by Gary Swartz
(Editor’s Note: This story by Gary Swartz is about four years old. He sent it to Weekender one winter after he and his chums had cycled into the scenic autumn foliage of the mountains on Tokyo’s outskirts. Gary subsequently returned to his Canadian home from Japan where he’d worked as an advertising copy writer for a number of years. In an office shake-up, the story was misplaced, though not forgotten. Rediscovered during a recent housecleaning spasm, we present it now as the fall season approaches. Thanks, Gary, wherever you are!)
I have literally just climbed off my motorcycle (well, not actually my motorcycle, but a BMW, the new K100 RS, ridden courtesy of their public relations department) and hopefully I’ll get this article to Corky in time to try to catch autumn leaves on the Boso or Izu Peninsula. If they’re half as spectacular as they were in the mountains north of Niikko’s Lake Chuzenji, you’re in for a treat, even if you have to put up with heavy traffic.
Saturday morning when the alarm went off at 6, the day’s on-again, off-again rain was at its most dismal on. A few hurried phone calls later betwixt Sleepy Red, Steamboat Smith and myself, we agreed to a temporary postponement of our departure. What frustration!
There it sat in my driveway, the BMW I’ve wanted to test-ride for a long time. And in the reservations book at Itamuro Onsen near Kinugawa, an area I’ve wanted to tour for just as long, was written my name, despite the fact this was the most popular season for the area and we hadn’t called until the last minute because we couldn’t decide which would be the ideal weekend to make the tour. The year before, Sleepy had tried it earlier in the month and was disappointed.
By noon, we decided to believe the weatherman’s prediction that the rest of the day would be cloudy with a slight possibility of rain, and that Sunday and Monday would be excellent. The weatherman should have said EXCELLENT.
Would that Sleepy and Steamboat had been as reliable since they showed up for our 2 o’clock rendezvous at the entrance to the Tohoku Expressway on the wrong side of 3 o’clock for which they are now doing public penance.
I should also do a little public penance for the onsen. It seems we got there about 40 years too early as they specialize in catering to groups of geriatrics. Still, the rotenboro (outdoor onsen) was more than acceptable with both a covered and open pool, the price reasonable (¥5,600 including two mugs of draft beer each as service from the shacho), and the pleasures of a 1 a.m. dip after a session of beer, yatzee and cribbage—which was light years beyond the tedium of struggling to stay awake on the last train home from Roppongi.
Sunday morning we awoke to surrounding mountains ablaze with reds, oranges and yellows under an incredibly blue sky. Unfortunately, we also had to endure Steamboat’s incredibly obscene habit of mixing his morning rice with natto and a raw egg. The onsen management, sensing that two at the table were of more couth upbringing, graciously agreed, as will most establishments, to serve us our eggs in a much more elegant fashion—fried.
Important aside number one: When staying in minshuku, ryokan or onsen, the wise traveler takes along his or her own tea, coffee, milk and sugar as few of these establishments provide them for breakfast and dinner.
Important aside number two: With a day to get somewhere and a day to get home, spend the middle day with as little planned as-possible.
With nothing planned for the day but lunch some where with an onsen and the need to find a decent place to spend the night, we hit the road. For a change, I was on a motorcycle noted for its comfort. The bike I ride normally has the opposite reputation.
Unfortunately, the traffic was extremely heavy (expect the same at Izu or Boso), but the view made it all worthwhile. One of the skyways we took, Nichien Tollroad (the Tokyo and Vicinity map available from JNTO shows it), is generally known as the Momiji (Maple) Route and the name should be a clue as to why so many people chose to occupy it at the same time we did.
As there were onsen close by, we opted to drop into one and spent a pleasant couple of hours gazing out across a river at a cliffside of maples and other hardwoods in the prime of their autumn, followed by a delicious lunch of broiled local river fish, mountain vegetables and a variety of mushrooms which, coincidentally, were in-season.
Back on the road, we made the smartest decision of the trip. With miles of traffic headed toward Kinugawa and eventually Tokyo, we headed the other way. A fortuitous pitstop and a few words with the pump jockey, and we were off on a twisty mountain road toward Lake Kawamata and an onsen called Meoto Buchi Hotel. While the rate was a little on the high side for what we usually spend, ¥10,000, it was well worth it.
They offer 11 rotenboro plus a large onsen and each room has its own bath with shower. Of the 11 outdoor pools, one is reserved for women and the rest are catch-as-catch-can. Dinner included sashimi, fried chicken and an excellent venison nabe, the meat for it shot by the hotel’s owner. Gluttons of the first water, we naturally took advantage of the rotenboro before and after dinner, the latter dip complete with cold beer and nary a thought for poor suckers still trapped in the traffic wending their way back home.
What really makes Kawamata worth a visit, as we discovered Monday morning, are the other onsen further up the Kinu River. After a three-kilometer hike along the valley, you come to the first two of a number of onsen that occur for the next five kilometers. These first two will soon, regrettably, be accessible by car; the others can only be reached on foot.
A visit has to be a worthwhile experience any time of the year. Not to press a point (or as the Japanese say, paint legs on a snake), autumn is by far the best time. Some of the hikers we met along the path told us it was already too late to go to the upper onsen as the leaves had already fallen from the trees.
Of the two we made it to, one was closed for cleaning after a busy weekend and the other which we used offered three rotenboro, one on the edge of the mountain itself and two on the valley floor. All onsen in this area are mixed bathing and it is recommended you bring your own large towel as the ones they sell are barely (for sure your backside) adequate.
One curious incident that occurred while we were there answers the question, “Where do Hawaiians spend their vacation?” as we met a Hawaiian who had ramped out there four or five days and spent his time bathing, hiking and enjoying the leaves which he told us had really peaked a few days earlier.
For reference, this area would probably provide a good family outing anytime from Golden Week to this time of the year as the trail is not particularly challenging but is complete with rope (wire) bridges, waterfalls and (all together now, one, two, three)…onsen.
By early afternoon we were back on the road. Lunch was in an old wooden-beamed Japanese farmhouse converted to a restaurant complete with a stuffed bear purported to be the last one shot in the area six or seven years before.
Thanks to the BMW, the ride back on the expressway was a pleasure and for any bikers who happen to read this, proof that the BMW is everything it’s supposed to be. And for anyone looking for a motorcycle to enjoy here for a year or two and then take back to the U.S., Canada, Australia or Europe, the BMW is certainly worth due consideration. It certainly impressed the three of us with its power, handling and comfort and we challenged it with a full spectrum of everything but gravel roads.
And to conclude the other part of this story, or for anyone looking for something different to do this coming New Year, we (wife, kids, in-laws and YVT) are planning to do some “onsening” in the snow and it’s something you might want to think about, too. According to my map, the area along Route 291 off Route 17 north of Numata looks very promising. I wonder if BMW would like me to test drive one of their cars?