30 June Shinano-Omachi Onsen






















Swallows chase each other above the zen garden below the window. The view opens up to a ramp of green paddy fields, belts of cedar, poplar and fir, a cluster then houses intermittently dotting the road as it curves into the top of the valley, on either side steeply rising mountains in broken curves. Cloud rolls up their banks, leaving trails of gauze on the dark velvet forest, to join the shifting panels of clouds, the movements of which transform the scene moment by moment. The air tastes of snow and soil and is warm entering through the open window where I sit in my yukata to write this.

How did we get here, having been so reluctant to leave our peaceful apartment in Tokyo? It’s true, we were sad to say goodbye to Daikichi House and Shimokitazawa. … Now cloud lifts slightly; on a rolling slope to my left and a darker green breaks through like the gap between fingers or lips. … Our first shinkansen – called the Thunderbird – to Matsumoto took took two and a half hours. Inland Honshu – striking for the flatness of its valleys and the precipitousness of its hills and foothills into the mountains. Tunnels burrowed and flyovers vaulted. Sometimes there were houses under bridges that would never get rained on and sometimes the valley floor opened out with concentrations of housing and warehouses and service buildings. Several of the smaller towns seemed to be owned by Epson. Fruit trees and vines gave way to rice paddies. Miyazaki woodlands rose around us and his picture of how people live in small towns came mind.

At Matsumoto we transferred to a local train which rattled along for an hour to Shinano-Omachi. Here we caught a bus – using a translate app for the first time to explain to the driver where we wanted to go, whither in fact we did not: he was right and brought us to the onsen, having first rung ahead on our behalf to Kurobi View Hotel. And when we arrived he did us a further favour by calling a van to pick us up.

The hotel is a treat, almost empty, and the hot pools are our first experience of onsen. We ate at a noodle house down the road. Were greeted by the elderly chef who was also waiter and barman – he rang several times obviously for reinforcements. There was already a gaijin family there and then us and no English spoken. Home-made udon bubbling in its earthenware bowl with bacon and woodland mushrooms and tofu and lotus root and greens and browns. This came with tempura, pickles, more wild mushrooms, cold, with grated daikon and rice. A daughter had arrived to speed things up and then mum too came in to help. A woman bent in half and her husband? Or brother? Or even son? appeared after us. Daughter poured our sake glasses to the brim. Good hospitality. We walked home with the song of frogs… which, when I first tried to record them and approached, suddenly went mute.