Despite a restless night filled with those "half-dreams" that can invade the mind when one is only half-asleep, I awoke rather refreshed and ready to get out into the nippy air. The half-dreams were related to the snow-fall earlier in the evening, and the sign on the door to thedilapidated old hut saying "closed due to danger of avalanche - no camping or overnighting", but there was only an ever so slight covering of snow on the ground when I awoke.
My original plan called for me to camp the last night in the town and catch an early morning bus back home to Tokyo, the point of which was to allow myself ample time to enjoy a hot-spring onsen bath without rushing for a bus. Being ahead of schedule however, I realized that I could even take a leisurely stroll into town, take a bath, enjoy a beer, and still have plenty of time to catch a bus.
For the first time it took me longer than the times indicated on my trail map as I stopped every hundred meters or so to take more photos and play with the camera in ways that I am usually too much in a hurry for. It took me so much longer that I practically had to put my camera away and run the last hour in order to make it to the onsen by dark. It did not help that once I arrived in the town that neighbors the bus stop and then asked directions to Nagasaka, the gas-station attendant pointed to another small "mountain" that I had not noticed on the map, saying "just go over that".
It was getting dark as I decided into a small valley between hills separating the two cities. In the cities there were big roads with noisy cars flying by. Here was beautiful, green, the only sound from birds in the rice fields, and a small river that ran through them. Ahead of me I could barely make out a crusty old sign with the name of the onsen. It pointed down a dirt path surrounded by trees, and I swore to myself, thinking that the onsen had surely gone out of business long ago. Still, I had come this far, so I might as well head down the path. About two hundred meters in, I came across an old farmer packing up the gear from his field, getting ready to head home who told me "They might still be in business... but the owners are pretty old, so no telling for sure."
I continued on to an old, traditional Japanese farm building even more run-down than the sign that had been at the road four-hundred meters back. A hunched andhobbling figure in the yard confirmed the farmers assessment of the owner's age. After shouting three times that I would like to use the bath, then waiting for him to turn up his hearing aid and shouting once more, he told me sure, but I have to wait twenty minutes for it to warm up. No problem - so long as they have a cold bottle of beer for me...
And they did. And it was great. And the building was amazing and beautiful, and the old couple running it were fascinating. While I was sitting there having my beer they brought in the herbs and mushrooms they had collected during the day, and set out to preparing them to be dried, and proceeded to tell me the story of how they had moved from Tokyo many years ago to take over this inn, the history of which is unknown, as they have never been able to track records older than one-hundred years. After my bath, the owner showed me his wooden butterfly collection, explaining that after having visited an inn where the inn-keeper carved small wooden birds, he decided to begin carving thebutterflies for which the valley is famous. "It was really tough.", he said, "young ladies used to come in here and each one of them would want acustom made butterfly. I spent all my free time making them, but they became really popular and many newspapers wrote about it."
What he didn't tell me about, and I didn't find out about until I took Tomoe there the next weekend to see this awesome inn in such a beautiful setting, was that he had also been integral in preserving this setting from toxic dumping decades ago that, at one point, had killed all the fish. He filed a law-suit against the dumpers, as well as the government for allowing the dumping, and spent many years and yen in court fighting to keep the area clean. And this was before "sustainability" and "environmentalism" was hip.
Perhaps the reason I hadn't heard these stories the first time was that he was too humble to tell them himself. When I went there with Tomoe the next week, there was a sign on the front door alerting visitors that someone had died. The widow, who remembered me from the week before, let us in to take a bath anyway, and told us his story as we rested from our hike in Yatsugatake that weekend.
And thus ends my hike in the Southern Alps of Japan for this year.
If anyone is interested, you can see all the photos of Japan's Southern Alps here, and earlier posts linked to below (the earlier posts - before I ran out of writing steam - are much more interesting):
The Plan (with map)
Minami Alps Day 1: Close Encounters
Minami Alps Day 2: Explosive Diarrhea Mud Slides
Minami Alps Day 3: Use me! Abuse me!
Minami Alps Day 4 Part 1: Year of the Panda
Minami Alps Day 4 Part 2: WFR
Minami Alps Day 5: The End