She will miss you. She's grown fond of you.
Those were Yoshiko's words when we stood beside the dealership under her apartment. I was carrying all my belongings and Lily had strongly grabbed my leg, giggling naughtily with a cheeky smile on her lips, looking up to me.
And I'll miss her too. I couldn't have ever believed that I could bond so much with two complete strangers in just a couple of nights. I'll treasure my memory of you dearly. But the trip must go on!
We hugged and bade each other farewell. I started walking under Zushi's sunshine feeling my heart swollen with love for this little girl and a strong admiration for her mum. Admiration because of her determination to raise Lily on her own while working and to not conform with Japanese societal rules of being a married housewife. Admiration that she is open to receiving strangers in her home despite living with her 5-year-old, so that the wee one can grow up with the understanding that human beings are essentially kind.
A while later I got to Zushi's train station, my next destination being the Japanese Alps. It was a long journey of about 4h via Tokyo, so I would have a day stop on the way at a picturesque village I had read about.
In Tokyo I connected with my first shinkansen of the trip. From then onward, getting on the bullet trains would become a habit!
About 3h into my journey I arrived at the village of Obuse (小布施). This town is famous for several things:
- Chestnuts (栗, kuri). Obuse grows and harvests plenty of chestnuts in autumn, which they preserve in the most varied of ways and use them for cooking and confectionery.
- Architecture. Obuse maintains a lot of housing in the traditional Japanese style, conferring a very authentic aspect upon the town.
- Gardens: The inhabitants of Obuse follow a very interesting policy of open gardens. There are signs everywhere in the village inviting visitors to enter and explore people's backyards. This way, the villagers make their best effort to show off their gardening skills and good taste, and visitors leave Obuse with a feeling that it is such a well looked-after town.
It wasn't until after lunch that I had time to explore the cosy settlement. Just after getting off the train I could feel that we had gone back to winter. I knew I was leaving behind the spring-like warmth of the seaside, but the change was more significant than I had expected. Still, even here in the mountains, popping into people's gardens one could find signs of the blooming spring.
I had caught a local paper map at the Tourist Information Centre by the station, so, after sightseeing in the town centre, I decided to venture further east and explore the temples in the outskirts of Obuse.
I walked eastwards until I arrived at the foot of the knoll, where all the temples were located. The first one I visited was Gansho-in (岩松院).
Gansho-in is a Buddhist temple famous for lodging an original painting by Hokusai (北斎), the great master of ukiyo-e (浮世絵).
Ukiyo-e is a very traditional Japanese style of painting: the artist would design a scene which would be later on carved onto woodblocks and then these would be used to print the design on paper or fabric. Hokusai was one of the greatest artists of ukiyo-e back in the 18th century during the Edo period. Upon the invitation of a rich farmer from the area, Hokusai spent the last years of his life in Obuse. Whilst in there he kept on painting until the day of his death, at age 88.
On the ceiling of the main shrine in Gansho-in, Hokusai painted his "Phoenix Staring in Eight Directions". The image is special because no matter where in the room you stand, if you look up it always seems like the phoenix is staring at you. Also, it hasn't undergone any restoration: the colours and lines are incredibly bright and bold considering that the painting was made in the early 19th century.
I then walked along the foot of the hill and headed to Joko-ji (浄光寺).
This temple had such a mysticism in it. There wasn't a single soul around. A flight of old steps took me into an ancient forest of cedar trees, which muffled each and every sound, including my own steps. At the top, a humble clearing of the forest lodged a lonesome shrine with thatched roof, which invited me to pray the way Takayuki-san had taught me back in Tokyo.
A myriad of graves clustered around the main shrine, stretching out well into the woods and seamlessly blending in with the cedar trees. It was the first time I visited a Japanese cemetery and I totally loved the idea of forever resting in such a magical place.
Engrossed as I was exploring this temple and its surroundings I completely lost track of time. When I looked through the crowns of the cedar trees, the bit of sky I could see told me it was getting dark so it was time to head back to Obuse to make the last leg of the journey for that day.
It was on my way back to the town centre when I noticed some menacing clouds on the nearby hills, which threatened with rain and thunder.
I finally arrived to the station in Obuse. By then, it had already gone dark. The station, just like the town, was quiet and very badly lid, scarcely one lamppost on the platform. While waiting for the train I felt something falling on me, tickling the back of my neck; it wasn't rain, but snow. The snowflakes were visible under the halo of the lamp and would then disappear into the darkness.
In sordid silence, the scene worthy of an ukiyo-e, I soaked in its beauty until the fading sound of the train approaching broke the spell. It was only an extra hour until my destination, Yudanaka (湯田中).
It was pitch black by the time I arrived, and the snow was falling more strongly, almost like a blizzard. I could see the condensation of my breadth and I was cold, wet and very tired. But there were no buses running this late, so map on hand and carrying my backpacks I powered through and walked all the way to my accommodation for the night, Koshiya Ryokan (小石屋旅館).
I was exhausted and, given that it was past 10pm, I had already given up on the idea of finishing my day in an onsen (温泉), or Japanese hot springs. What was my surprise when the lady at reception supplied me with a yukata (浴衣) and kindly invited me to the complimentary use of a nearby onsen, to which I'd be given a lift at 11pm.
So I eagerly got my yukata on, and I headed to the onsen. When I left the ryokan on my yukata it had already stopped snowing.
The onsen, called Yorozuya Annex Yurakuan (よろづやアネックス湯楽庵) was so beautiful. The hall was majestic and, again, there wasn't a soul in it.
In the changing room I got naked and I crossed the doors into the actual onsen. It was a steamy, indoor pool, empty with the exception of a handful of old Japanese men blethering and laughing. They curiously looked at me and, with a grin, they welcomed me into the pool. It was boiling hot, I had to make an effort to get in!
The men were interested in this dark-skinned foreigner so one of them, in very rudimentary English, asked where I was from and how I had found out about this place. I eagerly answered their questions, and in return they told me they were a bunch of friends, all of them businessmen from Tokyo, who enjoyed a weekend retreat every now and then to this fabulous onsen town. When they found out it was my first ever onsen experience, they excitedly ushered me out to the outdoor pool, saying I was missing the best part.
And boy, I was.
The picture doesn't do it any justice. The sky was pitch black when I went out, the pond steaming profusely due to the thermal contrast with the air. The building, with a traditional facade, and the surrounding trees were all delightfully lid up. I got into the pool with the older men and, as if it were a dream, snowflakes began to fall again, quietly, almost shyly, melting at the touch with the hot water.
All my anxieties, exhaustion and physical pains of the day just melted away inside the warm water, catching sight of the mesmerising setting. Only for that experience I told myself the trip to the mountains had been worth it. And this thought I had it before I actually experienced the main attraction of Yudanaka: Jigokudani Monkey Park.
But that's material for the next post. Stay tuned!