DSC01583.jpgWhen we travel, we often have to make a difficult choice – do we find someone to translate and make suggestions or do we improvise our way through a country? In some cases (like Tanzania), the decision is made for us. You simply cannot go on safari without a guide. But other places, one can generally navigate and communicate with a few good books, simple English, lots of patience and a sense of humor.


For example, when we traveled to China 5 years ago, we did not have any guides or translators. Frankly, we enjoy freedom to explore freely on our own schedule even if we might miss some cultural nuances.


But this week has been a special treat because of Altus. He provides the benefits of a guide (language and cultural knowledge) with a willingness to improvise our schedule and choose our own pace.


He also is able to share his love of the culture and traditions of Japan. I will describe two examples, one in this blog and one in the next.


First, he introduced us to the michi-no-eki. These are “roadside stations” that combine rest stops with shopping areas with quirky roadside attractions. In America, you might see a place that advertises the “World’s Largest Ball of String” or a “Rattlesnake Farm”. Now imagine if you gave that place a restaurant, a shopping area and a huge budget to make their roadside attraction feel like a mini-museum.


If you can picture that, you can picture a michi-no-eki.


We went to one near Mt Fuji. As a result, it featured a great view of the volcano (see above), a small museum on the formation of the volcano, a collection of geodes and one of the strangest attraction I have ever scene.


Before I bring you on this journey with me, I want you to picture this semi-museum. DSC01600.jpgIt looks to be the size of a large high school basketball gym. Outside, it has several multi-ton stones for you examination. Within, it has exhibits that describe Mt Fuji’s geology and its history in Japanese culture. DSC01602.jpgBeyond that, you see a shop that sells paintings of the volcano and semi-precious jewels. If you are struggling to see the connection between volcanoes and jewelry, I am with you. I guess it is easier to sell jewelry than miniature Mt Fuji sculptures.


They also had a movie about Mt Fuji that looked like it was made by a trio of high school seniors with a $150 budget and loads of stock footage.


So far, not that exciting, right?


But we then went down this one story circular ramp to an educational bombshell below.


We saw this.


DSC01608.jpgPut simply, it was a life-sized, animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex that is dying from a lava flow. It struggles, opens its mouth and wails  – and does so perpetually. I would be lying if I told you that we did not feel pity for this bizarre mechanical dinosaur.


I wish I could have been in the room when this idea was presented and approved by the builders of this place. Clearly, a group of seemingly rational humans decided that it would be worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a machine that has a gossamer thin relationship to Mt Fuji.


“OK guys, I have the game-winning idea. We will explain the formation of Japan’s most famous geological feature using a robot T-Rex thrashing in fake lava.”


“Oh my gosh, that is brilliant!”


“And so incredibly obvious.”


“We must build it to further the education of the driving public!”


While I am not sure I would have agreed with this decision-making process, I must say that this little detour made Japan seem so much more accessible. If Texas can have the Cadillac Ranch, then Japan can perpetually cook a dinosaur in magma.


Steve Sir