Now, when I originally asked Nori if I could spend the night I thought she had her own apartment; you can imagine my surprise when the reply was "I checked with my parents, no problem!". But unlike a few previous elaborate "Meet the Family" affairs, after a brief introduction Nori kept her parents out the way and we even went to a restaurant to eat dinner. Past eight, once it became dark, we headed off to see one of Sekigahara's few non-martial attractions, fireflies (Jp. hotaru). I'd seen a couple in Iya, dots of light slowly blinking on and off in the darkness of the ravine near my campsite, but the ditch just around the corner from her house had several dozen of them flying around. "Oh no, there are only a few out tonight," pouted Nori despite my genuine protests to the contrary, and drove out to a spot where there should be a better chance of seeing them. We arrived at Mishima-ike only to find full parking lots and baton-waving guides: turned out that this particularly little hamlet was just now holding its yearly Firefly Festival, with the accompanying food stalls and crowds. But no matter, there was space of us as well once we got the car squeezed in somewhere, and after stumbling through the near-darkness (in line with other visitors) we hit the jackpot.
A tiny little rivulet runs into the Mishima-ike lake itself, shaded by dense forest on one side and a public park on the other. And it was in, above and around this little spot that seemingly half the fireflies in Japan had decided to congregate. There were hundreds if not thousands of them, some sitting down, others slowly flying about, like miniature stars shining in the darkness, an unreal, dreamlike scene. And the fireflies didn't mind the crowds one bit: slowly flying around, they were glad to let themselves be captured and then they'd walk around your hand for a while, tiny little fly-sized critters with butts glowing a flourescent green. A bystander clued us in to the finer details of firefly anatomy: both the male and female firefly glow, but the male has two light organs and is consequently clearly brighter, while the female has only one. The guys lazily flew about, blinking on and off and evidently trying to catch the eye of the ladies, who for most part were content to sit in one place and yawn.
"So I suppose that when they finally get together you have three lights, eh?"
Maybe I haven't seen all of Japan yet after all.
So early on a Saturday morning we picked up Jun-chan at Sekigahara station and headed off deep into the mountainous interior of Gifu. First some three hours by expressway past Nagoya and north towards Takayama, where we stopped for a lunch of the famed local Takayama ramen noodles -- and here I have to confess that, despite being very much a fan of this fine food, I couldn't detect anything at all out of the totally ordinary in the soup.
But before leaving the last big town in the region we checked out the Hida Folk Village (a far more evocative "Hida-no-Sato", 飛騨の里, in Japanese), a most unusual tourist attraction in Japan -- it's a collection of authentic old farmhouses painstakingly transported from all over the area and restored without any concessions to modernity. Access to the area costs a somewhat steep ¥700, but entering the area feels like stepping into a time machine: nothing but a lake, a water wheel-powered flour mill, thatched-roof cottages and a few rice paddies in sight. And these aren't empty houses: a wide variety of traditional artisans are employed not only to practice (and sell) their crafts, but to keep the hearth fires burning in the houses themselves. The harshness of life in the old days, especially in this cold, snowy area, was clearly visible in the construction of the buildings, with features like the famed steep gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) roofs, shaped like hands pressed together in Buddhist prayer in order to prevent the snow from building up.
We then threaded our way up, up, up into the depths of Hida, one of Japan's most famous onsen centers -- and with reason! This part of Japan is known as the Northern Japan Alps, with considerably less hyperbole than most names of this type, as the multiple steep, craggy 3000-meter-plus peaks in the region remain covered in snow until late summer, some never melting at all. The temperature was an easy 10 degrees cooler than the coast and we stopped along the way to take in the particularly breathtaking Hirayu Great Waterfall (平湯大滝), where a mountain stream plunges 60 meters past a vertical cliff into the pool below.
Our destination was Shin-Hotaka (新穂高), possibly the innermost section of what are collectively known as the Oku-Hida Hot Spring Villages (奥飛騨温泉郷), and almost certainly the newest since (as that "shin" would tend to hint) the spring was only located in 1995. The valley stretches out towards some of the highest mountain in Japan, including the imposing 3xxx-meter Yari-ga-take (槍ヶ岳, "Spear Peak"). Our hotel, an annex to the beautifully named Shinzansou (深山荘, "Lodge Deep in the Mountains") was consequently dubbed Yari-no-Sato (槍の郷), "Yari's Country Village" -- unless you opted to ignore the kanji and take yari as the noun form of the slang verb yaru, in which case the meaning would be more along the lines of "Fuck Village"... although it must be said that there wasn't the slightest element of love-hotely kitsch in the place, which was somewhat unusually (and quite successfully) decorated mostly in European style, with lobby sofas, shingled roofs, huge beds, etc. Thanks to Nori's connections we'd managed to score the largest and swankiest room in the place (out of only 7, mind you), but the base price of ¥13000 per head with two meals was still the highest I've ever paid myself. Not that I'm complaining, mind you!
According to Japanese hot spring hotel tradition you're supposed to take three baths per night -- one before dinner, one at night and another in the morning -- so we set out fulfilling this grueling regimen. The inner pools were separated into men's and women's sides, I was mildly disappointed by the rock-lined oversized bathtub in the men's section and wondered what took the girls so long, only to find out that that little unmarked door I'd assumed led to a mop closet or something was the entrance to the outdoor baths, three wooden tubs with views of the rushing rapids and the mountains. Oops.
