Travel

Living color: Basking in Tochigi's golden hues

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

Traveling into the Shiobara Valley by bus, visitors are assailed by the rich, intensely cultivated fields of Nasunogahara. The reformations that characterized Japan’s Meiji Era (1868 -1912) were not confined to political or social change, the volcanic wasteland of Nasunogahara undergoing a transformation of its own in the early 1800s, as settlers from former noble families began cultivating European-style grapes here.

Most visitors will be primarily interested in the natural setting of the Shiobara Valley, but history, as the bus plunges into a river declivity saturated in greenery, is worth noting. The shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, is said to have come here for recreation and to hunt, while the great haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, passed through the valley at an early stage in the walk that would result in his literary masterpiece, “Oku no Hosomichi” (“The Road to the Deep North”).

An area valued for its hot springs, waterfalls and hiking trails, the Hoki River acts as a useful navigator to exploring the area. A suspension bridge near Tomeharu no Taki Waterfall at the head of the hiking course, is a good place to start a roughly 4-kilometer walk along the river, a stroll that meanders under a canopy of evergreen trees. The Japanese have a word that perfectly captures the sensation of entering this refreshing, oxygenated world: “shinrinyoku,” meaning, literally, “to be bathed by the forest.”

It’s just a few minutes south of the bridge to Oami Onsen, an open-air hot spring reached by descending 300 steps to the river. A scandal two years ago at Fudo no Yu, another open-air mixed bathing pool in the area, forced local authorities to close the establishment, citing “repeated offences against public morals.” After inquiries were made, it transpired that men and women had been congregating here for group sex sessions, which were filmed and then turned into adult videos. Mixed bathing, known as konyoku, has long been practiced in the area without incident or any suggestion of exploitation or licentiousness.

Mercifully, common sense and an understanding of the essential innocence of the practice appears to have prevailed, with several open-air venues still operating. Names like Hataori Onsen, Shiogama Onsen and Fukuwata Onsen are well-known to Japanese lovers of hot baths. Laid out under a suspension bridge, Iwa no Yu, another open-air bath, is characterized by milky water, efficacious in the treatment of rheumatism and neuralgia. You would probably have to spend serious time in these springs to really benefit from their curative properties, though. Most bathers drawn by the opportunity to relax and luxuriate at fine riverside locations.

For those determined to remain clothed, there are several points along the valley road offering public footbaths, where you can remove your shoes and socks, sit on the stone surrounds and soak your feet — a welcome relief along the trails. One or two of them are conveniently located within just a few steps of bus stops. After checking the timetable, it’s a pleasant way of waiting for transport to appear.

A little south of this hot-spring cluster, a massive rock, known as Nodate-iwa, comes into view. The word “nodate” refers to an open-air tea ceremony, and it was here that exhausted warriors, fresh from hand-to-hand combat, retired in the evening to partake of a restorative cup of green tea. Tengu-iwa, another mightily impressive boulder, stands beside Nodate-iwa. The Japanese, whether from whimsy or driven by economic motives, have a fondness for revealing the forms of monkeys, mythological serpents and leaping tigers in rock faces, the images supposedly a drawcard for tourism. Even some Japanese, though, after taking a hard squint at the rocks here, seem pressed to see configurations in the stone surfaces. Tengu-iwa, as the name suggests, is said to resemble a tengu, or long-nosed Japanese goblin. Even more remarkable than the rock ensembles soaring up from the river are nearby cobalt-blue stones, half submerged in the river, the mineral infused rocks resembling chunks of glacier teleported from the Ice Age.

Continue along the river from these impressive fragments of geology and you will come across the modest Emperor’s Room Memorial Park. In contrast to British monarchy, with their vast, expensively managed estates, the Japanese Imperial family appear content with alternative residences not much bigger than Scottish hunting lodges. Sited beside a bridge at the confluence of the Hoki and Kanomata rivers, the building served as a summer villa to the Meiji, Taisho and Showa era emperors. The original location was a little south of here, but the structure was dismantled and reconstructed on this improved site, along with some personal items such as the Taisho Emperor’s haori (a Japanese jacket) and a set of valuable tea bowls. The surrounding gardens, laid out over slightly elevated grounds, are pleasant to wander in, with glimpses through the woodland of the river below.

If timing is key to any good trip, so is the weather. In one of those meteorological about-faces that characterize the unsettled age we live in, there was an almighty downpour on the afternoon I arrived, followed the next morning by glorious sunshine. Successful trips, dependent on climate and the cultural calendar, hinge on the seasons.

In Japan, perhaps more than anywhere else, trips are determined by such considerations, and Shiobara Valley is no exception. Spring’s fresh green leaves invigorate the valley, while summer, slightly cooler at this elevation, is a fine time to explore its walking courses; cycling and bathing in cool, shallow rock pools along the Hoki River are other recreational options. Shiobara Valley, though, truly comes into its own in autumn, a fact noted by a sudden influx of visitors. Mercifully, the valley is long enough to absorb the numbers. Although it’s increasingly difficult to predict seasonal patterns, it’s fairly safe to say that Shiobara Valley’s autumn leaves are at their best from the end of October to at least the first week of November.

These days, Nasushiobara and a resurgent Atami, are considered the most outstanding hot springs within striking distance of the capital. Atami, a hot-spring town on the Izu Peninsula, has been developed into a hugely patronized, rather commercialized seaside resort. Less accessible, Nasushiobara — an all seasons hot spring — has managed to preserve its rural qualities, while developing comfortable accommodation options and other facilities to attract visitors.

One of the beneficiaries of infrastructure improvements in the region, one that manages not to be an eyesore, a blight on the landscape, is the impressive Momijidani suspension bridge. The longest such structure in the area at 320 meters, it spans an artificial lake beside the Shiobara Dam. A frisson of excitement comes with crossing the bridge, the middle portion visibly swaying, footsteps generating ripples of motion along its planks. The views from the span are heart-stopping at this time of year, the 360-degree diorama of mountains and hills drenched in autumn colors. Elevation and temperature play a role in determining when each stage of the mountainsides is at their best, so you may see color-deprived upper reaches contrasting with the graduated tones of lush mid and lower sections. Come here at 8 a.m. when it first opens, and you can avoid the motion sickness stemming from the tumult of visitors crossing the bridge. It’s only a five-minute walk from here to the Mikaeri suspension bridge, a far smaller, little patronized affair. Accessed after walking through a forest, the views from the bridge along this little visited stretch of river are first rate.

No trip is ever entirely complete. One carefully-timed visit invariably precludes another. At Myoun-ji, a Rinzai sect Zen temple dating back to the 12th century, there is an annual peony festival I desperately wanted to see, but this would take place in May. The alternative name for this place of worship and horticulture is Botan-dera, the “Peony Temple.” During the days of the festival, visitors can sample shōjin-ryōri (vegetarian temple cuisine). According to sources who have sampled this simple but elegantly served repast, sets typically include ingredients such as seaweed, wild plants, edible chrysanthemum and lily flowers, mushrooms and sesame tofu. Just thinking about these dishes is already whetting my appetite for a return visit.

JR buses operate from Nasushiobara Station via Nishinasuno Station to Shiobara Onsen. There are also buses between Shiobara Onsen and Kamimiyori Shiobaraonsenguchi Station. An express bus runs from Tokyo’s Shinjuku district to Shiobara Onsen Bus Terminal, but only on weekends.