Burn the guidebook, check the web and then, wherever you're going, set your travel sights on someplace rural. It's where the real action is.
Our traveling companion is curious and confident. He can even carry a tune. But would he ever have taken the microphone in a Tokyo karaoke bar and begun warbling “The Tennessee Waltz”?
Not on your life. It could happen, though — and did — in Nihonmatsu, a small city about two hours north of the Japanese capital. Our duet scored a sour 74, but from the elation you’d have thought we’d won a Grammy.
There’s something about rural places – a lot of things – that crack a traveler’s reserve. People are friendlier, prices are cheaper, and expectations are much less fixed. That combination tends to make one more adventure-prone. And that’s how the family vacation becomes “a trip!”
It was hard to have any expectations of Nihonmatsu, since the town wasn’t mentioned once in our 800-page Lonely Planet guidebook of Japan. After considerable web surfing, though, we turned up two intriguing events that appeared to be taking place there in early October, when we’d be within striking distance: a lantern festival, 450 years old, and a chrysanthemum fair, featuring life-sized dolls made of moss and flowers.
After four days in Tokyo we took the train into Fukushima prefecture, skyscrapers and concrete giving way to hillsides draped in kudzu, rice fields, and then mountains off to the West.
Finding a spot near our hotel (the hotel in Nihonmatsu), we had a terrific lunch of soba noodles, and on exiting bumped into a crew of about 10 young men in traditional blue and white yukata. One was yelling and clacking two wood blocks together, while the others grimaced. They were all struggling to push and turn a big gilded wagon up the street.
This was one of seven teams that would be parading through town that evening, drawing huge floats topped with towers of candlelit paper lanterns through the city.
Chochin Matsuri (lantern festival) is an old Shinto rite. It’s been carried on here since 1660, every fall. Our understanding of Shintoism is minimal, our Japanese vocabulary set at about 25 words, so most of what was happening literally rolled right past us. But as Anglos in a smallish Japanese city, we stood out, and another confidant, curious man, Yasuo Takabori, approached us.
He asked where we were from and then kindly escorted us down the main street in town, past reps from the Daishichi Brewery who were ladling out free sake and into a well known sweet shop to sample a local delicacy, red bean cooked into a shiny jelly-like ball. A Tokyo-ite retired from Honda, Yasuo was in town because his wife, Ethuko, is a Nihonmatsu native. As in rural places everywhere, the matsuri is also an annual reunion, bringing people back home.
“Are you Christian?” Yasuo asked, without a hint of evangelism. “My wife is Christian.” We met her as she spooned fresh miso soup into paper cups outside her sister’s bar (soon the site of our karaoke debut).
It was Yasuo who also told us about Dake, a spot some 20 miles up in the mountains where natural hot springs feed about two dozen onsen (public baths). “You must go!” he insisted.
(Enjoy a slideshow, above, of Nihonmatsu delights, from okonomiyaki grilling to the karaoke bar.)
Would we have braved an onsen in a big city? Very doubtful. The thought of stripping and scrubbing down with a bunch of unfamiliar folks and then stepping into a tub of volcano-heated water with them sounded appalling. But with Yasuo’s gentle, unconditional push and our more open rural-traveler’s mindset, it would happen.
The next day, after viewing a Shinto blessing of the parade float teams (those guys who’d hauled the decorated wagons through the city at least until midnight, were back at it by 9 a.m.), after seeing the chrysanthemum dolls (several bearing a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp) at the Nihonmatsu Castle, we grabbed towels from our hotel (the hotel) and headed for the bus stop.
Problem was, we finally figured out after about a half-hour’s wait, that the bus routes had all been delayed and switched to make way for the matsuri parades. A dapper businessman eventually joined us at the bus stand and kept consulting his expensive watch. “Dake?” We figured out he was headed, or trying to head, for the onsen too. After awhile, he strode down the block to question a very important looking peace officer, then motioned for us to follow them.
Off we went, walking about a quarter mile to what turned out to be the Nihonmatsu police station. There, the chief and two others in the office got on several horns, calling the bus company, the city, and then this gentleman’s spa hotel. A private car would be sent for us all. The onsen trip, first unimaginable, was unfolding like a chrysanthemum. Out of town, up into the hills, and stripped, and scrubbing, and into the steaming volcanic waters, surrounded by quiet strangers, 9000 miles from home. We glowed, on the outside, inside, all the way to the marrow.
How did all this happen? Because we left the pages of Lonely Planet for the friendly planet to be found in rural Japan.