monkey business: kamicochi continued

Thursday morning dawned with the sun occasionally breaking through the clouds, and us cocooned in our blankets. I could have happily stayed the rest of the day in bed, but breakfast was at a set time, and there was some hiking to do. After a quick shower, we were getting ready to head to the dining room again when our phone beeped and an automated (I think? I hope?) voice let us know that our table was ready. We hustled our way down to the dining room, and oh lord here we go again:

Words fail.

After breakfast, we went back to the room to put together daypacks for a hike, and of course while we’d been at breakfast the beds had been put back into the closet and the table was back in the center of the room. It was eerily like having house-elves.

We walked back to the bus stop where the visitor’s center was, and apparently made the day of the young woman working the counter there by being the only people to ask her anything that morning: she was all alone in this huge, obviously recently refurbished visitor’s center, and nobody else seemed to be coming anywhere near the place. She loaded us down with maps and guide, and we picked a 4-hour, 12km hike that would loop us up and around some of the major sites on the river, and then down past our hotel and on towards one of the outdoor onsen for a post-hike soak.

Once you got onto the path and away from the bus terminal and hotels, you were very quickly away from any sign of civilization save for the trail itself: an occasionally raised-on-stilts path through primeval woods, alpine streams and small reflective pools. A mixture of conifers and tall deciduous trees towered overhead, while lush greenery covered the forest floor. The path mostly held close to the side of the river, but occasionally wandered away to cross small tributary streams and skirt around the swampier areas.

For the most part, the path was clear, but as we approached Myojin pond we started encountering more and more Japanese schoolchildren, somewhere in the 12-14 years old range, all in identical blue tracksuits: obviously some kind of school day trip was in progress, and by the time we hit the pond itself we were surrounded by dozens of them, and I can only assume that they were not from a large city, because the sight of two white people, one redhead and one with purple hair, both of whom could say “konnichi wa”, was just about the most hilarious thing ever to them, and we ended up being asked to pose for pictures with them amid much hilarity. This was about the only time so far I’d ever felt conspicuous in this sense: mostly in Tokyo we just got politely ignored or quickly glanced at, but this was the full-on Gaijin Are Hilarious! treatment.

(Interestingly, my hair did attract a small but consistent amount of attention in Kamikochi, but other than the one horde of junior high school children, it was almost all from senior citizens at the resorts here.)

The pond itself cost a small (¥300) fee to get in, and was obviously the main day-tripper draw up here and for good reason: it’s ludicrously picturesque. It stretches for nearly a mile across in each direction, slightly sub-divided into smaller pools by spars of land, crystal clear with a shallow sandy bottom, reflecting the towering mountains above.

Once we moved on north of the pond, the crowds quickly fell away again, and with the exception of the occasional backpacker/mountaineer who passed us, we had the trail largely to ourselves again. This area was like crack to me as a photographer: every few dozen yards, the trees would break open to reveal yet another staggering view of the mountain peaks overhead:

…and if you got tired of mountains at any point, there was almost always something else to distract you, like this tiny waterfall created by a newly formed stream cascading over the path and down a cliff:

And of course, every once in a while you’d cross the river itself. The spring snow-melt being largely past, much of the riverbed was dry rock that you could clamber over:

After about another hour of walking, we hit the northern tip of our route, and crossed back over to the west side of the river to follow the forest road back to the onsen. Looking at the map, I’d been a bit dubious about taking the road back, since it seemed like it would probably skip most of the interesting territory, but by this time our legs were a little tired and an easy walk back to the onsen seemed pretty appealing. And as it turned out, the road had some appeal of its own. After about half a mile of walking, Miranda noticed what could only be described as a distinctly, uh, mammalian turd in the middle of the road. We’d seen “do not feed the animals” signs around the bus station that included a silhouette of a monkey, was it possible that…

…about fifteen steps later, there was a bit of movement over my right shoulder, and why yes:

