Where myth meets the present

Shimosuwa is a microcosm of Japan with its shrines, hot springs — and electronics industry

by Skye Hohmann

On the edge of town, by a bridge over a stream amid fields of rice stubble, there is a roughly hewn stone Buddha. The path to it is well worn, and though someone has left an offering of the last of the season’s quinces at the base of the statue, today there’s no one else around and only the sound of the river and the statue’s presence for company.

It’s a peaceful spot, infused with legend: Once, long ago, the statue is said to have bled when stonecutters chiseled into the rock, and so the Manji no Sekibutsu (Manji Stone Buddha) has been left in peace to weather out the centuries undisturbed.

Shimosuwa is like that. It’s an old place, where myth brushes against the present. In the surrounding Nagano Prefecture hills are obsidian mines worked since prehistoric Jomon times for their hard, dark, volcanic glass used not only for jewelry but also for razor-edged spear points and ax blades that were valued every bit as much.

The Suwa shrines — heart of an eponymous branch of Shinto — date back more than 1,000 years to at least the Heian Period (794-1185). In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Nakasendo highway linking Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Kyoto ran through the town, bringing travelers and commerce with it. The Koshu Kaido, too, found its terminus where it met and joined the larger and more famous Nakasendo here among the hot springs and tea houses that have, in more recent years, given way to traditional inns, sweets shops and grocery stores.

As much as such a place can exist in 21st-century Japan, Shimosuwa is an everytown, an anytown. It is as representative of Japan as Japan is of it: old hot-spring inns rub their charming shoulders with postwar concrete and convenience stores, with traditional sake breweries and trendy izakaya (Japanese pubs). There are supermarkets and shrines. The hills behind the town are dotted with Buddhist jizo bodhisattva statues and sacred stone monuments, and on the shores of Lake Suwa nestle a mixture of houses, orchards, rice paddies, parks and roads.

Yet even somewhere as emblematic as this has something setting it apart from other places. In Shimosuwa, it’s the shrines. Leaving the paddy-field Buddha behind you, you cross the river to where, tucked under towering trees, sits Harumiya — the Spring Shrine — one of the four head shrines of Suwa Shinto. The great buildings are raw wood, ornately carved and hung with huge straw ropes and sacred gohei paper. There are no bells to ring here; only the sound of your hands clapped together to summon the gods.

It’s not a long walk to the busier old town center, where the hot waters bubble up to the surface, and your feet take you along a narrow back street that was once part of the Nakasendo, one of the five main roads flowing out from Edo to distant parts of the country that were sanctioned by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Unlike some of the better-preserved, museum-style towns along the Nakasendo, in Shimosuwa feudal history cohabits with an electronics industry that kept the town on its feet when many other rural areas lost whole generations to the cities. Here, the old highway is largely ignored apart from the occasional painted sign marking out the way. If you weren’t looking, you might miss them.

Though it was a short walk, a warm sun and the sound of the river piques your thirst. At the foot of a long flight of steps, a fountain shaped like the head of a dragon demands scrutiny. A clear stream of intensely cold water pours from the lichen-covered stone, while cups left there invite you to take a drink, to refresh yourself before moving on.

Soon, you pass a faucet by the side of the road from which hot, steaming spring water pours into an overflowing bucket. A sign reads: “Please refrain from washing laundry here.” Then, by the side of the road, you come across a wooden footbath and a basket of fluffy white towels. There is soft-serve ice cream for sale and you stop here, in front of the Tekko-sen ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), to soak and warm your feet and watch the traffic go slowly by: cars are few, but cyclists careen down the nearby hill or puff their way up, and people on foot call out greetings to each other as they pass.

Noon passes, and hunger draws you to your feet. The water of the footbath has lobster-reddened your calves, but you feel refreshed and ready to tackle the hill. Lunch, like anywhere you visit in Nagano Prefecture, should be soba, and the Yamaneko-tei seemingly makes such good noodles that they have two locations within 10 minutes of the goal, which is Akimiya, the Autumn Shrine. The closest is just across the road, and you stop there to slurp up a serving of the toothsome, cool zaru-soba (soba served on a lattice of bamboo). The side order of tempura is crisp, fresh and faultless.

There are said to be more than 10,000 Suwa shrines across Japan. In Nagano and other parts of central Honshu they are distinguised from other branches of Shinto by the four bare fir pillars, called onbashira, that stake out their precincts. The shrines are ritually renewed every six years when, believers say, gods are brought with the logs from the forested mountains to the shrines. The pillars at both Harumiya and Akimiya are spectacularly massive. Nonetheless, at Akimiya they are dwarfed by the living trees in the grounds: Some of these, surely, must have been saplings when the shrines were founded 1,200 years ago.

Weekend tourists, mostly Japanese, pay their respects at the shrine, but on most other days there’s only the slow pulse of a sunny afternoon in a quiet town to keep you company.

Shimosuwa’s onsen (hot volcanic springs) have many outlets: ryokan, bath houses and private houses in this part of town all draw its steaming waters. Guarded by a statue of the town’s famous Kanayaki Jizo — who, according to local lore, transformed a peasant girl into the Heian poet Izumi Shikibu — the public bathhouse known as Yusen House is the largest and busiest of the public onsen. It’s the kind of place where you take your own soap and shampoo and immerse yourself in the day’s gossip as you ease slowly into the scaldingly hot waters. If you ask the matronly woman who takes your tickets, she’ll tell you the water issues forth at 42 degrees — apparently the perfect heat for melting the tightness out of tired limbs. Though at first it feels too hot, by the time you leave you’re so relaxed you’re glowing from more than just the heat.

Getting there: Shimosuwa is 2 1/2 hours from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on the Azusa Express (¥6,180) or from Nagoya on the Shinano Express (¥5,870), while the Keio Highway Bus runs from Shinjuku to Shimosuwa for half the price (¥3,060) — see www.highwaybus.com Being there: Shimosuwa has numerous ryokan and minshuku (guest houses) that take advantage of the onsen waters, and also several excellent izakaya that take advantage of the local sake. The best of these is Hiyaji ([0266] 27-6171), which serves stunning dishes and consequently requires reservations.