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Roads of Oku: Home


Inspiration ...

Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa / Google Map: Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Road to the Deep North")

Journeys ...

Spring 2004: On the Road in Kansai / Google Map
Summer 2005: Roads of Oku / Google Map
Fall 2006: Where Gods Alight / Google Map
Summer 2007: Hōkūle‘a in Yokohama / Map
Winter 2008: Snow Country / Google Map
Spring 2008: Full Bloom & Festivals / Google Map
Summer 2009: Fireflies & Sweet Fish / Google Map
Fall 2009: North Country Colors / Google Map
Summer 2010: Legends of the Land / Google Map
Spring 2011: On the Far Side of Disaster / Google Map
Summer 2012: Travels in the Fifth Moon / Google Map
Summer 2013: Far Roads: Finishing Touches / Google Map
Summer 2015: Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew

Memorable ...

Roads / Seacoasts & Coastal Roads / Bridges / Ferries / Walks & Hikes / Mountains / Ropeways / Rivers / Waterfalls / Lakes / Trees / Rocks / Caves / Hot Springs / Sakura / Fall Colors / Archaeology and History / Castles / Shrines / Temples / Gardens / Festivals / Food / Drinks
Photography: Dennis Kawaharada and Karen Ono

Note ...

On Driving in Japan

Roads of Oku: Journeys in the Heartland

A collection of essays on Japanese culture, history and literature. Available at Amazon.com. (Far Roads Press, 2015).

North Country: Fall Colors

October 26-November 11, 2009

Revised: April, 25, 2013

Exploring the countryside of Japan in winter 2008, spring 2008, and summer 2009, we planned an autumn journey for November 2009 to close out the seasonal sequence with momiji or koyo (crimson maple leaves), yellow ginkgo, and russet hills and ricefields. Adding to the fall colors are the chrysanthemums festivals for which shrines and castles produce elaborate displays of yellow, orange, red, purple, lavender, and white flowers.

Kiku colors

We couldn’t predict when the foliage would be changing in any particular place at any given time, so we planned to head north from Narita to Tohoku, to meet the changing season at wherever it happened to be. The foliage dons their fall colors first in the Hokkaido mountains in mid-September and moves to lower elevations and southward from there.

Momiji: Lake Chuzenji / Lake Towada

Persimmons (Akiu) / Gingko Tree (Mogami River)

We traveled to Tohoku in summer 2005, using Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North as a partial guide, but skipped many of the places he visited because we took different routes or we didn’t have time to find the places. This time, I located on a Google map the poetic places we missed, many still there after over 300 years. Particularly helpful in the research was a website by an anonymous retired construction manager who had walked the entire route, in various segments, between 2006 to 2008, and posted narratives, photos and maps of each site on his webpage.

I also wanted to complete two sets of “the three best” that the Japanese are so fond of: we had visited Kenroku Garden in Kanazawa and Koraku Garden in Okayama; Kairakuen in Mito, Ibaraki, would complete a set of “three best gardens.” We had gone to Nachi Falls in Wakayama and Kegon in Nikko; Fukuroda, north of Mito, would complete a set of “three best waterfalls.”

Then there were the famous mountains of the north that we had missed on the last trip to Tohoku, either because they were too far off or hidden by clouds: Bandai, Hakkoda, Iwaki, Chōkai, Gassan and Yudono; and two famous northern lakes, Towada and Tazawa.

The itinerary put us at Lake Towada on November 1, a prime spot for viewing momiji. The Japan Guide website indicated that late October was on average a good time for viewing fall colors there. A report on October 29, 2008, noted that the foliage was just turning color: “While there was a fair share of green, most of the trees have turned yellow and red by now.” The report also noted, “With waterfalls enhanced by autumn colors at practically every turn I would say that Oirase Stream [which flows northeast out of Lake Towada] during fall is one of the best photo spots in Japan.”

Route map

Click on Image for a Google Map

The week before we left, I checked momiji report at the Japan Guide website: on October 19 at Lake Chuzenji, our second stop, the foliage in the mountains around the lake above Nikko, was already ablaze and at its peak color, which meant that by the time we got there, the colors would be past prime. Fall had arrived earlier this year than last.

From Narita Airport, we headed north for Mito, and the next morning visited Kairakuen, created in 1841 as a public garden by the local lord Tokugawa Nariaki. It’s famous for its ume, or plum blossoms in February. We were there when the rows of ume trees were bare, but beautiful nevertheless, in their starkness.

KairakuenTeahouse

Momiji was starting to appear around the garden’s ponds. There are walking paths through groves of cedar and bamboo as well. A winter blooming sakura (with much fewer flowers than in spring) was also a surprise.

Winter sakura

Outside the east gate, a small shrine was adorned with a modest kiku display in its courtyard.

We headed for Fukuroda Falls next. Walking out from the pedestrian tunnel to the falls, we came upon whitewater rushing down a long rock face at the bottom of the falls – an impressive view. The trail crosses a bridge and goes up above the falls or back to the row of shops down to the parking lot. We bought some dango at one of the shops and drank tea.

Fukuroda Falls Visitors

On the way to Lake Chuzenji, we stopped at Kurobane where Basho spent two weeks and also visited Unganji, a Zen temple.

Unganji

Behind the temple in the forested hillside, he found the meditation hut of his teacher Butcho:

even a woodpecker can’t damage his hut in a summer grove

That night we stayed at an onsen on Lake Chuzenji. The foliage around the lake, as we already knew, was in a late stage of autumn, but we enjoyed walking along the shore as the sun set in mountain clouds and early the next morning as the mist was lifting.

Lake ChuzenjiShoreline

A few maples in town, near Kegon Falls, were brilliantly red in the morning sun.

 The trees in Nikko, below the lake, were just starting to change colors, and along the winding roads (Irohazaka) up and down the mountainside was bright russet and orange. The maples at Shoyo Garden, built around a pond, at Rinnoji Temple next to Toshogu Shrine, had turned red, orange, pink, and yellow.

Nikko ShoyoenFall trees

From Nikko, we went down to the Abukuma river valley, the route Basho took on his trip. In Nasu, we found Sesshoseki, the killing stone, in a sulphurous gulch below Mt. Chausudake.

Walkway

The poet describes the rock, said to be the congealed spirit of an evil fox spirit, surrounded by dead insects. The stone is no longer toxic after the evil spirit was exorcised by a Buddhist priest.

Sesshoseki rock

East of Nasu, we found the site of the Shirakawa Barrier, the symbolic gateway to the north country. The barrier is no longer there (and was gone in Basho's time): the site is indicated on a marker along a country road in a valley off the main highway, at the foot of hill on top of which is a shrine to the mountain god Ōyama.

ShirakawaShirakwa shrine

In Nihonmatsu, we found went to see the rocky shelter where a cannibal woman (Onibaba, or "Old Demon Hag") is said to have lived, ambushing and eating travelers, until a priest discovered her secret and drove her evil spirit away with prayer. The rocky shelter is in the compound of Kanze-ji (Adachigahara Temple).

KurozukaRocks

An eerie experience: as I was photographing the pond of blood where the cannibal woman is said to have washed her bloody knife, a black cat emerged from behind a rock. (Several other cats were wandering around or sunning themselves in the temple grounds.)

Pond of blood

A short walk from the temple is Kurozuka ("Black Mound"), where Onibaba is said to be buried, under a lone cypress tree. (See "In Search of the fearsome Onibaba," The Japan Times, Oct. 21, 2012).

A short drive away from Kanze-ji is Kasumi Castle where, in the waning afternoon, we went to see its elaborate kiku festival, with displays of award winning flowers and historical figures shaped from flowers over bamboo and wire frames.

Kiku festivalHistorical figures

After a night at a ryokan on the Bandai-Azuma skyline road, we descend to Fukushima. Across the Abukuma River was the Mojizuri Stone, used for creating a pattern on fabric by placing the fabric on the stone and rubbing it with wheat grass or leaves. Basho reports a young boy told him that the stone used to be at the top of the hill nearby, but the villagers, fed up with people pulling up grass and rubbing the stone, rolled the stone down the hill.

Mojizuri stone

Just west of Fukushima, in Iizaka, was the site of Sato Shoji’s Otori Castle, on a hilltop overlooking the town. No walls, only a monument – it was a ruin in Basho’s time.

Monument

Below the castle site is Ioji temple, where the mausoleums of the Sato family are located. Sato’s two sons served and died in the service the warrior Yoshitsune, who had led the Minamoto family to victory over ruling Taira family in the twelfth-century Gempei Wars.

Ioji templeSato family statues

Basho wept at the graves of the wives of the two sons. The story goes that the wives dressed in the armor of their deceased husbands in order to console their mother-in-law, Otowa. The (camellia) tree at the back end of the temple is called Otowa because tsubaki flowers drop suddenly from their stems before their petals wither.

Otowa Tsubaki

At Shiogama Shrine, north of Sendai, was the lantern donated by Izumi no Saburo, whom Basho praised as “a brave and righteous soldier with filial dedication.”

Shiogama lantern

After a night in Sendai, we took the boat ride into Matsushima Bay to see up close the various islands we had seen from shore on our summer 2005 trip. Crowded and very touristy, the boat ride is the thing to do when visiting; and tourists are encouraged to feed the seabirds, drawing a swirl of birds around the boat (and taking away from serious viewing of some of the 263 islands in the bay). Basho’s poem on the bay was visually accurate:

islands on islands — a thousand shattered pieces in a summer sea.

Matsushima BayIsland

The town of Mastushima is small, walkable: we visited the Godaido, an old temple on a small island near shore; Zuiganji (under repair, so we walked past the caves near the entrance but didn’t go in); and Fukuura Island, the site of a botanical garden.

On the way back to Sendai, we stopped at the same restaurant in Shiogama where we had lunch the day before: the fresh seafood was great (sea urchin, oysters, and sashimi).

UnidonOysters

The restaurants in Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku, was excellent: a crab house featured steamed and roasted hairy crab from Hokkaidō and at a tempura bar, the chef at the counter served a sequence of fresh seafood and mountain vegetables.

The next day we headed west into the Natorigawa River Valley to see Akiu Great Falls and Rairai Gorge. The foliage along the way and at both sites was in various stages of fall colors. A huge yellow ginkgo tree stood at the entrance to the falls at Akiu shrine; the falls was a short walk away.

Gingko treeWaterfall

Rairai Gorge:

Rairai gorgeWalkway

Farther north, at Narugo Gorge, the hills were just past prime colors, but still beautiful. After visiting the National Kokeshi Doll Museum, we walked along the gorge.

Narugo gorgeView of Narugo

Nearby was the memorial to the Shitomae Barrier marking the border between the old provinces of Mutsu and Dewa. Basho spent three days there, waiting out stormy weather:

fleas, lice, a horse pissing near my headrest.

Next to the memorial was a teahouse serving soba (buckwheat noodles) with mountain vegetables, steamed and tempura-style. The dishes were excellent. The waiter and cook, apparently husband and wife owners, might have stepped out of the Edo period.

Teahouse

Past the Shitomae barrier, we crossed the Narugo Bridge and hit the main viewing spot, which was crowded with buses, cars, and visitors and a row of vendors selling food from tents.

Narugo bridge

After a night at a ryokan next to a stream in Mogami, we headed up to Lake Towada. On the way was Lake Tazawa, a dark blue, round lake, the deepest in Japan, said to be inhabited by a dragon which was once a beautiful woman who prayed for immortality to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The woman was instructed to drink water from a spring, which transformed her into the dragon.

Tazawa LakeLakeside view

Walking along the lake, whose waters are noted for their clarity, past a lone torii, to a statue of Kannon, I felt tiny snowflakes brushing my cheeks. The night before, the evening news reported that the first snowstorm of the season had swept into Hokkaidō.

As we drove north, the mountains around Mt. Iwate and Mt. Hachimantai were snow-capped, the grays, browns, and dark greens of the forest trimmed with white. By the time we got to the hotel, down a winding road to the shore of Lake Towada, a light snowfall was swirling around us. A brilliant red maple tree in front of the hotel was dusted with snow.

"Here in our mountains the snow falls even on the maple leaves." (From a kabuki play, quoted in Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country)

The snow kept falling all night. The rotemburo opened onto a snowy scene.

OnsenMaple forest

We were planning to drive north around the lake the next morning to a lookout above the lake, but the front desk clerk told us the road was closed, as was the mountain route past Mt. Hakkoda, which we were planning to take to Hirosaki.

But the road along Oirase stream was open. After watching sunrise on the lake from across a snowy lawn, we headed for the stream. The sky was beginning to clear, but the northwest wind was bone-chilling cold. Along the stream, the deciduous trees were mostly leafless, only a few stragglers dangling from branches. Instead of walking leisurely among the autumn leaves, as we had imagined, we drove and parked at the most famous falls and rapids of the stream and walked a few yards in to photograph them. The traffic was relatively light. I imagine it would have been way more difficult to park and less pleasant to walk along the stream if we were there in good weather at peak momiji, with lines of buses and cars going down and up the narrow road.

Oirase walkWaterfall

We stopped at Towada village to walk along the lake, out to the iconic two maidens statue, erected in 1953 to commemorate the National Park’s fifteenth anniversary. The sky had cleared and its blue was reflected in the lake and the snowy hills, a gorgeous winter scene.

Lake shoreIsland lake

We past a couple of other pairs of visitors braving the morning cold.

To get to Hirosaki, we left the way we came since that route was still open. We arrived on the last day of the kiku festival at the castle’s botanical garden. The displays of life-sized chrysanthemum figures and award-winning blooms were not as elaborate as the display at Kasumigajo in Nihonmatsu. Still, it was impressive. There was a contemporary musical group playing near the castle moat, featuring a young songstress and an electric shamisen player, the stringed instrument associated with the traditional music of Aomori.

Kiku festivalMusicians

In spite of the wintry winds of the northland, it was a pleasant stay. In the twilight that night, we visited two shrines, Iwakiyama and Tatekaru, at the foot of Mt. Iwaki, Tohoku’s most famous mountain, designated as the guardian of Japan’s northern borderlands.

Iwakiyama shrineShrine entrance

From our hotel window near Hirosaki Station, we could see Iwakisan, cloud-capped. The next morning the moon was setting above the mountain. We drove west on Apple Road, through the apple orchards and ricefields, to photograph Mt. Iwaki. The clouds gradually lifted from the summit.

We headed for Aomori via the mountain road that crosses Jogakura Bridge and goes down from Mt. Hakkoda, the route that had been closed the day before. We were planning to ride the ropeway up to the top of Mt. Hakkoda, but it was closed: although the sky had cleared and good weather was returning, the wind was still occasionally gusty, making the ropeway dangerous.

Jogakura BridgeMt. Hakkoda

On the way to Aomori, we stopped at Neputa no Sato, where the famous floats of Aomori’s autumn festival are on display all year round. The floats, celebrating the victory of the Yamato state over the northern barbarians, were impressive.

Neputa no SatoAomori float

On the south side of Aomori is Sannai Maruyama, a reconstructed Jomon village, with a museum. That night in Aomori, we found a yakitori restaurant we had enjoyed in the summer 2005 and ate another delicious dinner of grilled chicken meat, skin, gizzard, and tendon.

Yakitori restaurant

We walked a couple of blocks to the bay front, to see close-up the bridge lit up, in changing colors, blue my favorite.

Aomori bridgeNight view of bridge

The next morning, after buying gifts at the Aomori Product Center in a distinctive triangle shaped building (both it and bridge symbols of modern Aomori), we drove to Cape Tappi, at the northwestern tip of Honshu. Bands of rain and wind from the west alternated with sunshine and blue skies. The cape was windy, and the horizon cloudy, so we couldn’t see Hokkaido across the Tsugaru Strait. We skipped the museum about the Sekihan railroad tunnel, which allows trains to run back and forth between Honshu and Hokkaidō.

Cape TappiSeacoast

After a night at a hotel on the north slope of Mt. Iwaki, we circled the mountain, planning to hike to Anmon Falls. The weather had cleared, so the walk along a tributary of the Anmon River was pleasant. The falls (actually a series of three) was not particularly spectacular, but the brisk walk in the child mountain air was good exercise and invigorating.

Ammon riverFalls

Farther along the unpaved mountain road, at Tsugaru Pass, is the Mother Tree, a four-hundred year old beech tree, considered the oldest in the forest, hence its name.

Mother TreeVisiting the tree

The shortest, most direct route to where we were headed next, Juniko (Twelve Lakes), is the Shirakami Line Road – 36 miles long, mostly unpaved, and winding, but according to the sites on the internet, offering impressive views of the Shirakami Mountains, which have been designated a World Heritage site for its primeval, pristine beech forests. Given my general principle of moving forward and not going back over the same route unless we hit a dead end, the route looked driveable on the maps and in the photos of the road posted on the web. I decided we should go if the weather was good. (An alternate route was to go back to the inland road and take a more roundabout route to the lakes.)

Past the Mother Tree and Tsugaru Pass, I realized the road was in worse condition than I expected, rutted due to water constantly flowing out of the mountainsides and using the road as its streambed. It was slow going at 20 kph (about 12 mph). Occasionally a few hundred feet of pavement appeared and we picked up speed before having to slow down again.

Shirakami Line RoadRoadway

The drive took about three hours. The views were not that impressive because it was late fall (actually early winter in the north) and the beech forest was bare and gray. The main diversion was wild monkeys that appeared occassionally in the trees along the road.

As we drove along I recalled appreciatively the smooth asphalt-paved road system that is the norm in Japan. It’s a mountainous country with hundreds of rivers and streams, so the road system includes numerous tunnels (the longest almost 6.9 miles long), narrow roads dug into hillsides lined with concrete to prevent rock slides, and bridges (the longest suspension bridge in the world, over the Akashi Strait, 1.2 miles). Constant roadwork is needed to maintain the generally good condition of the roads.

Toward the coastal highway a sign pointed to Juniko, “Twelve Lakes,” where the hillsides were russet, and trees reflected in the calm waters. The gem of this site is Blue Pond, whose water is mysteriously dark blue.

JunikoBlue pond

South of Juniko, in Kisakata, we picked up Basho’s trail. After a night a ryokan, we spent the early morning photographing Mt. Chōkai and the Nakajima Beech Forest. (We were planning to drive up the mountainside to a lookout, but the road was closed.)

When we passed through Kisakata in the summer of 2005, it was cloudy, so we never saw Mt. Chōkai. I wondered if you could actually see the mountain from Kanmanji, as Basho said he did. The answer is yes, but not reflected in the sea, since the land around the temple rose during an 1804 earthquake and is no longer a bay.

Near the coast, Mt. Chōkai is noted for casting its shadow at sunrise onto the Sea of Japan. Omonoimi (“Great Abstainer”), the kami of Mt. Chōkai, is the protector of farmers and fishermen of the region.

The mountain was formerly a site of religious pilgrimages. Although these have been discontinued, mountain-worshipping rites are still performed in the towns around the mountain. For example, at the beginning of May, at a shrine in Fukura, a town on the Japan Sea, Omonoimi is celebrated in a flower-gathering ceremony in which men dance wearing hats decorated with flowers brought down from the mountain and thought to embody its kami’s spirit. After the dance, the townspeople gather the flowers and take them home.

To the north of Mt. Chōkai is the Nakajimadai beech forest.

South of Chōkai, we visited Misaki park, with its coastal trail, to get a sense of the rugged terrain Basho had traversed, walking from Sakata to Kisakata.

Misaki trail

The next stop was the swan park in Sakata near the mouth of the Mogami River. I read that the swans would be there by November, having arrived from Siberia to spend winter in the relatively milder climate of Japan. I was expecting to see white swans floating on the river; but when we got close to the riverbank, only ducks and dark-colored young swans (“ugly ducklings”) were there, a lot of them.

Swan park

Where were the white adult swans? They must be out feeding somewhere, maybe returning to the swan park at sunset? We headed up the Mogami River to take the boatride down it as Basho had. As we were driving through the harvested ricefields we saw white objects in them. The swans! I thought that perhaps they were feeding on bugs, insects, and worms, but I read later that they are herbivores, eating roots, tubers, stems and leave. A small flock flew above.

Flying swans

When we got to the Mogami river, the boat terminal was crowded, with more gaijin than we'd seen since we landed at Narita. The boat ride itself was touristy, with a guide monologuing with a continuous stream of facts about the river, then singing Yamagata boat songs. The other passengers, a tour group, seemed to be more concerned with finishing their lunch and drinking beer than looking at the river scenes described by the guide.

The boatride goes downstream only, for twenty dollars. It makes a stop to allow for buying from food and souvenir vendors. After the boat dropped us off downriver, we caught a local bus back upriver to the car (the bus ride back not included in the $20). It was a once in a lifetime experience – the kind you feel is worthwhile because you know you won't do it again.

We were going to visit Yudono shrine, another Basho site on the southside of Gassan, but after driving fifteen miles to get around Gassan, we hit a road closure sign; the road was closed for the winter. So we circled back around the north side of Gassan to Tsuruoka.

The Mogami is very picturesque near the town of Motoaikai, where Basho boarded a boat for his ride downstream.

Determined to see Yudono and visit the shrine, we changed our route the next day. Instead of heading south from Tsuruoka to Niigata along the coastal highway, we detoured east on the south side of Gassan, on the road that would take us past Yudono. When we got to Yudono, however, we discovered the road up to the shrine was also closed for the winter, at the end of October. So we never got to see the shrine, but we saw the mountain itself, above it. (In summer 2010, we made it to the shrine.)

Gassan mountainsYudono mountans

Gassan / Yudono

We continued on to Tendo to visit Dewazakura brewery, which makes one of my favorite saké. No tasting room, just a shop selling saké.

Sake shop

We bought a couple of bottles and drank the bottle that night at the hotel in Niigata.

The last time we drove along the Echigo Coast, in summer 2005, I looked for Sado Island offshore. Basho says he saw it from Izumozaki: “With the cragginess of its valleys and peaks clearly visible, it lies on its side in the sea ....” In the evening, the River of Heaven (as the Milky Way is called in Asia) appeared in the night sky in the direction of the island:

leaning sideways over Sado, the River of Heaven!

Although it was a clear, sunny day in summer 2005, and we stopped at several places along the coast, we couldn’t see anything but haze at the horizon.

This time I was determined to see Sado, by sea if not from Honshu, so the next day we caught a jetfoil to Ryotsu, the main town on the island, and rented a car. Another reason for wanting to go to Sado (besides, of course, visiting its famous gold mine and picturesque Senkaku Bay) was that in winter 2008, I had tasted some very good saké from Sado Island’s Obata Brewery and now I wanted to see where it was brewed and buy some bottles.

The day we arrived on Sado was drizzly and chilly: we visited the gold mine, which has life-sized figures set up in an old mine shaft to illustrate the various phases of mining; then drove up to Senkaku Bay.

Gold mineSenkaku

After lunch at a good sushi bar, we found the Obata brewery in Mano town, and tasted saké – a ginjo, a daiginjo, and a special daiginjo made with just 30% of the rice kernel. (As usual, only the person not driving was served.) All three were tasty, with the last and most expensive, of course, the best. We bought one bottle of each.

Obata brewery Sake shop

There was another brewery on the east end of the island that I wanted to get too, but we ran out of time. As the chef at the sushi shop told us, “You need to spend at least two days on Sado to see it.”

After a second night in Niigata, we headed out at sunrise for Yahiko Shrine via the skyline road on the seaside of Mt. Yahiko. Near the shrine was a park famous for its momiji. The skies were clear that morning, a great day for momijigari (“momiji hunting/viewing”). A lookout on the skyline road offered great views of the Echigo Coast; and in the distance, Sado! Maybe the air was clearer in the evening or Basho had seen Sado from the coast on an exceptionally clear day; or in his time the air was clearer than it is today.

Yahiko peakYahiko cloudsSadoYahiko echigo

We spent some time walking around Yahiko Shrine, which had chrysanthemums on display.

Yahiko ToriiKiku

Then we went looking for Momiji-dani (“Crimson Maple Valley”). It turned out to be the highlight of our trip: the maples were in brilliant fall colors – deep red, crimson, orange, pink and yellow. A handful of photographers had set up their tripods and expensive cameras to shoot the leaves. We wandered around the park in awe.

Yahiko pondFall colorsYahiko parkYellow maple

On the way down to the coast, on south side of Mount Yahiko is Saishoji, which enshrines the remains of Kochi Hoin, who self-mummified and went into eternal meditation in 1363. South along the coast, at Izumozaki, Mount Yahiko appeared in the disance.

SaishojiCoastline


At Joestsu, we turned east toward Tone, where we would spend our last night. On the way, we stopped at the train station at Echigo Yuzawa, where the wall of saké dispensers had introduced us to Niigata saké in the winter of 2008 and where we had tasted Sado Island saké for the first time.

Wall of sake

We undersood better now why Niigata is called “The Kingdom of Jizake" ("Local Saké"). It has more breweries than any other prefecture in Japan, and the saké are noted for their excellent taste. At the station, we bought more bottles saké for the trip home.

