MY TATAMI ROOM, LET ME SHOJI YOU IT:
Oh god, I’ve been waiting days to be able to make that joke.
Kamikochi is a little resort… you can’t call it a town, and even “village” would be a stretch. It’s really a handful of hotels, ryokans and lodges parked in the middle of a nature preserve in the middle of the Japanese alps. To get here from Matsumoto, you take a non-JR private train line — a line so “local” that I’m pretty sure in at least three cases the end of the platform on one stop was only a few feet away from the beginning of the platform of the next stop — from Matsumoto halfway up the mountains, and then take a “Highland Line” bus the rest of the way up to Kamikochi, through a bunch of heartstopping switchbacks and through what appeared to be a series of hydroelectric dams.
When the bus dropped us off at the Kamikochi terminus, a light mist was coming down and everything was shrounded in a green curtain. Our hotel, the Kamikochi Nishiitoya Mountain Lodge was about five minutes walk down a well-tended path, and on entering the polished wood lobby, we were divested of our shoes and shown up to our room, which smelled astounding: fresh tatami mats have a unique odor, a little pine-y, a little green-y, but very much its own thing and hard to describe. A teapot, a thermos of boiling water, and a small assortment of sweets waited for us on the lacquer table. And when we opened the sliding doors to the veranda, this was what we got to look at:
(Except a lot mistier the first night: that shot is actually from the second day, when the clouds broke for a while.)
Dinner service was at 6, and the rain was coming down hard enough to make hiking in sneakers seem like a dubious proposition, so we poured ourselves some tea, sat down and tried to relax. It wasn’t difficult at all.
Then at six, we padded down to the dining room to meet our dinner. Formal introductions seemed warranted; frankly I’m not sure its parents would have approved of it hanging out with the likes of us:
No, seriously. We sat there stunned for a while before we were able to work up the nerve to actually start eating any of this. It largely tasted as good as it looked, which was particularly impressive in my case: anyone who’s eaten with me knows that I have… well, somewhere between “issues” and “outright horror” of foods of a certain gelatinous/mucilagenous/colloidal texture type, and Japanese food — especially this strain of Japanese cuisine — tends to be pretty heavy on the jelloesque textures. But the only true show-stopper for me was (not pictured above — it got served later) a whipped white root vegetable concoction that Miranda identified as something that had been called “mountain yam” to her on her last trip: its taste was actually pretty inoffensive, but the texture was reminiscent of lightly poached snot. I felt a little guilty about eating around it since it’s apparently a regional speciality, but everything else (including even some of the tofu, which is usually a nonstarter for me) was awesome.
After dinner, we explored the lodge a bit and found its onsen — a heated, communal (gender-segregated) bath that’s one of the main attractions of a vacation in this area. We ran back to our room to change into our yukata (bathrobes, basically) and went for a dip. Onsen etiquette is pretty simple: there’s an external bathing room where you pull up a small footstool in front of a water tap that’s on knee level, soap yourself up, rinse off by pouring a few buckets of water over yourself, and then enter the main pool room where there are some number of baths ranging between “hot”, “scalding” and “blistering”, and submerge yourself in them for as long as you can stand. If you like, return to the washroom, pour some cold water over yourself and then return to the hot pool. The lodge’s onsen was indoors, but faced an enormous glass window that would have provided a great view of the mountains had it not been after dark and completely fogged over from the steam rising off the bath. It was still gorgeous, and I stayed in it for about 20 minutes, when my head began to swim.
Returning to our room, we found that the table had been moved off to the side, and our beds had been set up in the middle of the room: two futons, pillows, and a pair of enormous down blankets. We left the window open and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of mountain rains and a running river.
A boy could get used to this.