The Dark Side of Ise, Japan

The Dark Side of Ise, Japan

“This is the dark side of Ise.”

My wife says this in a low, grave tone. Goosebumps inadvertently prickle my flesh. I feel a tightening of my abdomen and a tingling in my lower back. My knuckles are pale on the steering wheel of our rental. I cast a quick glance to the side at the object of her scorn. My brain bids me to look away more out of shock than a fear of my safety as I drive down the unending winding roads of the prefecture. Katakana on the road again reminds me of an upcoming “kaabu.” (Curve my wife informs me when I inquired earlier. It makes sense when you realize Japanese has no “c,” “v,” or “es.”)

Ise is a coastal city in Mie prefecture on Japan’s mainland. It hosts about 150,000 people and Japan’s “most powerful” (my wife attests) Shinto shrine, Ise Jingu. Unlike the more commonly visited areas of Japan, Ise feels secluded in a way the paved roads and more industrial sections of the prefecture can’t negate. Even getting to the city feels like embarking on an adventure. After taking a speed boat from Centrair Chubu International Airport to Mie Prefecture, a visitor will find themselves in Tsu, a city with a more Western feel—buildings stacked against one another, plenty of cars and traffic lights, and large, flamboyant advertisement boards. A few minutes’ drive from there towards the expressway leading to Ise and you’re greeted with green fields and old-fashioned kawara tiled roofs. The small city of Tsu quickly fades away and the journey turns into an unending spectrum of green. Towering trees flank both sides of the road. Intermittent tunnels break up the scenery as travelers burrow through the surrounding mountains towards Ise.

My wife was born and raised in Ise. Most of her family still resides there and, despite her strained relationship with them, we decided it would be best to visit them before our departure to America. My wife and I got married prior to meeting her family. In case you’re wondering, this act is equally taboo in Japan. In the days leading up to our visit, my wife had lovely text message conversations with her mother about me. One example is her mother asking repeatedly, “Is he a gaijin!? Is he a gaijin!?” Gaijin being the impolite Japanese word for foreigner. In Japan, concepts like racial purity and disdain for darker complexions uncomfortably lurk beneath the surface. My excitement for the trip continued to grow to new heights. Towards the eve of our flight, my wife asked if I would like to spend the night at her mother’s house. Like a good husband, I maintained my tact and told her something warm and friendly like, “I’d rather die.” She seemed surprised by my answer, which in turn made me questions whether there was some cultural misunderstanding going on. Maybe her mother refusing to congratulate her daughter on her marriage was actually a good sign? We settled on staying at her grandmother’s house for a night instead.

If I had to summarize my experiences and impressions of Ise, I would say this: I saw a monkey on the side of the road. My wife might not appreciate this succinct review of her hometown, but it’s the best I can do to convey my feelings on the matter. I’m not good with words.

Meeting my wife’s grandmother first was a good choice. It was a pleasant visit and it helped affirm a universal truth for me: grandmothers are the same in all countries. She was fast asleep on a small couch propped in front of the living room television when we arrived. She awoke quickly, was very friendly, and offered me more food than I would have ever eaten on my own accord. Naturally, I gorged myself in an effort to show her what a reliable and loving mate I would be for her granddaughter. The real twist in the narrative occurred during our dining table conversation as I progressively became more bloated with delicious sashimi, rice, pork, tofu, pickled cucumbers, etc. Oh, and ice cream. Her grandmother offered a large chunk of ice cream wrapped in a soft cone skin BEFORE dinner. Despite this breach in protocol, I dutifully ate it with a smile on my face.

While we were eating, I remarked (genuinely) on how good all the food was. I really liked the cucumbers because the flavor reminded me of how my own grandfather used to pickle them. Grandma then pointed out the kitchen window towards a garden and explained she had grown them herself. She then spread her arms as if carrying an obscene amount of vegetables (I assumed) and imitated a waddling sort of walk. Grandma only spoke in Japanese, so I looked to my wife for a translation. My wife translated this charade as such: putting together this many cucumbers was difficult because a local monkey kept vandalizing her grandmother’s garden and sauntering off with an armful of vegetables.

In hindsight, my initial skepticism to this revelation was laughable. Grandmother certainly had no motive to lie about a monkey attacking her garden, but there I was in the kitchen thinking maybe her grandmother was getting a little old. She was 87 after all. Maybe the thief was a small child from one of the neighboring houses. I hope you, the reader, can appreciate where I’m coming from. I’m from Central California. We certainly don’t have monkeys (though some relatives skirt dangerously close to that line). Heck, we barely have enough water to grow a garden where I’m from, so the correlation between monkeys and gardens is even further removed from my expectations. I went to bed that evening still in doubt.

