueno, Alex bought a wonderful, heavyweight tee from one of the shops selling Made-in-Japan American workwear. Jack (@Spacepope ) wound up with loose-knit cotton scarf that Alex and Jasmine picked up in Laos during one of their many jaunts through southeast Asia. And me? In addition to the sashiko, I managed to combine my two nerdiest hobbies in one fell swoop. An insanely overpriced Evangelion T-Shirt from Akihabara (accompanied by a matching figurine - I am nothing if not a completist), theoretically hand-dyed in natural indigo, is something we agreed we all needed to see. As a side note, we did consider - briefly - a stop at "@Home Meido Cafe," but a line stretching two flights of stairs discouraged us. Plus, a glance inside was all we needed to convince ourselves we didn't really need to experience the magic. Akihabara had enough to entertain us - yes, including purikura.
We were greeted at the dye house by a group of wizards, who looked over our goods and told us approximately how much it would cost to submerge them in the Vats. To their credit, they didn't bat an eye at Asuka. Alex thinks it must have happened before, which I have to say is kind of a downer. And then, after the tour group in front of us left, we had the run of the place.
Have you ever wondered why fancy indigo stuff is so damn expensive? Well, I know why: because it is insanely fucking hard to make. One "dip" - which involves submerging the fabric, wringing the air out of it, massaging it, loosening the fibers as much as possible, soaking it, and then pulling it out of the water and furiously wringing it as quickly and evenly as possible to prevent uneven oxidation - takes about three minutes. Or at least, that's how long they told us it would take, but we probably averaged five minutes a dip. Oh, and one dip doesn't do much. If you want indigo, the kind of color that the witches hoard and that smugglers covet, you're talking at least ten dips; all the time squatting over the foamy, metallic pools, wondering if they have a bottom, and wondering if anyone has ever fallen in. Wringing out the fabric is very, very difficult. After three dips, our hands were barely able to squeeze the inky skeins. We powered on, however; bones weary, eyes and souls being sucked slowly into the whirling pits of darkest blue. Two hours of squatting, wringing, and standing passed; two hours when we could have lost ourselves forever. "Let's keep going," we said to each other every few minutes. "We can go darker." Perhaps, when you cut open the chest of a dye-master, you find a heart as blue as the spice itself.
We were saved from a terrible - or wonderful - fate when the staff told us they wanted to take their lunch break. They quickly washed our fabrics for us, and you can see the results above, in Alex's photos. Needless to say, we were pleased.
We were also starving. A hunger beyond that which is brought on by mortal dealings, you might say - we were void; our very essence having long since poured into the fabric. We needed ramen.
Twenty minutes later, we had it. Tsukemen, to be precise; a type of ramen in which noodle and broth are served separately; the noodles are placed into the broth, dipped, and slurped.
First, the noodles: wheat, some buckwheat; thick, chewy, sturdy. The broth: shrimp paste, pork fat, and magic. The accoutrements: pork, thick; bamboo, thicker; eggs as rich as dragon's hoard. Two for myself, as they're my favorite. The dance of the ramen-meisters behind the bar was otherworldly; perfectly choreographed with not a single word exchanged. Here, a batch of noodles is adjusted. Here, they are placed. There, the broth is doled out. Further down the line, the ingredients are added one-by-one in a whirlwind of metal tongs. Until at last, we had it. Ramen, food of the gods. We were saved. Until we were lost again.
We realized twenty minutes later - our heads down, dutifully slurping from endless bowls - that if we attempted to finish what was in front of us we ran a very high risk of instant death. To call the shrimp broth "broth" was, I'm afraid, a misnomer. Imagine liquid, shrimpy gold; or molasses, perhaps. Or molten lead. Swimming somewhere within it was a seemingly endless amount of pork, and my second egg was, far from being a tasty treat, a nightmare from Greek tragedy. We slogged dully through the feast, stomachs and bodies heavy, until Alex saw our faces and broke the spell: "You don't have to finish it, you know," he said. We blinked. How could we leave a bite behind?
