Following Basho through Tohoku (2007)

Since 1853, when Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay with his squadron of “black ships”, Japan has possessed a mystique for Westerners that has served as much to alienate as attract. The idea of a closed society, an isolated country which only opened up to trade when threatened with naval bombardment, still haunts the foreign imagination. Despite the enthusiastic assimilation by contemporary Japanese of every kind of international cultural tic, from dreadlocks to David Beckham, many gaijin (foreign persons) still suspect there’s something about the exchange which isn’t reciprocal, that aspects of this wealthy modern democracy are being held back or kept secret. The image of impenetrable Japan (a dubious cliché not unrelated to that old favourite, the inscrutable oriental) informs such films as Lost In Translation, in which two Americans work through their culture-shock in the luxurious surroundings of the Tokyo Park Hyatt hotel.

It certainly looks as if Japan’s reputation as a country of obscure codes and rarefied manners affects the patterns of tourism. Spend a day on the JR Yamanote line, which runs a circuit through central Tokyo, and you see foreigners everywhere. They’re standing at intersections in Shibuya or Shinjuku, gawping up at J-Pop stars shimmering on giant screens. They’re browsing in electronics shops in Akihabara, taking pictures of the cos-play freaks, kids dressed up as their favourite manga characters. But if you board one of the comfortable shinkansen trains and head out of the city, they vanish, just like all the white people vanish when you ride a northbound subway train in Manhattan. In almost two weeks travelling through Tohoku, the mountainous north-eastern region of Honshu, the largest of Japan’s four major islands, I’ll count nine, four of whom are together.

Perhaps the missing tourists are afraid of highway robbers. Tohoku is the “deep north”, through which the famous Zen monk and haiku poet Matsuo Basho walked in 1689, writing one of the most famous travelogues in world literature, Oku no Hosomichi, the “Narrow Road to the Interior”. In the seventeenth century this was a wild and dangerous region, roamed by aboriginal Ainu bandits. Today, most of Japan’s 120 million people still live on the flat coastal plains, and the heavily forested mountains of Tohoku are a place to get away from it all, to experience nature and relax at one of the region’s numerous onsen, or hot pool resorts. There’s a highly developed tourist culture – it’s just that it’s almost one hundred percent domestic.

Like Basho, on the way to the mountains I stop off at Matsushima, a seaside town fronting a bay scattered with hundreds of pine-covered islets. For centuries Matsushima has been appreciated as one of the nihon sankei, the ‘three scenic places’ considered the most beautiful in all Japan. “Islands are piled above islands,” Basho wrote, “and islands are joined to islands, so that they look exactly like parents caressing their children or walking with them arm in arm. The pines are of the freshest green and their branches are curved in exquisite lines, bent by the wind constantly blowing through them.” An apocryphal story has it that when asked to compose a poem extolling all this beauty, the poet was initially lost for words. His response, in perfect haiku form (a line of five syllables, a line of seven and a second line of five) is, I suppose, a sort of zen gag:

Ah, Matsushima!
Ah-ah Matsushima! Ah!
Matsushima! Ah!

The pine islets, with their crumbling Buddhist shrines and wind-shaped trees are still beautiful, but in many ways Matsushima has been damaged by tourism. Coach-loads of visitors swarm along the waterfront, which is lined by cheap restaurants and souvenir shops. The noise of pleasure boat engines floats across the water, accompanied by the amplified commentary of the guides. Matsushima does offer me one moment of giddying beauty, at the Zuiganji temple where I walk through a meticulously-gardened stand of red pines rising up out of a perfect carpet of moss, past a cliff whose natural caves and niches are filled with stone Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The temple itself is an imposing wooden building containing seven halls, decorated with the emblems of the Date clan, rulers of the entire region when the current structure was erected in the 1620’s. The panelled walls are painted with exquisite landscapes in which hawks hunt their prey, a beauty whose undercurrent of cruelty is reinforced by the memorials in a side room, commemorating twenty samurai who committed seppuku, ritual suicide, after the death of the famous lord Date Masamune, and sixteen more who did the same for Masamune’s son.

