lunes, 26 de septiembre de 2011

Cold Rain, Warm Hospitality, and Hot Springs

It was already late afternoon by the time I got started and I had a mountain to climb. Between Obuse and Kusatsu lies Shiga Kogen, a grouping of mountains that make up Japan's largest ski resort and one of the largest in the world. The terrain up till this point has been mild; Shiga Kogen is the exception. There are virtually no tunnels. The road is closed after snowfall, after which time, the only way up is by gondola. Ski lifts pass directly overhead and I feel as if I'm biking up a small ski trail, rather than a busy highway. I wonder if in fact the road is used as such after the first snowfall. The scenery is breathtaking. The road makes a dip with the contours of the mountain and an asphalt horrizon gives way to a vast pine forest. Red tree trunks lacquered in the late afternoon sun and the infinite shades of evergreen peaks scale the mountain like the scales on a Hokusai dragon. In the diffused light every detail is illuminated. I'm tempted to put up my bike and sketch the trees from the roadside as I see them - without a horrizon line, just trees with every painstaking detail, their bare trunks and thickly bristled arms, which begin at the midriff. These trees are unique to Japan and I've only seen them previously in Japanese art. I'm reminded of the anthropomorphic trees of legend. But it's late and if possible, I'd like to get to Kusatsu before dark.

Kusatsu has been a famous onsen (hot springs) resort for well over a century. The water is especially rich in sulfuric acid and is believed to be a panacea to all sorts of medical ailments. The town has literally been built around the source and a Yubatake, or 'hot water field', occupies the plaza. The Yubatake is comprised of countless wooden conduits that cool the water (which comes up from the ground more than 70 degrees centigrate), before it is diverted to the various ryokan and public baths in its vicinity. Kusatsu is a small city and its center is comprised of mostly historic buildings in both Japanese and German style. The area has had much German influence and a major thoroughfare of Kusatsu and the surrounding valleys of Gunma-ken has been dubbed Strasse Romantische. It was on this roadway I arrived to the city early the next morning, cold and wet after a 15 km descent and the first thing I did was make my way straight to an onsen.

Baths are an important part of Japanese culture and you can find an onsen in virutally every village town or city. Even in Tokyo, hot springs are pumped from deep below Tokyo bay. The admission price of a public bath typically range between 500 and 1200 yen ($6-$15). There is no reentry, but inside there is everything one might require - restaurants, lounges selling refreshments that include beer, and resting areas. The onsen I chose to spend the day even had free wifi. I was the last patron to leave at 9pm, closing time. Not ready to go to bed, I decided instead to hang out at a convenient shop, drink a beer and read my book. I was soon interrupted from my reading by a curious cocker spaniel that jumped into my lap. The dog's owners were a white-haired couple in matching yukata (a type of bathrobe in which people freely walk) and engaged me in conversation about my travels. We were soon joined by another lady of middle age who was equally impressed by my loaded bicycle. She asked me where I was to sleep this cold and rainy night and was shocked when I responded that I would be sleeping in the city park. She insisted I follow her car with my cycle the short distance to her house where she had an extra room that I will spend the night.

Yuuko lives in the apartment complex she owns in a working class neighborhood not far from the city center. She comes from an old Kusatsu family of property and her position as a landlord enables her to live a life of leisure, in which, in her words, "everyday is Sunday". We spend the evening and a better part of the following day in her living room, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and talking over the chatter of a television set that was always on. But, that's not all we did. Yuuko took great pains to show me her city and leave me with a taste of "true" Japanese culture. I can't help but laugh at the irony of this, as Yuuko is so atypically Japanese. She is the black sheep of her family, of whom I learn that both her siblings have corporate jobs and families of their own. Yuuko on the other hand, lives alone in a sparse three bedroom apartment. When I ask her about the state of Japan after the Fukushima disaster, she becomes morose. "Japan is broken and I'm not sure it can recover", responds Yuuko. I sense a deep sadness in her. Later however, walking the drab streets of her lackluster neighborhood,Yuuko in juxtaposition, is glowing. She is well acquainted with her neighbors and speaks with everyone. Yuuko, in her pretty flower-patterened dress, stands out. Despite her years and the beer and cigarettes, her beauty hasn't begun to fade. I almost believe her jubilance and she appears to me an anomaly in this small traditional mountain town.

The following morning was blue skies. We took advantage of the change in weather to go see some of Kusatsu's major tourist attractions. At the top of a nearby mountain peak, we followed throngs of tourists up a stepping stone path to a viewing area, overlooking a brilliant aquamarine lake. Yuuko waited for me while I stepped over the partitions and away from the crowds to render a sketch. Afterwards, we drove to the Yubatake, where Yuuko introduced me to her grandmother, who runs a small shop adjoined to the townhouse in which she lives. We toured the grounds of a shrine surrounded by ancient pools. Yuuko then showed me to an outdoor onsen surrounded by virgin forest and waited for me as I bathed. That night Yuuko made dinner, a typical Japanese dish from the region known as Skiaki. She had a special hotplate for the purpose, which was placed at the center of the table. First the pan is greased in fat, then vegetables of bock choi, a root vegetable known as gobo, Konyaku noodles, and thin slices of beef are added. Yuuko placed before me a bowl with raw egg that constituted the dipping sauce. For dessert we had Manju, a local speciality - a wheat-based pastry, colored with brown sugar and stuffed with sweet red bean jam. I slept soundly that night.

Early the next morning Yuuko had errands to run and I decided it was time to leave Kusatsu. With a tinge of sadness I bid her farewell and made my way to town for a quick breakfast before heading out. I asked a young couple for directions and soon found myself engaged in a long conversation, unhindered by the reemerging rain clouds. Yasuko Iokawa and her partner were visiting Kusatsu from Kawasaki, Tokyo. Her family is from Fukushima and when I asked how they were coping with the recent disaster, Iokawa is overcome by grief. She worries about her family's safety. They live close to the destroyed nuclear energy facilities, where she believes they are at risk of radiation poisoning. Iokawa regrets not being able to invite her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to live with her in her small apartment in Tokyo. Her family has no choice but to remain in their homes in Fukushima. She says her family believes the government that the nuclear energy plants have been contained with little damage to the environment, but what choice do they have, she conjectures. Iokawa just wants to see Japan close all its nuclear plants. She believes Japan should commit to a 50 year plan to phase them out.

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