A wise man once said that the willingness to risk death is our last great perversion. And so we stood, faces ashen; tore our heads from the yoke of noodle and bowl, from the bottomless vats of shrimp and pork; mirrors of the violet-blue pools we had thought we had escaped. We left, or rather fled; passing Japanese men half our size packing away double servings of the same dish - with a bowl or two of rice on the side. We came from night, and we go to night - why live in night, even when it is shrimp-flavored? We piled into the car and considered sleep. Instead, we got sodas at 7-11. Or Alex did; I got a bottle of darjeeling tea while Jack digested things in the back seat. And then it was off for a walk. Shiofune kannon beckoned, and we rose - bloated and weary - to meet the challenge.
I like station wagons
The temple grounds open with a traditional thatched-roof gate, which Alex informed me are becoming more and more difficult to replaced with every passing generation. Once inside, we walked up the winding path through buildings which must have names to which I am not privy, and emerged onto a track ringing a gorgeously-landscaped garden. Pictures of the temple in full bloom are stunning; when everything is green I'd say the word is "transcendent." Bells, chants, the kiss of the wind and the bite of incense followed us as we strolled towards the standing buddha that watches over it all. We took a lot of pictures, and felt, if not rejuvenated, then at least as though we had escaped the thrall of the town of ramen and indigo.
It's almost a shiba
After hours spent stooping over the vats and walking the admittedly gorgeous paths of Shiofune, our feet were beyond tired. Thankfully, we had a solution. While I slept in the car, our heroic navigators, interpreters, and general day-savers Alex and Jasmine drove us up to an onsen overlooking a beautiful river. But on the way, a happy accident - the very first weekend of iris viewing! I know nothing about flowers, but I have never seen irises like these before. I'm not entirely sure they exist in America. We pulled over after seeing the sign (well, I sure as hell didn't see it, but Alex and Jasmine did), and admired the blossoms. They were incredible. Lush, ornate, luxurious - the flowers look like the most incredible fabrics; like stars; like fairy tales come to life. I couldn't believe it. I have no idea what I saw, but I loved every second of it. And then we were gone, just as the flowers will be in a day or two.
We drove up a winding mountain road, images of Initial D dancing in our heads (or just mine), admiring the greenery (which is incredibly green), until we found ourselves at the bath house. We stretched, held onto our towels, and walked inside. We bought our tickets at a little ticket vending machine, which I found confusing and charming - presumably the ticket tells you what kind of bath you can have, like in Spirited Away. We paid 800 yen, which seemed like a deal to me. And we left our shoes in shoe lockers, gave the tickets and the locker keys to the concierges (I have no idea what the Japanese word is for this), and received...a different locker key to put our clothes in.
The baths perch on the side of the steep valley that drops down to the clear water of the river; built of stone and full of naturally-heated water. Our destination was crowded; we learned that its popularity is due to the mineral content of the water. I enjoyed the hot bath a good deal, but I enjoyed the cold bath even more - and the sauna, followed by another cold bath, even more than that. It was all over too quickly; the necessity of rental-car-return cutting our relaxation sadly short. Short, but effective - we all felt borderline human after taking the waters, and I felt even worse for Alex than I did already, because he had to drive an hour and a half back to Tokyo in traffic and all I wanted to do was sleep.
He got us there, though, and without so much as a hiccup. We had planned to eat dinner at his apartment, but our sheer tiredness suggested a quieter evening; we stopped at OIOI Family to buy the discounted pre-made food (goes on sale at 7:30!), and went our separate ways. I chose poorly, this time - I got fried things, and I regret it even now. But I also got a beer, which was a good choice, as beer often is. Tomorrow we're back on our feet, and off to admire Toyo Enterprises, Momotaro, and Julius. Good things are coming, but now it's time for bed.
More Photos, courtesy Alex Scharf: