Tuesday June 6, 2006
Early Morning and Time Zones
The time difference between St. Louis and Nagoya had me up very early (5 AM), the one good
aspect of visiting a time zone to the west of your home. So I was up at the crack of dawn
most mornings, and looking for something to do. This morning I decided to take a walk
around the Nagoya station so that I could familiarize myself with the layout. There
is a large, underground shopping mall (imagine that, a shopping mall), under the street
in front of Nagoya station. I had breakfast at the Denny's restaurant across the street
from the station. OK, ok, cut me some slack, I wanted something safe for breakfast and
would not have been able to handle the standard salty, bitter, fish flavored standard
Japanese culinary adventure at 7 AM in the morning. I may not have been half asleep or
hung over, but I had a big day ahead of me and needed something dependably normal. The
name may be Denny's, but don't expect the "Rooty-Tooty-Fresh-and-Fruity" breakfast or
any of the other entrees with a big stack of pancakes to be on the menu. I get the
feeling that the "Western" style cuisine here, and at other family restaurants like
"Gusto" and Joyful" are more influenced by British cuisine, than American. The typical
"breakfast setto" meal is going to be more like a British banger sausage (bland fried
hot dog), a piece of ham, a small salad, scrambled eggs, and choice of either a piece
of toast or three silver dollar sized pancakes.
I was back to the hotel and up to the room just in time Mr. Yamagishi to telephone
and he almost sounded happy to tell me I was late meeting him in the lobby. Thirty
seconds earlier and I would have seen him arrive when I got back to the hotel from
breakfast, but he seemed convinced I had slept in.
Departing for Ise
I rushed down to the lobby to meet Mr. Yamagishi and his wife, Yoshiko. I would soon
find out that Mr. Yamagishi is a bit of a joker and a character, very outgoing, with
a very healthy sense of humor and casual in almost all situations, contrasted by
Mrs. Yamagishi who was much quieter and more restrained, almost "prim and proper",
while still very friendly and sociable. They were a sort of embodiment of opposites
attracting each other.
We were off
to Ise in Mr. Yamagishi's Diesel Mercedes sedan. I am not accustomed to riding in such
a luxurious car with a leather interior. My cars tend to be more purpose built without
anything that doesn't contribute to acceleration, momentum, and cornering speed. Riding
in a luxury car is a different experience. Mr. Yamagishi accelerated up to over twice
the posted speed limit and the car performed and handled very nicely, surprisingly smooth,
without the high speed instability I expected from a large car like this. Now, the
Japanese speed limits may be only 45-50 MPH on the interstate, but that Mercedes felt
right at home cooking along at 110 MPH.
Meanwhile, I am staring out the windows at all the strange looking cars that we never get
to see in the US. Like some kind of parallel universe, a few cars look familiar, but those
are greatly outnumbered by models that have never been exported. Oddly boxy or curvalinear,
and always with faintly familiar details shared by most of the cars made by whichever
manufacturer made them, just figuring out who made them and what the model is called
is entertainment for any car nut.
And there was a lot of strange scenery to look at too. Most of the larger buildings
seemed to be either pachinko parlors or driving ranges. I suppose along the side of suburban
and rural interstates may be the only place that shopping malls don't outnumber all other
buildings. But based on the large numbers of businesses catering to the two activities, it
seems the Japanese must spend a disproportionately large amount of time either feeding
change into pachinko machines or driving golf balls off of five story tall platforms
into five story tall nets.
We have gambling in the US and riverboat gambling in Missouri. Mostly slot machines,
black jack, and poker. We even have the state lottery. I am not a lucky person and
don't enjoy loosing money, so gambling just isn't my thing. My understanding of pachinko
is probably based on the same exposure on the television game show "The Price is Right"
that every American is familiar with. You drop a disk or ball into the top of a field
of pins, and if it falls into a pocket at the bottom that is marked for winning a price,
you win. I can't see where I would be any more lucky at that than pulling the arm on a
slot machine. Mrs. Yamagishi asked me if I liked pachinko, and I hurriedly translated out
"I don't like gambling because I always loose". Both she and Mr. Yamagishi had a good
laugh, I hope at the joke and not at my poor Japanese.
