Love and Monkeys

This most recent bout of inactivity on the blog is due to my periodic trips to one of Japan’s many hot spring areas, onsen, this time up north in Yonezawa in the southern-most part of Yamagata prefecture. This trip was strategically planned for just after the holiday season, as prices are easily half of what they are over Christmas and as most people have jobs to go to availability not a problem. Also, as a European, I like the snow and though the southern onsen are nice in their own right, I fancied something more cold, snowy and picturesque.

The trip started off at Tokyo station where a bullet train would take us up to Fukushima at which point it would split and take our half up to Yamagata. The trip to Yonezawa itself would take only two and a half hours. Travelling this route the duplicity of Japan’s climate is fairly obvious, as the first leg takes you along the Pacific side, with its brisk, clear skies and bearable temperatures, while keeping to your left snow-capped mountains behind which fast banks of clouds are pushed from the thither side. After Fukushima a sharp turn West brings you closer to the mountains and within minutes patches of ice and snow appear on the ground surrounding the tracks before the train slows down considerably to navigate the sudden valleys and foothills all covered in thick blankets of snow, deposited perilously high on either side and on the branches of the trees where they hang as improbable and gravity-defying droops of sugar icing. Suddenly the brown and dark green greyness of the Pacific-facing side of Japan is forgotten and you enter a dreamy winter landscape of blacks and whites.

Our ryoukan, as I always insist we frequent on these occasions, was a good forty-minute private van ride away from Yonezawa station, through the small village and up a winding mountain road demanding spectacular views of the valley below. Suddenly the road widens somewhat to accommodate a small smattering of buildings and hotels with pretty much nothing else; here was our destination, a fairly new ryoukan built on the ruins of its ancient ancestor burnt down a few decades ago, run by an old, distinguished gentleman and a small army of old biddies pandering to our every need.

Yonezawa is famous for several things. First, for me at least, are the wild monkeys, my favourite beast after cows and penguins. Indeed, on our initial ferry to the ryoukan we were greeted by two separate gangs of the things alongside the road. At first a small family of them were dangerously close to the edge with one of them picking at something in the middle of the asphalt. As we approached he scuttled back to his companions along the side where they looked at us annoyed and put out. The second gang of them was hanging from small branches that appeared unfit to carry their weight alongside the road, where they looked down on us with a disinterest and disdain I had previously thought only cats were capable of. Sadly, on subsequent trips, with my camera ready, they refused to be seen, so I have no photographic evidence.

Secondly, Yonezawa has an interesting history, started, as it was, by, amongst others, Naoe Kanetsugu, a defeated samurai from the neighbouring prefecture of today’s Niigata. His helmet carries the kanji symbol for “love” (“Ai”), which is shown on posters and merchandise everywhere, and he also happens to be the subject of a new historical drama on Japanese television, of which many posters were strewn around the town too. More beloved than him, though, was Yozan, a Tokyo (Edo) born and bred daimyo who married into the power structure of Yonezawa. He is best remembered for building up the area during a time of great poverty and famine by introducing several new foodstuffs and crafts to the area. Any travelers there will see much of the otaka poppo, a bird (usually eagle) statue carved of wood. To both these people the small center of Yonezawa has a new museum, bereft of any English-language texts or pamphlets, and several shrines and temples where once their castle stood.

The third claim to fame is Yonezawa beef, as famous nationally as Kobe beef and equal to or greater in quality to it, depending on whom you listen to. It is indeed wonderful meat, soft and tender in ways I cannot describe on-line for fear of my florid language mucking up your average pervert’s Google searches. It is one to remember, for your amateur gamesman, the next time some unenlightened bore extols the virtues of Kobe beef. “It is indeed nice, if a little popular, but cannot hold a candle, as you know, to the rarer and much more prized Yonezawa variations.” The dinners at the ryoukan obviously revolved heavily around this product. The first night was a sukiyaki meal with a huge plate of this beef, as well as vegetables and a huge variety of side-dishes. You cook the meat and vegetables yourself in a heated dish at your table in a tasty mixture of water and sauces, before dipping it in a bowl of raw egg. It is an absolute delight and more than a little filling. The second night we had shabu-shabu, the same ingredients basically, but this time dipped in a pan of boiling water, hence the onomatopoeic name. After mere seconds the beef is boiled after which you can dip it in a choice of sauces, my favourite by far the sesame one. This meal too was accompanied by the usual dishes of pickles, sushi, salads, potato dishes, miso soup and sweet red beans covered with flecks of your actual gold.