Also on the way to Tone was Ikaho, an onsen town I had stayed in for almost four weeks in fall 1971. I wanted to go there to see how it had changed.

We had lunch near Ikaho at an udon restaurant featuring hand-made noodles, near the entrance of Mizusawa Temple. The noodles, made from wheat, and tempura were delicious!

Udon shopTempuraMizusawa temple


Memories of Ikaho

We arrived in Ikaho in the afternoon. Thirty-eight years had past since I had last been to this town in Gunma prefecture, on the slopes of Mt. Haruna, seventy miles northwest of Tokyo. It took me a while to get oriented but it all came back to me – the ropeway and bus station (both rebuilt) where I had arrived by taxi from the train station in Shibukawa; the steep street past the ryokan where I stayed for a couple of nights; the town’s signature stone staircase leading up to its shrine; the hillside path I walked daily from the house I was staying at to the town and back.

Ikaho ishidanTrail

My mother had taken us to Japan in December 1970, when I was nineteen. The next fall, I decided to take the semester off from college to make a solo trip. I had some naively romantic notions about travel, writing, and identity. I thought that if I stayed in some remote town, I would somehow be transformed into a writer and philosopher. From a guidebook, I picked Ikaho, a town I knew nothing about, simply because it looked quaint and vaguely European.

I arrived not sure where I would be staying. After a couple of nights at a ryokan, the woman who brought dinner and breakfast told me that the ryokan would be too expensive if I would be staying for a while. One of the workers, Uwukata-kun, about my age, helped me move to a room in a small house on the outskirts of town at $35 for two months. (The yen-dollar exchange rate was set back then at ¥360 to $1.)

The room was unfurnished, about six tatami mats in size. (A tatami mat is about six feet by two feet.) I bought a few appliances: a toaster, a pot and a kotatsu (a table with a heat lamp attached underneath the table top, so you could sit with your legs under the table to keep warm). I rented a futon, a sleeping mat, and a hot-plate.

The toilet was a hole in the wooden floor with a receptacle for “night soil” below, used as fertilizer since traditional times. There was no bath, but down the gravel road along a stream was a public onsen, where I went every evening to bathe. The house is now gone and a modern six-story bathhouse has replaced the one story bathouse.

StreamHome

An old man named Shimizu lived in the farmhouse alone. His wife had passed away, and he chanted Buddhist sutras for her several times a day in the room next to mine. Shimizu used to stroll along the road in the evening; whenever I passed him, he would cock an eye and ask, “O-furo?” to which I would nod.

People at the onsen were friendly: the woman at the front desk gave me a bag of kaki (persimmons), which were in season. I met a baseball umpire, who turned out to be the assistant mayor. One day, one of the regulars invited me to a meeting of Soka Gakkai (“Value-Creation Society”), a religious organization derived from Nichiren Buddhism. There were about 30 people at a private home, some seniors (a couple of them fell asleep during the meeting), some adults, some middle and high school students. The group listened to recorded speeches, read quotations, and discussed social and political issues of the day. They also sang a couple of songs.

The guy who invited me to the meeting also drove me to Lake Haruna which was the main tourist attraction in the area, offering boating, fishing, camping, cycling, horseback riding, and hiking. Around the lake are two mountains, Haruna Fuji and Eboshi. The drive up a winding road in late October drizzle took about 15 or 20 minutes. Hardly anyone was around in the cold autumn rain. The experience of Haruna came back to me as Karen and I drove up the road to the lake.

Haruna roadHaruna Fuji

Uwukata-kun liked baseball, and invited me to play “kachi-baru” (catch ball) with him during his lunch breaks. His younger brother Masaharu stood in as batter as I pitched, and Uwukata caught. I took a photo of the street where we played.

On one of his days off, Uwukata took me by bus to Shibukawa where he lived. On the way to his apartment, he bought me dango (soft mochi balls on a stick, covered with sweetened shoyu). What I remember of his apartment was that it was very small and so were the appliances like the washing machine and stove. That night, I played ping pong at a community center with Masaharu and one of his friends, and lost badly. The next morning I walked around the city, buying a notebook and sketch pad at a bookstore before heading back to Ikaho.