We had to stop at a rest area. I mentioned in my 2002 report that there must be an
unwritten law that all Japanese drivers must stop at every single rest area, and they
look almost sad if you suggest that you don't have to stop. Of course, in the US, you
stop at a rest area for one thing, to brave the less than well maintained institutional
style (built to withstand abuse and nuclear war) rest room because you can't hold it
until you get to your destination where they will certainly have cleaner and nicer
rest room facilities. In Japan, rest areas are much different. Even more elaborate than
toll road or turnpike rest areas that are somewhat rare in the US. In Japan, rest
areas are like miniature shopping malls (notice a recurring theme of shopping malls?).
The Japanese rest area has large rest rooms for men and women and they are pretty well
maintained, but the big difference is that unlike US rest areas that may have a couple
vending machines with sodas and chips, the Japanese rest area has a quick shop, a
restaurant, and several banks of those big Japanese vending machines selling cold
drinks, snacks, cold canned coffee, hot canned coffee, sake, chuhia, and just about
every possible thing a person might want.
We were back in the car and back on the road, and Mrs. Yamagishi handed me two taffy
looking balls on a skewer, and said, "Try this, it is very sweet". It turns out it was
a rice dough wrapped around a bean paste or curd core, and by American standards, it
was not particularly sweet. It was, however, undoubtedly the chewiest thing I had
ever tried to eat, and after fifteen or so minutes of chewing on each bite, it left
behind a mouth full of bean husks to pick out of your teeth.
But it really highlighted the difference in taste between Japan and the US. In the US,
sweet means that it has a pure sugar content of 50% or more, and Japan uses sugar much
more sparingly, so something that may taste not particularly sweet to an American would
be very sweet to a Japanese person. The fun part comes when someone like me, stocks up
on bags of Jolly Rancher candy, and takes it with him to Japan, to see the looks on the
local's faces when they try to endure really sweet candy that is all sugar with a little
die for coloring and artificial sweetener to make it taste like artificial fruit. From
the facial expression, I would guess it is somewhat similar to the electrical shock
feeling that shoots through your jaw when you take a sip of really sweet, really cheap,
really nasty, domestic wine. That feeling that is so extreme that you would swear that
bone is breaking and teeth are just shooting out of your mouth.
We arrived in Ise first at the Geku outer shrine to Toyouke the deity or kami of
clothing, food and housing. This was a really quiet place and we were among only a
handful of people there.
After paying at the ticket office, the Temizu-sha or ambulatory font is near the beginning
of the trail to the shrine. Visitors pick up one of the ladle and pour water over
each hand allowing the water to splash to the ground, pour a
little into the cup of their hand and sip from their palm to rinse their mouth, and then
tip the dipper up so that the water cleanses the handle they had touched before returning
it to the font. I am not sure why, possibly from many years of being told not to splash
water from a sink onto a floor, but I seem to have a serious problem of pouring the
standing over the font and allowing the water I pour over my hands to splash back into
the font. Luckily, most of the shrines were not crowded and the other visitors were
too busy with their other fears and anxieties about foreigners, to point or laugh at me
for my faux pas.
It is so quiet and serious walking the trail to the shrine, it gives a very purposeful,
sacred, and intimate feeling.
There was a stable with a horse, I later found out that this was a horse offered to the
deity by the royal family.
We passed the booth where they sell the omamori and other things, and finally arrived
at the shrine. This shrine and the Naiku shrine have identical buildings, which are
torn down and rebuilt identically every 20 years. The next scheduled rebuilding is
apparently in 2013, so the buildings were a little over halfway through their life span
when I visited.
The inner sanctuaries of both shrines
are screened, but the Geku shrine seems a little less screened. Beyond the gate where
no photography is allowed, visitors approach the offering box, throw a coin into the
offering, clap their hands together twice to get the deity's attention, bow their head,
and pause a few seconds to pray or contemplate.