Dinner was, again in proper Japanese ryokan style, sumptuous: the local specialties of Hida beef, country-style miso paste cooked in a hoba leaf and various mountain vegetables (boiled, seasoned, pickled, as tempura...) all featured heavily on the menu. No particularly outstanding tastebud explosions -- I love hoba miso but I've had it before, and Hida beef with miso wasn't quite as good as that Kobe beef Korean style -- but still an extremely competent and stomach-filling show. As the ryokan was a family-run operation, waitressing was handled by the young daughter of the family, who was simultaneously bursting to find out more about this strange foreigner jabbering away merrily in Japanese but too shy to ask me more than two questions in a row.
With the preliminaries out of the way it was time to get down to some hardcore bathing. Intimate swanky onsens like this one feature kashikiri (貸し切り, lit. "lend-limit") baths that can be temporarily reserved by any group of visitors for their use alone -- in Yari-no-Sato's case, this was done through the delightfully simple expedient of taking the desired bath's lantern from a rack at the reception. There were no less than three furo to sample, so naturally we resolved to visit them all! We had even far-sightedly brought a couple of bottles of sake with us, namely the local specialities Yancha (やんちゃ) and Himuro (氷室).
It had been hot but partly cloudy day, and after dinner it -- much to our surprise -- started to rain hard. Our first destination was thus the Kodakara-no-yu (小宝の湯) bath, the second largest of the bunch but the only one equipped a large "umbrella" to protect any bathers from the rain, and scenery limited to some lit-up greenery and a large rock blocking views out (and in). After the rain stopped we headed on to the Yamabushi-no-yu (山伏の湯, "mountain ascetic") pool, equipped with wider views out to the river and -- appropriately -- a stream of freezing water for any ascetics wishing to do penance for their sins. And last, but not least, was the simple little Tara-no-yu (たらのゆ), the again aptly named Barrel Bath that consisted of a simple round wooden tub intended for two but just right for the three of us. If there's one thing I'll remember from this trip -- hell, if there's one thing I'll remember about Japan -- it's laying back in that little wooden tub, a cute Japanese girl on each arm, one holding an umbrella over my head and the other feeding me chilled Himuro from a little cup. Whoo...
During the packing-up phase there was a bit of a tense moment when in the in-room safe, containing my wallet, money belt with passport, cellphone and similar trivia, refused to open. (It had worked perfectly the day before, and I'd entered the same code as always.) The guy from reception came to the rescue, but even their secret code only resulted in "ERROR". After some neck-scratching, teeth-sucking and some hurried trips back to the desk the guy repeated the same sequence -- and click, it opened. Phew.
After the storm the sky had cleared completely, even yesterday's haze gone, and we did some cruising around Shin-Hotaka's mountain -- there are some very nice views from a rescue helicopter landing area in the vicinity. We then backtracked to Hirayu and then headed east over the Abo Pass, a grueling 10-kilometer stretch of non-stop hairpin curves but some amazing scenery as well, especially the steaming peak of the volcanic Yakidake (焼岳). (The easy, and in winter only, other way out is a tunnel.)
On the other side lies Kamikochi (上高地), a famed village of exorbitant onsen ryokans -- including a branch of Tokyo's Imperial Hotel -- and more mountain views, but private cars are prohibited from entering the only road in, so we decided to skip it for now. Instead, we went south and then up a road absolutely jammed with traffic to the unpleasantly named Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉, "White Bone Hot Springs"), featuring fizzy milky-white water. Nori had stayed there a few years back and wanted to go for a dip in the hotel's pool, but alas, we arrived half an hour too late -- they weren't accepting day visitors anymore.
And then, all too soon, it was time to say good-bye. Nori repeated her threat to come visit me in Finland, and we resolved to repeat the trip the next time I come to Japan. But for now it was over... so after the girls headed off to Gifu and Kobe, I hoisted the sign and stuck out the ol' thumb. There was a bit of a traffic jam on the road going down, and an old geezer motioned me over and rolled down his window.
- Say, what's going on here?
- (Huh?) Um, we're waiting for a big bus to come up. (This had been explained to me by the traffic director guy, who'd also offered me a ride to town if I couldn't manage one before 6.)
- So once it passes we can go?
- That's right, should be another 5 minutes or so.
- OK, thanks.
And he rolled up his window again. I boggled for a moment, and then realized that I was still holding my "I speak Japanese!" sign -- he thought I was also directing traffic...!
Not too much later I managed to swing a ride from a car salesman and his girlfriend, one of both of which liked the Backstreet Boys so much that their CD was playing on repeat. This time the guy spoke the entire time and his companion's only contribution to the conversation was a self-admittedly really weak joke about going furai ("fry" vs. "fly") fishing. Thanks to the traffic jam it was past 5 PM by the time I arrived, so I opted for the 3-hour highway bus to Shinjuku (at ¥3400 by far the highest price I paid for transport during the entire trip!).
I had an hour to kill before the bus left, so I downed a pretty good bowl of ramen noodles (which tasted remarkably like Takayama's ramen) and managed to leave my cell phone at the restaurant in the process. The bus itself was entirely uneventful, the electronic map at the service area during our halfway stop glowed a threatening red and predicted multi-hour delays near Tokyo, but in reality this translated to only about 15 minutes of crawling in a tunnel -- and we still arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule! During the three hours of complete silence on the bus the rest of Japan had been glued to their TV sets watching the Japan-Russia match, and as I arrived in Ebisu shouts of "Ole, ole ole ole" and "Yatta!" echoed through the streets as the local youth celebrated Japan's first-ever victory in a World Cup match. Japan now has 4 points and, unless they managed to lose to Tunisia, they will qualify for the next round.