Sitting on a branch a few yards away from the road, watching us warily, was a monkey — red-faced and about a foot tall. And then we noticed a smaller brown spot walking along the branch towards her:

We appeared to be in the middle of an entire pack of monkeys: as we walked down the road, we saw at least six or seven more of them, none of them paying obvious attention to us, but all of them largely keeping their distance. As we walked into a clearing a little further on, I turned around to see one particularly brave one cross the open space behind us:

After a few more yards we stopped seeing them, and the last trace of them we saw was another monkey turd in the middle of the road: Miranda hypothesized that the poo marked the beginning and end of their territory, and it certainly looked that way.

The rest of the trip back to the onsen was less monkey-filled, and was merely beautiful.

Feet starting to hurt in earnest, we passed the bus terminal and our hotel, and slowly walked the remaining 15 minutes down to the onsen. On the way, we passed the Weston memorial. The Rev. Walter Weston was a mountain climber who wrote two of the original books in English about mountaineering in the Japanese Alps, and was responsible for popularizing the regiong among the world’s climbers, and also popularizing alpine sports inside Japan, and not incidentally turning Kamikochi into the bustling tourist concern that it now is. Weston is memorialized with an embossed plaque in the mountainside facing the path, with a small bubbling spring in front of it.

Turning around, you could see from the view why Weston was so taken with the place:

A few minutes later, we found the onsen, which was inside yet another hotel. After only a few minutes of staring blankly at the ticket machine, it dawned on us that there were english labels on the buttons (we may have been a bit tired), and managed to buy two tickets and two towel rentals. Or so we thought, but more on that later. We gave our tickets to the inordinately chipper attendant, found our way to the washrooms and dove in. Separate facilities for men and women of course, but comparing notes later they seemed to be almost identical: first the changing room, then the washroom, which also contained the first (and only indoor) hot bath. Then through a sliding door to the outside, where a stone pool that could easily have sat 40 was flanked by a pair of single-person tubs made out of enormous wooden barrels.

There was only one other person in the men’s bath, a middle-aged gentleman who I thought I recognized from my hotel; in any case we nodded at each other and I very gently eased my way into the main bath: it was formed of river rocks set in concrete, and was very hot, so it took a few seconds to pick my way over to the most likely-seeming perch and lower myself in. At that point it all got kind of hazy and steamy, in a good way: my companion eventually left, and I just sort of sat there melting. After a little while, I decided to try one of the wooden tubs for a change, and then switched back to the main bath. The outdoor section was carefully sculpted, with bamboo fences, artfully placed foliage, and a view of the mountains. More hot water bubbled in constantly from various sources; some above, some below. I could have happily moved in.

Finally, I hit that recognizable “about to overheat” stage, and padded back to the washroom to pour some cold (or at least tepid) water over myself. Walking past a mirror, I noticed that pretty much every part of my body from the neck down bore a distinct resemblance to a post-boil crawfish, and decided it was time to walk my pale self out of there before I poached.

Miranda had apparently come to the same decision at about the same time as me, and I found her waiting for me near the gift shop downstairs, which was when we found out that the towels we thought we’d rented were in fact towels that we had bought. Oh well, we’d had to rent towels at two hotels already, so this would just save us a little money going forward.

Back to the hotel, where at 6pm we hurried down to the dining room for another dinner that counted as a major work of art. Interestingly, it was a nearly completely different menu from the night before, and we spent a while wondering if they changed the menu every day, until by virtue of some rubbernecking Miranda figured out that there was an ingenious labor-saving ploy at work: several people in the dining room who we hadn’t seen the night before were eating the same menu we’d had on our first night: obviously the menus were “first night”, “second night” and so on. The interesting unanswered question: if we came back in a few months, would we get the first night’s menu again? Only one way to find out…

Back in the room, the beds had magically appeared again. We kicked around for a little while checking email and updating the universe on our whereabouts, then contentedly retired.

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