I did learn one thing. I was already aware that the sanctuaries of the shrines and temples
are considered sacred and you are not supposed to take pictures of them. But I was unaware
that the staff also share this non-photograph status when I nearly took a picture of the
female clerk selling Omimori charms at the Hall of Special Prayers. She came close to
interrupting her serene and calm demeanor, and nearly come unglued until I quickly
lowered the camera and apologized.
We then drove to the Naiku inner shrine located on the banks of the Isuzu River,
that is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess.
There were many times more people at this shrine, and a line of tour busses in the parking
area. This is the shrine to the matriarch of the Japanese royal family and was originally
their exclusive shrine until the 12th century. From that time to the present, it has
become one of the most important pilgrimage destinations for all Japanese people to visit
at least once in their lifetime. My pilgrimage was to visit the river that Isuzu Motors
is named after, and it seemed all the more appropriate that this is also the home of
one of Japan's most important deities who is responsible for the rising and setting
of the sun.
The sanctuaries of the Naiku and Geku may be identical, but the Naiku shrine grounds are
built to a significantly large scale, with significantly wider walkways and nature
and seclusion are traded for more wide open spaces and manicured landscaping.
is entered by way of the Uji bridge over the Isuzu River. The bridge has a tori gate over
each end and is divided for traffic, which strangely defies the normal Japanese system of
passing on the left, and instead passes on the right.
At the end of the bridge, the walkway turns right and widens, passing through an open
meadow, the pathway flanked by carefully sculpted hedges, bushes, and trees. A Garden.
From the garden, the walkway passes over another much smaller bridge over a small stream
and the Temizu-sha (ambulatory font) is on the right for use for purification of the hands
Past another tori gate and to the right is something that sets this shrine
apart from all others, and the reason that this was such an important pilgrimage for
myself. The walkway leads down to the bank of the Isuzu River, where visitors are to
wash and purify their hands and mouth a second time, in the waters of the Isuzu River.
There is even a stone ledge at the river's edge, where visitors can wash their feet.
My pilgrimage was to the river, the namesake of the Isuzu Motors company.
I had saved
the empty 300 ml sake bottle and brought it with me to the shrine, where I obtained
a sample of Isuzu River water to take home with me for my own little shrine to Isuzu cars.
I also reached down into the river and picked up a small river stone, which Mr.
Yamagishi told me to quickly put away in my backpack.
I jokingly suggested taking a swim,
but Mr. Yamagishi said that would not be a good idea.
After the river purification area, the walkway passes the Hall of Special Prayer (the are
where they sell omamori and charms). They were doing some tree removal and had a crane set
up and chain saws roaring. It was odd how the echo of chain saws sounds the same everywhere,
I half expected to see a crew of American tree trimmers or Canadian lumberjacks come
walking through in Carhart work clothes or jeans and plaid flannel shirts.
We passed several smaller buildings that seemed to be closed or were more minor shrines and
We followed the walkway as it narrowed and became more enclosed by the
trees and forest, approaching the level of intimacy of the Geku shrine, as we climbed
the long stairway to the main sanctuary. The Naiku sanctuary was much more screened allowing
less view of the ancient architecture within the shrine. Again, visitors approach the
offering box, throw in a coin, clap twice to get the attention of the deity, bow, and
Next to the existing shrine is the empty plot where the shrine is rebuilt every twenty years.
There is a miniature building the size of a dog house that is placed over the exposed end
of the sacred log that is berried under the spot where the main altar is to be built. The
raised stone platform for the support building is also exposed.
The bare plot gives a very
good idea of the layout of the buildings screened from view in the active shrine that it
is next to and the only not totally obstructed views of the ancient architecture within the
shrine are from the area where the bare plot can be viewed.
On the way out, I got out my video camera and shot some footage of the river and the
grounds of the shrine. We stopped and looked at the charms and religious objects for sale
at the Hall of Special Prayer. There were some pretty elaborate pieces of artwork with
equally high price tags.