The ryoukan was chosen for its two private baths alongside the usual public and gender-separated ones. Still being too British for public nudity we alternated between the two private baths available at any time without booking. One was your usual small room with a single shower to clean yourself with before your dip. The water there was, I am not alone in saying, too hot for comfort. After you managed to tease yourself in it was mere minutes before you turned pink and light-headed with an uncomfortable tingling sensations in your extremities, all of them. The second bath was altogether more pleasant, situated in a small shack, half open to the snowy outside, but lacked a shower, leaving us to wash ourselves old-fashioned style with hand-buckets dipped in the bath itself.

Yonezawa being a small rural community the sight of a foreigner was still something for the ryoukan’s old biddies to get excited about. They did their best to find me a yukata that fit, an impossible task, sadly, which was followed by bemused and astounded exclamations of regret and worry that I’d catch a cold as half of my ankles remained exposed. There was a lot of questioning; whether I could eat Japanese food, if I could eat natto (no way!), whether everything was comfortable for me and, though I thought I could escape it, where my country was. All these questions aimed at my wife, of course, even though I answered them in Japanese. At times like these I regret to say I find myself regressing into foreign tourist mode, mumbling along, being pampered and held in awe and refusing to even try to speak Japanese properly. Sometimes it’s quite nice not having to pretend to be a local, and as us foreigners usually get great treatment from rural locals, considering we are tourists and not residents, I let it wash over me, which includes getting free hand-outs at shops and cups of green tea here and there.

Other notable occasions were our walk from the center’s one museum to the station, where we were on a quest to find a nice place to have lunch and cursing how rural Japan isn’t as convenient as downtown Tokyo, like the big city snobs we are, and getting a ride back to the hotel sharing the van with new customers for the night, a duo of giggly Tokyo girls with outrageous fake nails and, by Jehovah, sparkly wellington boots. The presence of these loud, young fleshpots made our octogenarian driver a little more talkative and boastful, the dirty sod, not just filling them in on the historical details of the area but also his own woes and heroic deeds of surviving 40 meter snowfalls over one winter.

As we left, snow started lightly with the promise of an extra 40 cm of the stuff over the weekend. Tokyo has seen some drizzly snow that very night but it was rainy a dreary when we arrived back in our cold and humble abode. As I love the occasional onsen dip I’m sure I’ll have another before too long, but there is no denying they feel extra pleasant in the winter, when the icy cold outside is offset by the wonderful natural heat of the water and the cosy tatami rooms and futons, and copious amounts of unhealthy snacks and alcohol. They do say northern Japan has the better onsen, due to there being more volcanoes there, and from the few I’ve experienced I’d say this is true.

Though the trip is somewhat long and tedious, and the area rural and empty, it is a trip I can recommend to anyone, not only for the wonderful, wonderful beef but the scenery, friendly locals, hot springs and the ability to walk around in a yukata without feeling too much like a foreign idiot, but possibly mostly because it is sometimes very good to get away from Tokyo for a bit.

PS: Any readers about to form a glam-goth punk-rock band can use the name “Love and Monkeys” with my compliments.

13 comments:

  1. Sorry to be a pedant, but "ryokan" does not have an "u".

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  2. That sounds wonderful, I was picturing snow-covered landscape and quaint villages the entire time. Being a Californian I haven't actually touched snow in years, so I can understand your desire to go to an area with it.

    Great post!

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  3. Funny, I come here to read your reflections of Japanese game development and appreciate your sharp writing and honest opinions. But this post has been the one I´ve enjoyed the most so far! And it has nothing to do with games.
    Japan just keep on intriguing me.

    Great post indeed!
    cheers

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