Travel

A TREK THROUGH TOHOKU

Guided through Japan's deep north by the holy spirit of Basho

Tohoku is Japan’s “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 Deep North).”

In the 17th century this was a wild and dangerous region, roamed by bandits. Today, most of Japan’s 120 million people still live on the flat, coastal plains, while the heavily forested mountains of Tohoku (which includes the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi and Fukushima) are a place to get away from it all, to experience nature and relax at one of the region’s numerous onsen (hot-spring resorts).

Like Basho 300 years ago, I stop off on the way to the mountains at Matsushima, a seaside town in Miyagi Prefecture 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.

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. Coachloads of visitors swarm along a waterfront 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.

But 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 out of a perfect carpet of moss, past a cliff whose natural caves and niches are filled with stone Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. On the train platform the next morning stand six young Zen monks, dressed in short robes and straw sandals and with 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 in Aomori Prefecture, the city of apples — one in every seven grown in Japan, to be precise.

If apples are your thing, you should probably go there right now. At the Hirosaki city Apple Park you can see about 1,000 trees, from 60 different varieties, before sampling apple curry in the cafe and taking your pick from a selection of over 700 apple-related souvenirs. I discovered while surfing the Net that the heaviest apple in recorded history (1.849 kg) was grown and picked by Chisato Iwasaki at his apple farm in Hirosaki on Oct. 24, 2005.

I also take in the park, the castle, and a district of old samurai houses where I glimpse beautifully topiarized gardens behind high wooden walls. Realizing I’m actually wrestling with the temptation to buy a stuffed apple mascot, a sort of elf in a little green hat, I decide it’s time to move on. The railway doesn’t run into the mountains, so I acquire a little silver Mazda and it’s tricky finding my way. Major locations are signposted in roman characters. Others, such as secluded inns and hot pools, are not. Each morning I start my day by bowing to whoever is 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 mountain roads winding 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 somber greenery is Aoni Onsen, a ryokan (traditional inn) by a river, where travelers can stay and bathe in hot pools lit at night by flickering oil lamps. Set up in the 1930s by a poet who wanted somewhere to recuperate from illness, it’s a tranquil place. There are no televisions or radios in the rooms. Electricity is hardly used, though the bright glimmer of a cash register and a computer behind the reception desk break the spell.

As dusk falls and the lanterns are lit, I sit and watch water tumbling down a 20-meter 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 50 guests sit at long low tables to a meal of seasonal food, matsutake mushrooms, grilled fish and rich autumnal miso soup formally presented on lacquer trays. By 9 the place is silent. Everyone is in bed.

High in the mountains I visit Sukayu, a ski lodge famous for its “1,000-person bath,” a huge sulfur-fed tub 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 sulfurous 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 belching 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 colored caterpillars. 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 sulfur for hours afterward.

Ryokan, with their traditional straw tatami mats 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 (Japanese robe) 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 that 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) found bathing in one of the pools by a hunter. 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 wild yam nabe (stew) cooked in a metal pot hung from a hook over the coals.

At Tsurunoyu, the traveler 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, Aomori Pref., eating a German-style sausage on a curved “stick” that turns out to be the rib bone of, I think, a pig. 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, there would be windsurfers and yachts and swimmers and people on jet skis. Here it’s silent and slightly forlorn. Later I work out where everyone is. Though they’re not much interested in the sporting possibilities of Towada, Japanese 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 and earn money by leading renga, communal poetry writing sessions. Kakunodate is little altered from its 19th-century heyday, with a samurai district of elegant houses, and a quiet merchants’ 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 Tamachi 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 clams 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. He appears to like simplicity: the shop sells udon (wheat-flour) 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 favorite composer. The udon, needless to say, are perfect. I pay and pick up my umbrella. Outside there is a storm. First winter rain — I plod on, Traveler, my name.

For further information contact the Japanese National Tourist Organization (www.jnto.go.jp)

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