We exited the shrine and made our way into the touristy area next to the shrine. This
was the stereotypical pedestrian street with shops and restaurants on each side, banners
everywhere, and the street had a slight curve so that you couldn't see too far down the
street. Mr. and Mrs/ Yamagishi were looking for some gifts for friends, and also
looking for some place to eat. we came to a curry restaurant and both were surprised
when I explained that I love Japanese curry beef and rice. So lunch was curry. Desert
was peach and almond cake or cheesecake, and then a little more shopping before leaving
Back onto the highway in the back of the Mercedes and we headed for Suzuka. I knew they
had an amusement park as part of the race track. Japanese amusement parks seem to be a
bit more adult oriented. Either they have attractions that are less geared toward the
stroller and toddler set, or Japanese adults are less concerned with looking childish
if they admit to enjoying things that are geared toward smaller children. I haven't
figured out which was the case, but I thought maybe
Suzuka Circuit had
a museum and
an adult go cart track or something that would be open to visit when they weren't having
a sanctioned racing event.
I was more than a little surprised when Mr. Yamagishi asked me if I had a
racing license. I autocross and drag race. These are considered entry level motorsports
in the US, and don't have much in the way of licensing programs except for the faster
drag cars. Some might argue that a lack of common sense or a sense of danger are the
only requirements for autocross and drag racing, but certainly not a racing license.
I did show them my international driver's license that is basically a language translation
of a state driver's license that the American Automobile Association (AAA) sells so that
Americans can drive rental cars in foreign countries, but that wasn't going to help
Mr. Yamagishi explained that if I had a license for racing competition (I suppose from
an organization with an agreement with the Japanese Auto Federation [JAF], such as the
SCCA, IMSA, NASA, etc.), then I would be allowed to drive on Suzuka Circuit during a
I know there are numerous licenses within the SCCA for everything from Performance Driving
Experience (PDX) programs, provisional and full amateur Club Racing, and all the way up
to professional licenses. I didn't try to get any specifics, but I assume the needed
license would be something comparable to a Club racing license. Note to self, make sure
to get a Club Racing license before going back to Japan again...
So I had to settle for the passenger seat and a ride around Suzuka Circuit. Hey, not
much of a step down there. And my last experience with driving a right hand drive car was
a bit scary anyway, I kept reaching for the stick shift with my right hand against the
driver's side door panel, because 20 years of driving left hand drive cars has the shift
movement of my right hand as more of an involuntary action. You sort of have to picture
this: Let out the clutch, accelerate through first gear, press in the clutch, reach with
the right hand for the gear shift lever only to find the driver's side door panel, realize
that I have to shift with my left hand, find the shift lever with my left hand and
clumsily move it into the second gear, accelerate through second gear, press in the clutch,
reach with the right hand for the gear shift lever only to find the driver's side door
panel, realize that I have to shift with my left hand, find the shift lever with my left
and clumsily move it into the third gear, repeat in third gear, repeat in fourth gear,
finally get the car shifted into fifth gear. Now the problem is keeping the car centered
in a lane, while sitting on the left side of the car, and fighting the unconscious urge to
position the driver's seat over the left rut in the lane while hanging the passenger over
into the next lane... OK, enough reliving that nightmare.
When we arrived at Suzuka Circuit, they were ending the morning F1 racing school, and
the little open wheeled cars were bussing around the track. I was introduced to Mr. Toru
Takeshi, a friend of Mr. Yamagishi, who drives a Honda Civic Type R. (OK, so my ride
around Suzuka was going to be in a Honda, and I'm no Honda fan, but I'd gladly ride around
the track in a wheel barrow, and still be one of only a handful of foreigners to have been
on the track in anything other than a video game).
Mr. Yamagishi and Mr Takeshi started to name off some of the familiar professional drivers
that they had both raced with and against, and though I knew none of the names, it was
impressive to listen to. Mr. Takeshi also explained that he is the owner of Scuderia Rosso,
a company offering various racing parts, most notably a line of electronic battery ground
enhancement devices, which are very popular among the Japanese tuning community at the
moment. I was later presented with several of these as a gift, though I have not had time
to decipher the installation instructions and try them out.
