Local people have been bathing here (naked) for hundreds of years, so if you want to wear a swimsuit please go somewhere else. The simple sign sits beside a steaming rock pool of milky-white mineral water in a ravine in the forest above the village of Tsubame, deep in the Japanese alps. Swallows flit overhead, and the scent of wild white hydrangeas perfumes the air.
Splashing around in the water are a dozen locals – men, women and children – and one rather self-conscious foreigner. Fortunately, I had been well drilled over the years in the etiquette of the rotenburo, or outdoor baths, fed by boiling thermal springs, that are one of the great experiences of rural Japan.
Gear off, squat beside the pool while you wash and rinse off the suds, then lower yourself gingerly into the water (temperatures can be 50C or more – in some places people boil eggs in spa water) while folding your little modesty towel and putting it on your head. Once they see you know the ropes, everyone relaxes. Tsubame (Japanese for swallow) is an ancient hot spring village in the foothills of one of Japan’s last mountain wildernesses. Bushwalkers set out from here to climb the local peaks, skiers swish down the main street in winter and year round Japanese come here to enjoy a soak in one of the pools of this curious water, which is opaque with yubana – flower-shaped mineral crystals.
It is one of more than 100 spas within an hour’s drive of where we are staying, in a holiday house not far from the shores of Lake Nojiri, an old-fashioned resort town 260 kilometres north-west of Tokyo.
The guide books will tell you to go to overcrowded Nikko or Hakone for your side trip from Tokyo, but – thanks to billions of dollars spent on the Winter Olympics in nearby Nagano – the Nojiri region is now only three hours away by shinkansen bullet-train or the new Joshinetsu expressway.
And you know you are in the deepest, darkest countryside the moment you get off the train at sleepy Kurohime station, as I was reminded when I returned for a few days’ holiday last (northern) summer.
An aquarium of crickets chirp away in the waiting room, a haiku by a famous local poet, Issa Kobayashi, is inscribed on a boulder, wheels of pickled trout sushi are offered for sale, and a model of the region’s most famous ex-resident, a type of mammoth called a Naumann elephant, invites you to visit the museum of Jomon times.
I fell in love with the Nojiri region while I was living in Japan in the 1990s, because of the unspoilt beauty of the countryside – give or take the odd power line or factory belching away in a quiet glade in what is quaintly called the Joshinetsu “quasi national park” – and the hospitality of the locals.
In winter, the skiing here is as good as you will find anywhere in the world: powder snow metres deep on the slopes of mountains such as the extinct volcano Myoko Kogen. Not for nothing is it a sister city of Zermatt. After once breaking a leg trying to prove I was up to a black run, I switched to snow shoes and was lucky enough to have as a guide C. W. (Nick) Nicol, a local author and conservationist who took me to the heart of Japan’s last remaining old-growth birch forests, where bears still prowl. The local tourist people run conducted hikes and foraging expeditions for wild foods like mushrooms and mountain vegetables.
Or you could engage in the uniquely Japanese sport of fishing for wakasagi, a tiny silvery freshwater fish the size of an anchovy. At Christmas, when the lake freezes over, specially designed icebreaker trimarans are available for hire. You sit in a cabin warmed by a kerosene heater sipping warm shochu (sweet-potato vodka) as you fish with tackle that looks designed for five-year-olds, using red-dyed ant-eggs as bait.
In summer, you can spin for black bass on the lake, or walk through meadows thick with wildflowers to fish for trout in pools surrounded by silver-birch trees. Another of the five peaks that cradle the ancient glacial lake, Mount Kurohime, has fields of cosmos – more than a million blooms in every colour of the rainbow.
If you are lucky enough to be in self-catering accommodation (there are plenty of cabins available for modest rates), Nojiri has lots of roadside stalls and farmers’ markets where you can buy terrific produce for a quarter of the price you would pay in Tokyo. The tomatoes and peaches are to die for and the region grows blueberries, apples, pears, corn, edamame (green soybeans) and a dozen other fruits and vegetables, as well as all sorts of local specialities such as Scotch thistle preserve, walnut jam and aloe vera honey.
The locals have also taken to activity holidaymaking. Japan is famous for its razor-edged knives and last time I was here I made one – a big cleaver – from scratch at a forge in the village of Furuma, starting with a block of iron, forging it and tempering, honing and polishing it.
This time it was something a little less ambitious: making buckwheat noodles, a local speciality. An enterprising restaurateur in the village of Maruyama takes you through the process, including the tricky business of hand-slicing the dough with a medieval-looking implement, then sits you down at a table overlooking a splendid mountain view to enjoy your creation with a draught of Pocari Sweat (a soft drink).
There are wind-surfing lessons on the lake, fruit picking and grass skiing. You can learn about natural dyeing techniques, glass-making, or making pottery – all activities that bring you in touch with the local folk. But without the fun of communal skinny-dipping.
Destination: Lake Nojiri
Kurohime station is the gateway to Lake Nojiri. It’s about 31/2 hours from Tokyo station by shinkansen and local rail. The trip costs about $110. Japan Rail can also have a self-drive car waiting for you at the station. A basic Mitsubishi Colt costs about $100 a day.
There is heaps of accommodation in the area. A basic minshuku (small guesthouse) where you will sleep on a futon costs from $95 to $105 a person for board and two meals a day. Western-style “pensions” start at about $120 a person including meals. You can also rent cabins from organisations such as the Nojiri Lake Association from $500 a week.
Few guide books give the region more than a cursory mention. A better starting point is the local government tourismwebsite/english.
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 16 October 2004
Word count: 1094
Geographic area: Japan