On the train platform the next morning stand six young Zen monks, dressed in short robes, straw sandals on their feet and big conical hats in their hands: descendants of Basho, wandering the earth, or at least the suburban train line to Sendai, the big city half an hour down the coast. I head north to Hirosaki, the city of apples, one in every seven grown in Japan, to be precise. If apples are your thing, you should probably get on a plane right now. Apple-related festivals happen throughout the year. At the Hirosaki city Apple Park you can see a thousand trees, from sixty different varieties, before sampling apple curry in the café and taking your pick from a selection of over seven-hundred apple-related souvenirs. According to that infallible source, the internet, the heaviest apple in recorded history weighed 1.849 kg (4 lb 1 oz) and was grown and picked by Chisato Iwasaki at his apple farm in Hirosaki on October 24, 2005. I am entirely unsurprised by this information. Hirosaki apples are huge sweet red things, the size of melons, like galas or braeburns on steroids. No wonder the locals are proud.

I take a pleasant ride around the town on one of the free bikes provided by the tourist office, taking in the park, the castle, and a district of old samurai houses where I glimpse beautifully-topiarized gardens behind high wooden walls. Realising I’m actually wrestling with the temptation to buy a stuffed apple mascot, a sort of elf in a little green hat, I realise it’s definitely time to move on. The railway doesn’t run into the mountains, so I acquire a little silver Mazda. Driving in rural Japan is, at least in mechanical terms, very easy. The roads are great, the Japanese drive on the left, and on highways the speed limit is only 50kph, which is perfect when you’re lost or enjoying a soporific scenic cruise, but a little frustrating when you’re taking a 100 kilometre detour because a landslide has blocked the road, as happened to me one day. The trickiest part is actually finding your way around. Major locations are signposted in roman characters. Others – like secluded inns and hot pools, are not. Each morning I start my day by bowing to whoever’s standing behind the reception desk at my inn and handing over a piece of paper, on which is written “please program my GPS to take me to …”

Where my GPS takes me is a mystical region of winding mountain roads running through dense forest. I find it less threatening than Basho evidently did. “The mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air beneath so hushed that I felt as if I were groping my way in the dead of night. There was not even the cry of a bird to be heard, and the wind seemed to exhale black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds.” In the midst of this sombre greenery is Aoni onsen, a ryokan (traditional inn) set by a river, where travellers can stay and bathe in hot pools lit at night by flickering oil lamps. Set up in the nineteen-thirties by a poet who wanted a place to recuperate from an illness, it’s a tranquil place. There are no televisions or radios in the rooms. Electricity is more or less kept completely at bay, though the bright glimmer of a cash register and a computer behind the reception desk break the spell.

I change out of my clothes into a cotton yukata and geta (traditional wooden sandals) which, like almost all house shoes in japanese hotels, are several sizes too small. They force me to walk in an alarming see-sawing clomp. After a couple of trips to bathe, tradition gives way to convenience and I swap the geta for the rubber pool shoes everyone else has chosen. The ritual of communal bathing (like any situation in which you get naked with strangers) is one of those areas where a basic knowledge of etiquette comes in handy. British bathing habits are perplexing to the Japanese, who wouldn’t dream of sitting and soaping themselves in a tub full of dirty water and skin follicles. All the actual washing is done outside. You squat and sluice yourself with water from a shower-head or a wooden bucket, then vigorously and thoroughly clean every part, rubbing yourself down with a little washcloth. Only then are you ready to get into the water. Once you’re in, it’s polite not to immerse your head, or your cloth. Many people fold them up and put them on top of their heads. A foreigner in a rural onsen is, to say the least, something of a curiosity, and people watch me, albeit discreetly. Soon enough my novelty value wears off, and I join in the soothing ritual of bathing, scrubbing, soaking, steaming and cooling down in a tepid outdoor pool. As dusk falls and the lanterns are lit, I sit and watch water tumbling down a twenty metre cliff. Then, crossing the little wooden bridge which spans the river, every pore clear, every muscle relaxed, I go to dinner, which is eaten communally in Aoni’s main hall. Perhaps fifty guests sit down at long low tables and tuck into a meal of seasonal food, matsutake mushrooms and grilled fish and rich autumnal miso soup formally presented on lacquer trays. By nine the place is silent. Everyone is in bed.

Onsen come in all shapes and sizes. In little Tohoku hill-towns, they’re much like old fashioned public bath-houses, filled with men shaving and chatting and reading manga, half-reduced to pulp by the steam. High up in the mountains I visit Sukayu, a ski lodge famous for its “thousand person bath”, a huge sulphur-fed tub brim-full of milky water. Patrons sit beneath bamboo pipes, taking “cascade baths”, some wearing plastic caps to protect their hair. The big hall, its pine walls and fittings blackened by years of exposure to sulphurous steam, is one of the strangest environments of my trip. In some places the bathing is only a secondary attraction. At Tamagawa, there’s a sort of geothermal wonderland, with bubbling pools of mud and vents bleching out acrid steam. In most places the public would be separated from these dangers by barriers. Here it’s traditional to lie on the hot soil, as a cure for various arthritic and rheumatic ailments. People swathe themselves head to foot in blankets, dotting the smoke-shrouded valley like highly-coloured caterpillars. With their bags and bundles, they have an itinerant air. The effect is rather like visiting a refugee camp on Mars. One man is cooking yam and pumpkin by lowering a bag into a steam vent. The atmosphere gives me a headache, and my clothes stink of sulphur for hours afterwards.