In my room, I set up the portable typewriter I brought from Hawai‘i and tried to write something meaningful each day. On Sundays Masaharu came over with two young girls, Yoshie and Yuko, who wanted to learn English. They typed English words they had learned in school on my typewriter and I pronounced them for them and explained their meanings.

Toward the end of my stay, the harvest festival took place, with young men carrying down the steep stone steps an omikoshi (a portable shrine housing the kami of the shrine at the top of the stairways).

After about a month, I was getting bored. The transformation I had hoped for was not taking place. No longer sure what I was doing there, I decided to leave. At the hot spring office, I sold at half price the appliances I had bought.

Today the town is more modern and more crowded with tourists than when I was there. Almost four decades had passed. I was in my second year in college when I was first there; now I was white-haired and fifty-eight. The proverb that Basho alludes to in his travel narrative came to mind: a generations pass in a brief nap!


By the time we got to Tone, it was dark and pouring rain. After dinner and a soak in the rotemburo, we had a good night's sleep.

Tone onsen

Just past our ryokan was Fukiware Falls. It was still raining the next morning when we walked along the Katashina River to the falls: it was impressive, the water pouring from two sides into a narrow crevice in the streambed, then downstream beneath high cliffs. The fall colors were muted in the rainfall.

Fujiware fallsMistCliffs


I changed our route for the drive back to Narita. Instead of going through the suburban sprawl around Tokyo, I thought the drive through the mountains via Chuzenji and Nikko would be more scenic. We could stop at Chuzenji to catch the elevator down to the base of Kegon falls, which we had skipped earlier in the trip because we were on the road before it began operating.

After our stop at Kegon, if we went by expressway from Nikko to the north end of Lake Kasumigaura, we would still have time to visit Kashima Shrine (at the south end of the lake) and then return the car by 4:30 pm.

Kashima is one of the three great shrines of Kanto, dedicated to Takemikazuchi, the warrior sent by Amaterasu to pacify the land before her grandson Ninigi arrived to rule over it. Takemikazuchi marched from Izumo in western Honshu to Kashima, where he established the shrine to guard the Kanto region. He is worshiped as a kami of martial arts.

Kashima means “Deer Island.” (The low area near the coast may once have been an island with deer on it.) During the reign of the tenth head of the imperial family, Suijin, disasters caused suffering among the people. He consulted with the kami and was told to bring deer to the imperial capital at Nara. (Deer are thought to be the messengers of the kami.) He brought deer from Kashima. Later, the Kashima deer died off from disease and were restocked from Nara.

The inner shrine at Kashima, Okunoin, the original one, was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1605; the main hall was built by his son Hidetada in 1615. Also on the grounds are a sacred pond for washing before worship, and a stone, said to be the top of a pin holding down the head of the giant catfish who lives in an underground pond and whose movements are believed to cause earthquakes. The stone was driven into its head by Takemikazuchi.

Basho had traveled from Edo to the shrine in 1687 to view the full moon and left a journal translated as "A Visit to the Kashima Shrine."


When we got to the elevator station at Kegon, it was pouring rain and very crowded. As we were heading back up, a class of twenty or so school children rushed out of the elevator and down the tunnel to the falls. Still, it was worth the stop.

Kegon waterfallVisitors

As we drove along the Nikko bypass road, the momiji were brilliant and beautiful. The drive was going as planned until we hit the Mikawa interchange. I was expecting the expressway to continue past it on the Joban Expressway to the north end of Lake Kasumigaura, but the blue line of the expressway disappeared from the GPS map. I had drawn the route by hand from a Google Map. Did I read the Google Map incorrectly? Not sure what to do and remembering the time we took a wrong turn an the expressay near Hiroshima and had to go in the wrong direction for 18 miles before we could get off, I told Karen to exit. We spent an hour navigating toward Kashima on two-lane roads, sometimes behind slow-moving delivery trucks.

At Sakuragawa, we saw a sign for an expressway entrance and got back on. There was still no indication of an expressway on the GPS map; according to it, we were driving across blank space.

We made it to Kashima shrine at around 3:30. We walked through its huge red gate as far as the main shrine with the towering cedar trees. We purchased a charm as a gift.

Kashima shrineDeer sculpture

Because of the unexpected detour, we couldn’t stay long and left without seeing the sacred pond, the stone pin, and the treasure house with its ancient weapons. The next time we fly into Narita, I plan to drive back to Kashima to see what we had missed.