Mr. Takeshi's car seemed to be having some
ignition problems. The engine had apparently thrown the set screw out of the distributor
rotor, the rotor had spun on the shaft, and the set screw was nowhere to be found. He was
frantically searching for another bolt or screw of the same size from anywhere around the
engine compartment from anything that was less important to be secured than the distributor
rotor. I don't know if I have ever seen this with another car maker. Regardless, the car
was experiencing some backfiring and misfiring, and didn't wind out too well.
I took a few minutes and walked around the paddock area to look at the other cars. Lots of
Skylines, RX-8s, Impreza STis, and some Porsches, including a GTS. The cars looked to be
mostly reasonably well prepared road race cars. Nothing with flared fenders, but
built engines and racing wheels.
I looked around at Mr. Takeshi's car, and it appeared to have limited race preparation.
No roll cage, full interior, driver's racing seat, a valve timing controller on the dash,
stock exhaust manifold, larger cat back exhaust, carbon fiber hood, stock wheels, treaded
race tires, and lowered but no sign of damper adjustment or damper reservoirs. It was not
prepared up to SCCA autocross Street Prepared level, one of the classes I race in.
Without the roll cage and with a full interior, it did not quite meet what I would expect
for a Improved Touring Club Racing car. Exactly what class it would fit into was a bit
of a mystery.
They got the car ready to go and I became aware that Mr. Takeshi would not be driving
for my ride around the track, instead, his co-driver, Ms. Megumi Horiuchi, would be
driving. I turned to Mrs. Yamagishi, feigned an expression of terror, said "Women
drivers, no survivors" in English, and then hurriedly translated the humorous phrase
into Japanese, which received some laughs from those standing near. The joke is a
reference to the American stereotype that men are better drivers than women and that
women are dangerous behind the wheel. The reality of the situation is that women are
statistically safer drivers, because men take more risks which result in more accidents.
Soon we piled into the car, another Japanese gentleman climbed into the back seat,
myself into passenger seat, and Ms. Horiuchi into the driver's seat, none of us with
helmets, for what would end up to be two parade or warm up laps around the track.
We pulled into line on the pit lane, behind two Porsches and in front of a Impreza STi,
and waited some time. The group was finally waved onto the track and I started
shooting pictures with my digital camera. I have kicked myself many times for not
taking my video camera with me in the car, but I did get a little more view of the track
by not looking through a video camera for the two laps.
Ms. Horiuchi certainly showed that the stereotype of women drivers did not apply to her,
because she was apexing turns like a pro, placing the inside tires over the rumble strips
with a good bit of precision, and shouting ill words at the slower Porsche drivers in front
of her because they were not driving very well or fast enough to suit her.
felt like it was pulling very well, and I am sure that if passing were allowed during the
warmup laps, Ms. Horiuchi would have blown past both Porsches as if they were standing
still, or made a serious effort anyway. We drove the full circuit, which i am told is
somewhat rare, the circuit is usually divided in half for practice sessions. It is
somewhat odd to round a turn, look up, and see a ferris wheel at the end of the straight
The warmup laps finished, we pulled back into the paddock area, exited the car, and Ms.
Horiuchi climbed back in with her fire suit and helmet for some laps at speed. The
ignition problem returned, it must have been a high RPM problem. Her lap times were not
up to their usual time, and after three or so laps, she pulled off the track and called
it a day.
I shot a little video from the pit area before we finally had to leave the track.
We were back in Mr. Yamagishi's Mercedes and headed back to Nagoya and arrived at Mr.
He lead me into his garage and proudly showed off his own
race car, a Gemini PF. He explained that the engine had been built by the owner of
Aquarius Motorsports, a gentleman who had worked for the Isuzu factory racing team.