Ryokan, with their tatami mat rooms and futon beds, unrolled while you’re eating dinner, can be atmospheric places like Aoni or like motels with different furniture, but even these are interesting to a foreigner: in one I join a throng of guests grazing at the dinner buffet, all wearing the hotel-issue mauve yukata and grass green leatherette sandals. It’s an odd sight, like walking into a Marriott somewhere in the midwestern United States and finding the restaurant full of people sitting in their fluffy white bath-robes. One night I stay at Tsurunoyu, an onsen which rivals Aoni in its charm. Part of a resort area called Nyuto, Tsurunoyu was once the private spa of the Lords of Akita. It was opened in 1701, and is reputedly named for a wounded crane (tsuru) which a hunter found bathing in one of the pools. Meals are eaten in traditional mountain fashion, around square charcoal hearths called irori, on which you can barbecue fish and vegetables, before tucking into a bubbling metal pot of wild yam nabe, hung from a hook over the coals. The food is exquisite – I eat venison sashimi, grilled fish, scallops with miso, delicate salads of mushrooms and green bean shoots and sansai, ‘mountain vegetables’, the fragrant wild ferns and brackens and tubers that form an integral part of rural Japanese cooking. At Tsurunoyu, the traveller Basho seems close at hand:

Guest’s shadow through

the paper screen – I sit dreaming

over charcoal fumes.

A day or two later I have a less elevated (but shamefully tasty) culinary experience on the boardwalk at Lake Towada, eating a German-style sausage on a curved ‘stick’ which turns out to be the rib bone of, I think, a pig. As I indulge my creeping suspicion of cannibalism, I become aware of the sepulchral stillness of the place, with its dazzling light and empty souvenir shops and lines of disused pedaloes shaped like swans and sea monsters. Were this lake in, say, Canada or New Zealand, there would be windsurfers and yachts and swimmers and wankers on jet skis. Here it’s silent and slightly forlorn, like the abandoned amusement park in Miyazaki’s Sen To Chihiro Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). Later I work out where everyone is. Though they’re not much interested in the sporting possibilities of Towada, tourists are captivated by the nearby Oirase river gorge, a paradise of waterfalls and streams, which has to be one of the most picturesque river valleys I’ve ever walked down, despite the coach parties trailing after their spiffily-dressed guides.

From Towada, I drive to Kakunodate, the end of my mountain journey, the kind of small town where Basho would rest from his travels and earn money by leading renga, communal poetry writing sessions. Kakunodate’s street plan is little altered from its nineteenth-century heyday, with a samurai district of elegant houses, and a quiet merchant’s district, where the shopkeepers use abacuses to tot up your purchases. Tourists wander the streets, tasting sake and red bean sweets, buying cherry-bark handicrafts and blue glazed pottery.

I stay in a ryokan called the Kamachi Bukeyashiki, which serves exquisite Italian-Japanese fusion food. Were this restaurant in London, people would be selling their grandmothers for a table. The six courses, including marbled beef, pumpkin soup topped with sansai pond weed and clam vongole in a delicate clear broth, are all delicious. I eat there twice, and the first dinner is the best meal I’ve eaten all year. Yet in the end, it’s a noodle seller who provides the most sincere example of openness, of an unselfconscious fusion between Japan and the West. He’s a big, bearded man running a newly-opened place near the ryokan, with pine tables, modern calligraphic scrolls and a baby grand piano in the corner. He appears to like simplicity: the shop sells udon noodles. Nothing else, just udon noodles. It’s the shortest menu imaginable. You can have them cold or hot, in a square lacquer box, accompanied by vegetable broth with the option of a few slices of duck. Oh, and Schubert. As he works, making the single dish to which he’s devoted himself, the noodle-maker is always accompanied by the chamber music of his favourite composer. The udon, needless to say, are perfect. I pay and pick up my umbrella. Outside there is a storm.

Frist winter rain –

I plod on,

Traveller, my name.