After spending the night at grandma’s place, we awoke early the next morning and traveled north to meet the rest of my wife’s family. It was broad (versus narrow?) daylight when I saw it. We had just started driving away from her grandmother’s house and there it was. It sat belligerently on the side of the road watching us with obvious disdain. Its face was set in a glower at the trespassers. It was the monkey. The garden thief was real! My wife had taken over driving duties for the morning since the curvy roads made her sick as a passenger. I frantically asked my wife to stop. Her head remained fixed on the road ahead and her grandmother’s archnemesis faded in the rearview mirror. I was immensely disappointed she didn’t turn around. Maybe I should have been more forceful about the matter. Later, when I made some passing (passingly passive aggressive) remark about not having gotten a picture of the monkey, I think my wife sensed my childish frustration.

“It would have run away if we had tried to go up to it,” she says. Her voice has taken on a soothing tone, the tone of a mother trying to calm a petulant child. You know the type—one of those rich, spoiled kids who hasn’t gotten their way. They’re making a scene in a public space and all of the onlookers are wondering why the supplicating parent hasn’t resorted to socially approved violence to resolve the problem.

Despite what the text messages foreshadowed, the time we spent with my wife’s mother was surprisingly pleasant. Other than the awkward tension suffocating the car, the limited ability to communicate, and my wife refusing to have dinner with her mother, I think things went well and I left a good impression.

For the rest of our trip, we stayed at the Shima Kanto Hotel. The Shima Kanto Hotel, where the 2016 G7 summit was held, is perched along the Shima peninsula looking over Ago Bay. The G7 Summit being hosted there remains a staple advertising tool and claim to fame. The La Mer, a Michelin Star restaurant on the first floor, still has the table where the world leaders ate on display as you enter. The conference area for the summit is still set-up and open for viewing by guests. It’s a simple arrangement of chairs along a circular table. The represented nations’ flags stand in a line not far from the table. President Obama’s chair is positioned to the right of Prime Minister Abe. Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s no symbolic meaning concerning the seating arrangement, so I won’t spend time examining it. There were no signs prohibiting it, so I decided to take a seat in President Obama’s chair. As if struck by an unexpected wave while swimming off the beach, I’m awash in the feeling that this chair was. . . pretty much like most chairs. I’m not sure what the expectation was, but I definitely thought the chair was going to imbue me with a sense of importance or at least be intoxicatingly comfortable. After the chair experience, I refused to pay over 300 dollars for the dinner course at La Mer. If they couldn’t change my life with the president worthy chair, I seriously doubted (and wasn’t willing to risk my entire paycheck to find out) the president worthy dinner course would.

Another big attraction we visited was Spain Village. Spain Village, a Spanish themed amusement park, resides a few minutes down the road from the hotel. It hosts what one might expect: a variety of rides, restaurants with Spanish selections, cute mascot characters, and entertainment. Enjoy a bocadillo while watching a flamenco performance. Large bronze statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, replicated from the monument in Spain, stand at the entrance. Don Quixote is mounted on a horse. He is clad in amor with his right hand upraised, palm facing out with fingers spread. His left hand holds a lance, its sharp point angled towards the heavens. The knight’s expression is grim. The trusty squire rides slightly behind on a donkey. One hand rests on his belly and his expression is mirthful. Like Sancho’s character in the story, his statue serves as a fun contrast to the much larger and imposing representation of Don Quixote. The park’s theme song blares in the background (La Espana!!!) giving Don Quixote’s upraised hand a more inviting, less foreboding vibe.

Against my trepidation, my wife insists we ride Amigo Balloons. The description reads: “Stroll through the air just as if you were in a balloon! Enjoy a moment of grace while overlooking the park's scenery, all while gently moving up and down at a comfortably moderate speed.” I told her I’m not good with amusement park rides, but she assures me she rode on Amigo Balloons as a child and only sissy babies would get sick on it. I proceeded to get debilitatingly sick and we left the park shortly after. I could see the wandering mascots double take at my hunched posture and green hue.

“It did seem a little faster than I remember,” my wife says. Her voice has taken on a soothing tone as she rubs my back. I’m mad all over again about not getting a picture of the monkey.

It was on the last night of our trip when I was confronted by the sinister reality of my wife’s hometown. The evil revealed to me on that night wasn’t the Yakuza flagrantly roaming the country roads, a rampant homeless community propped up in the nearby trees, illicit drugs, or prostitution. No, the dark side of Ise pointed out by my wife as we were driving was a McDonald’s to-go bag discarded on the side of the road. Like a dismembered body, various parts were strewn about the pavement. A napkin flittered in the breeze with its luminescent skin stained in ketchup. A burger wrapper looked like a mangled hand. The French Fry box was a blood-soaked carcass. It was tragically beautiful in a way. Another mass shooting was being reported in the U.S. news and here I was witnessing the atrocity of litter in a town encased by the ocean and mountains. It was the only litter I saw my entire trip there.

I imagine the culprit was a foreigner on their way to the Shima Classic Hotel.