The engine ancillaries looked pretty impressive also, a very large four barrel
carburetor, well made four into one header, distributorless ignition with a cam
angle sensor conversion, and an aluminum radiator.
Inside the interior was gutted,
Sparco racing seat, Simpson harness, and a full roll cage.
But the most impressive part
required crawling under the car, because the suspension had been converted to coilovers
with custom built trailing arms. Mr. Yamagishi tried to crank over the engine to let
me listen to it for a few minutes, but it would not fire up, so we headed into his house.
We entered his house and I was introduced to his 17 year old daughter, Ms. Miho
Yamagishi, a tall, thin, and very attractive young lady will surely break the hearts of
many men. I followed Mr.
Yamagishi back to his racing memorabilia room and Ms. Miho Yamagishi followed also.
The first thing that struck me was the large glass display case that most people are
familiar with seeing in a retail store. Over the course of the next several days, I
would see that every single Isuzu enthusiast in Japan has one of these glass display
cases in their home, and has it full of models, photos, promotional items, and every
possible Isuzu oriented thing. And the walls were covered with framed pictures of
Mr. Yamagishi's cars and other people's Isuzu cars. He proudly pointed out his racing
fire suit, hanging on one wall, and explained that it was a Simpson brand suit, that he
specifically wanted a Simpson brand suit, and that he had to go to great effort in
purchasing one in an internet auction in order to obtain one. He turned on his computer
and browsed through some used car auctions, explaining that the prices of the nicer
Isuzu cars shoots up to over $4,000 just prior to the end of the auction.
Ms. Miho Yamagishi explained that she is a big racing fan too, and that she follows F1
racing, especially her favorite driver, Kimi Rakkonen. I tried to explain that F1 is not
too popular in the US, and we have CART and Indy Car open wheel racing, but that NASCAR
stock car racing is the most popular form of racing in the US. I also tried to explain
that we call this "redneck racing" because it is so popular with people in rural
communities, and this was followed with an explanation of the origin of the phrase
"redneck" (farmers get sunburnt on the back of their neck while driving their tractor
around their fields). I also explained that I was more a fan of sportscar racing, such
as American Lemans and Japanese Super GT / JGTC, though these forms are not often seen
on American television.
We were quickly off to dinner at a sukiyaki restaurant. With sukiyaki, beef was
cooked by dipped it into a boiling soup made from soy sauce, sugar, and sake, at the
table to cook it, then presented to each diner to dip in their own bowl and eat. There were
vegetables also, which appeared to be leaks and onions. The bad part of the arrangement
was that the bowl to dip the meat and vegetables contained a whipped, raw egg. I
mentioned earlier that there seems to be some kind of predisposition among the Japanese
that every good piece of beef must be ruined by serving it on, under, or dipped in an egg.
It took some explaining, and a few lifted eyebrows, but they finally allowed me to eat
without dipping everything in the raw egg, and it did taste a lot better that way,
actually delicious. But they said "Without the egg, it is not sukiyaki".
We had a good conversation over the meal, and they did another thing that it seems many
Japanese people like to do. I carry a Japanese-English dictionary with me, and it
seems to be entertaining among Japanese people to look through the dictionary and
poke a bit of fun at some of the less accurate word definitions, and find some of the
common, every day words, that just aren't in these dictionaries.
After the meal, we were off in the Mercedes to drop me off at my hotel. Mrs.
Yamagishi drove, and it was explained that Mr. Yamagishi had a beer with dinner, and
I would take Japanese law to be slightly stricter than US law, but they were following
the familiar "designated driver" system in order to avoid any possible problems.
I couldn't resist another mention of "Women drivers, no survivors", and everyone had
a good laugh.
Mr. Yamagishi presented me with a bag containing a bottle of good sake, a bottle of
good shochu, and a mens summer kimono. He was far too generous and I thanked him for
They dropped me off at my hotel, but before I retired for the evening, I walked over to
the Nagoya Station, had my rail pass activated, and took a few notes on how to take the
bullet train, because I would be off to Hiroshima early the next morning.
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