Hello finally from Manila, after a pretty tortuous time getting here from somewhere in the middle of nowhere in central Japan. I was caught in Japan's Yamanashi Prefecture during a pretty serious typhoon over the weekend, and the result was that I was virtually stranded in a forest for three days.
FIRST WORLD, BUT NOT IN HIGHWAYS
Japan did the unthinkable -- at least as far as I was concerned -- and they actually closed many of the major highways during the typhoon and long after that. Many back roads were closed as well and this meant that many people in the rural districts of Japan could not go anywhere.
The reason they close the highways at a time like this is that there's a risk of an accident such as a landslide or flooding. But, for me, the worst thing they can do is close the highways so that people are forced to look for smaller and infinitely more dangerous back roads instead. And if there is such a risk, Japan -- one of the richest countries in the world, and perhaps the only one who spends so much on public infrastructure -- should spend more money to prevent highways from being accident-prone. These are the lifelines of the country in a disaster, after all.
STUCK IN WINE COUNTRY AND LOVING IT
So yesterday, instead of returning to Tokyo as planned, we decided to stay over in a resort hotel in the vicinity of the area where we were stuck in, which is Yamanashi Prefecture but along the border of Nagano Prefecture. It's very rural but also incredibly picturesque, and very similar to some parts of Europe, actually. Driving through this area reminded me of a trip I'd taken from Paris to Burgundy about two years ago, and even the highways were similar.
Of course we had no plans to stay over and had no idea where we should go. So we just did the practical thing: someone googled "best place to stay" in Japanese on a Blackberry and we were led to the Resonare resort. Just our luck, it was beautiful and with impeccable service. I would never have imagined that such a place existed where we were. The rain was pouring but two guys in dark suits even stood by the entrance just to bow and welcome cars in.
This hotel, which was created during Japan's bubble economy, was actually designed by a famous Italian architect; so it was spacious and stylish. Furthermore, it's part of a luxury chain (this chain also just acquired some very famous spa hotels in Japan and a Relais & Chateaux ryokan) run by a third-generation ryokan owner named Hoshino-san who did a hotel degree in Cornell University -- so it combines the best of Japanese service and work ethics with Western flexibility and a world-class design.
SIDETRACK TO AN INTERESTING STORY
OF A HIGH-FLYER
Hoshino-san is actually a friend of one of my high-flying Japanese friends who has a weekend home big enough for 30 people to stay comfortably in the resort town of Karuizawa, which is the toniest of weekend resort areas because this is where Japan's emperor met his empress for the first time. They met over a game of tennis with friends in Karuizawa one summer and promptly fell in love. Since then, Karuizawa has been the most coveted resort area for a weekend home in Japan.
Anyway, my high-flying friend (who is on his fourth wife, by the way), maintains his weekend home here. It was actually the company rest-house of a very large multinational, and he'd bought it and made it a home -- and he actually has Hoshino-san's company manage his home. So a professional luxury ryokan company takes care of his home, from the cleaning to the cooking of meals. And with a top ryokan company cooking the scrambled eggs, you can imagine what breakfast at his place is like.
I haven't been yet because the 3.5 hour drive to Karuizawa puts me off; but friends of mine who have, who are not exactly in the minor leagues either, say that his home is drop-dead amazing. But that's my high-flying friend for you. Never one for less than the best.
I did attend his fourth wedding about three years ago in southern Japan and he had something like 2000 guests -- which is large but not mind-boggling for Manila, but it was certainly incredible for Japan, where the average large wedding has about 100 guests. In fact, it was so big, and so full of famous people, that I thought he was using his wedding as a jump-off platform to run for governor of his home province. At that wedding dinner, I'd sat across the table from Naoto Kan, Japan's most recently resigned prime minister.
Anyway, this friend really leads an extremely colorful life, four wives aside. I'd even tagged along with him and a bunch of other guys to India, about four years ago, as they were then planning to buy a steel factory somewhere in India. Through him I'd met India's richest man and many top politicians who'd all asked us to dinner. More on him in a later blog.
ITALIAN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
Back to my beautiful hotel in Yamanashi Prefecture. Apart from the great infrastructure and service, the icing on the cake was a very nice spa and a great Italian restaurant that served full-course meals with pairings of local wines (we were in Japan's wine region).
"I can so wait out a storm here," I said happily, as we sat in the lobby negotiating rooms and check-ins. Indeed, it was a very nice stay, especially with a storm raging outside, and a pretty good way to mark a last evening in Japan -- with an Italian dinner made with the freshest of local ingredients like mountain vegetables and koshu beef, which is the local specialty beef and one of my favorites. The cows are fed with local grapes, giving them a tender and sweet flavor.
I had a pasta of mountain vegetables and sea urchin, followed by a fillet of koshu beef with a wasabi sauce, surrounded by a plate of vegetables that was really prettier than a picture. To go with dinner, we had tastings of various local wines from the wineries around Katsunuma, which is Japan's equivalent of Bordeaux, if it can be called an equivalent.
ROADS STILL CLOSED
I was pretty confident, too, that the roads would open up the next day. To my surprise, next day -- today -- came and even more roads were closed, save for one circuitous route that the hotel staff had carefully outlined and printed for us. Okay, so it was the very long way home. But we were all still in cheerful spirits and I was pretty confident of checking out at 10 AM and making my 6 PM JAL flight from Narita Airport to Manila.
Well, at 230 PM this afternoon, I was still circling around Mount Fuji, trying to find an open route that would take me to the Tomei Highway -- the only highway open to Tokyo -- and then onwards to Chiba Prefecture and Narita Airport.
Even on a stressless day, Mount Fuji is at least 90 minutes away and Narita Airport is also about 90 minutes away from Tokyo. So if you do the math, you'll know I was asking for the impossible.
I was almost resigned to missing my flight, and it was stressing me out terribly as I have an important lunch and an even more important series of meetings tomorrow. So many things about Travelife Italy Night on September 8 are awaiting my decision in person as well.
Don't ask me how I did it, as even I don't know myself until now. But I made it to Narita Airport before the check-in cut-off time and I even had time to have a bowl of beef curry at the JAL Lounge before boarding. And now I'm home safe and sound, and in good enough time to even hurriedly type out an entry in this blog.
Someone's certainly looking out for me. Thank you very much.
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