[If you haven’t read the first part of this adventure you can do so here]
Trying to get a good sleep in a tiny car at a rest stop is like trying to relax in a typical japanese bathtub. You just can’t quite do it. Not being able to stretch out and being awakened frequently as the big trucks rolled into the rest area, I eventually gave up on the idea of a proper sleep when the sun rose early in the morning. Getting out of my car I stretched and walked around a bit and then bought myself some type of breakfast at the convenience store. Again, not the ideal way to do things but it would have to do. Being early in the morning I felt I had some time to see something else before I would have to head home, but where should I go exploring?
The previous day on the drive north I saw many roadside signs indicating exits for specific places and the one that was most memorable to me was the one declaring the exit for Zao (蔵王). At one time in the past there was a music group called Zao which I kind of paid attention to (though don’t ask me to name any of their band members or songs). Well, what’s in Zao, Japan? Once again my trusty iPhone was put to use searching the internet for information. It turns out Zao is famous for producing cheese. I love cheese!
Cheese in Japan is very expensive. Well, the good kind of cheese is. There is the cheaper processed kind but being a cheese purist I rarely touch that stuff. Back in Canada I could (and did, frequently) by a large block of cheese for less than $10.00 and sit at home cutting tiny slices off one at a time and eating it bare. Just cheese. Here in Japan, not only can you not find large blocks of cheese but the way-too-small blocks are around 600 yen. I had to take this chance presented to me to seek out cheese.
Zao is basically a whole lot of rolling farmland located in some low mountains. And it’s in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県). I would be hitting my 6th prefecture of the trip.
So, climbing back into my tiny car I left the rest area and accelerated onto the expressway. I had my iPhone displaying the route I would need to take. It indicated I would need to get off at Murata (村田), but is that the Interchange or the Junction?
I am going to go with Interchange for 200, Alex.
Once off the interchange I found myself on some very rural roads. Only one lane in either direction and almost no other traffic to be seen. However, these roads had not yet received the attention the Expressways had after the big earthquake. Parts of the roads were cracked and the only thing indicating danger were a couple pylons placed around the damage. In some cases half the road was cracked and sunken and driving around the pylons meant driving into the opposite lane, but there were no traffic directors in site. Occasionally I would have to stop completely to let other cars by before I could enter the other lane and continue on. But I got to Zao. Following roadsigns I found myself at a Cheese Factory. While not allowed into the actual factory I was able to go to the gift shop.
Where they had samples of different cream cheeses (orange flavor, anyone?) as well as enough cheese to satisfy even myself. Judging from the amount of people milling around the gift shop good cheese is pretty popular in Japan and Zao has done a good job of making it the focus of their tourist industry.
What did I end up getting?
Just your regular cream cheese and some cheddar. I love cheddar. Perhaps love is not the correct word. I adore cheddar. Perhaps that is not right, either. Perhaps there is not an adequate word for me to use to describe my fondness for cheddar. Or perhaps I am just forgetting more of my english the longer I live here.
I was a little concerned about how the cheese would fare during the 300-plus kilometers drive home in the 36 degree heat. The kind shop attendants were quick to dismiss my concerns and packed my purchase in a refrigerated bag with some dry ice.
Having bought some cheese and snacked a bit in the cafe next to the cheese factory I figured it was time to head home. It was about noon and, it being sunday, there could well have been major traffic problems on the Tohouku Expressway heading south. If figured if I started heading back I would be home by dinner time, if I was lucky.
My trusty iPhone showed me that I could take Road 457 south and get on the Touhoku at Shiroishi Interchange (白石). That name rang a bell for some reason and then I remembered why. As I past Shiroishi going north the day before I had seen a massive building and I wondered what a huge monstrosity was doing so far north.
Maybe I would be able to get closer to that building and figure out what it is.
So onto Road 457 I went and, well, it is definitely a road in the sense that you can drive on it, but it’s more like a winding trail. You descend the mountain on this road and it zigs and zags with hairpin corners narrowing to almost one car width in some places. There are no traffic lights and the driver is left to check the mirrors located on the side of the road at corners to be sure another car isn’t coming in the opposite direction.
It was a lot of fun. Since moving to Japan the only time I encountered this kind of road was on Chichijima.
Very short and very sharp with tunnels. I feel like I am driving the Monaco GP.
The road widens and straightens out once in Shiroishi township where I stopped to fill my gas tank and then got on at the interchange. As I picked up speed and merged with the traffic I thought about the three or more hour drive I had ahead of me and the idea of being behind the wheel for that long didn’t appeal to me. I hit the gas, taking my tiny car to about 110km per hour and thought I would continue that pace until I was either home or stopped by traffic. Interestingly, both those things happened at about the same time.
Traffic was moving well descending through the mountains in Fukushima and my pace was steady. There were no traffic problems in Yaita, where I expected them to be, and through to Utsunomiya in Tochigi was no problem. Once I hit Sano, the exit where I alway get off to go to work, traffic became very heavy but was still moving. I, along with some other cars moving at a higher pace, was weaving around traffic and still making good time, but as I passed under the travel advisory sign I saw the words,
“Congestion near Hasuda Rest Area. 4 kilometers in 20 minutes.”
Hasuda (蓮田) rest area is the rest area just south of my own exit of Kuki (久喜), so at first I didn’t think this would cause me any problems.
A little later traffic became heavier and slower and the next advisory sign stated.
“Fire near Hasuda Rest Area. 2 kilometers in 20 minutes.”
Hmm. So it was getting worse instead of better. I was approaching the Kazo (加須) exit, the one 13 kilometers before my own, I knew I had to make a decision. Get off here and take the local roads the rest of the way home or continue to my exit in the hopes that the traffic hadn’t affected it yet. Then I passed the advisory sign before the Kazo exit.
“Fire near Hasuda Rest Area. 2 kilometers in 35 minutes.”
Decision made. I got off at Kazo and, nibbling on a sandwich I had purchased before getting on the Expressway, meandered the local roads before arriving home at roughly 3:30 PM. At home I immediately got in the shower, and once clean and refreshed, ate some cheese before taking a nap.
All in all, it was a good weekend. I never did find out what that massive building in Shiroishi is, though.