I had stumbled upon the small onsen town of Hirayu as I did a wide search for accommodation in Kamikochi and came up empty handed. Hirayu was perfect because it was the town where you have to change the bus when going from Kamikochi and off to the rest of the world. That it is also an extremely charming little village is something we didn’t really consider, so we were more than pleased as we arrived to this scenic little road full of ryokans and onsen baths.
As we stepped into the foyer of a charming little ryokan called Aihokan, we were greeted by the most charming and smiling young Japanese woman. She is the very image of the stereotypical happy and welcoming Japanese. I thought it was only a caricature of the Japanese, but here she is, and my boyfriend and I have agreed that she might just be capable of fitting into our bags so that we can bring her home with us.
Our room is a traditional Japanese styled room with tatami mats on the floor and futon madrasses as well as a pleasant little seating area near the window. It is a long way from the smoky room of our Nagoya hotel. However the pillows are filled with what I imagine is rice and they smell suspiciously of hay.
After leaving our bags in the room, the sweet young woman in the reception gave us directions to a restaurant three minutes walk way. And oh my blessed culinary heaven, we have arrived in Japan.
I remember my first taste of Japan from a trip I took with my mum to London during my early teens. We incidently ordered double on the sushi menu, and I had to roll out of that restaurant full to the brink. Growing up my neighbours were a Danish/Japanese family and with my London introduction to sushi, I spent my teens enjoying the Japanese expat kitchen.
But in all my time I had never stumbled upon the rich tradition of grilling meat and vegetables at the table known as Yakiniku. We arrived at the Hirayunomori as they were about to close for the evening, but we were allowed to stay for a meal and ordered hida-gyu and hoba miso. Two of the regions specialities.
Hida beef (hida-gyu) is cut from a black-haired Japanese cattle breed, that has been raised in the Gifu Prefecture for at least 14 months. In addition, it has to live up to certain standards of the Hida Beef Brand Promotion Conference and the Japan Meat Grading Association. It is characterised by the Shimofuri marbling which makes it so irresistibly juicy.
Adding to this we had an order of hoba miso which is vegetables and mushrooms cooked in a miso paste on a dried magnolia leave which is heated over a charcoal fire at the table. The magnolia leave is known for its antibacterial properties. I will be crying when I leave Japan, knowing that I will be so far from such amazing food.
Returning to the ryokan, we dressed up in the yukatas prepared for us in our room, and headed for the ryokan onsen. The onsen are separated for men and women and as I got in, I was fortunate to be alone except for a woman getting dressed.
The male entrance is covered with a blue noren and the female is red. I’ve read somewhere that it is illegal and punishable to enter the wrong section.
Onsen is experienced naked, and according to the websites we had research before hand follows a particular pattern, where first you take off your slippers or geta. Then at the changing room you take off your clothes and put it in a basket, before entering the onsen. Here you find a small wooden stool and a wooden bucket with which you cleanse yourself. No soap as the onsen water shouldn’t be contaminated. With you, you have a small towel and everywhere it states that this shouldn’t get in the onsen water, so leave it by the side or carry it on the head. And now you are ready to dip yourself gracefully in the onsen and relax.
When leaving again, dry off before exiting to the lockers. Don’t rinse off with the bucket as the minerals of the onsen are good for your skin.
It was amazing, lying there, soaking in the hot water. There was both an indoor and outdoor pool and the outdoor was ethereal in the darkness of the mountain night. All clean and freshened up we headed off to our first night on futon beds, dreading the rice pillows.
Getting up early, we managed to get the bus to Kamikochi at 8 AM, getting us there at 8.25. My boyfriend had even had time for a last soak in the onsen before we checked out of the marvellous ryokan with many greetings from our sweet receptionist.
We got off at Taisho pond, which is evidence of the continuous re-shaping of Japan through underground volcanic activity. It is no more than 100 years ago that Mount Yake blew off its top in a massive volcanic explosion, changing the lay of the land and the Azusa River, creating the stunningly beautiful lake Taisho Pond. The lake was named for the Taisho Period and has become one of the central attractions of Kamikochi.
It blew my mind standing at the shore of this 100 year old lake in the early morning hours. Like Lake MacDonald in Montana and Bohrinj in Slovenia, it is one of those picturesque mountain lakes where you would wish you had the time to just watch the clouds as they surround the mountain tops, making shapes in the water.
We stayed at the small rocky shore for a while enjoying our breakfast and coffee. We’d bought the local speciality steamed buns. While the famous variety is made with hida beef (the hida-gyu man) we opted for one with deer meat and one with chocolate.
It was so peaceful and wonderful standing there at the shore of Taisho Pond gazing at the mountains in the background as they played with the morning clouds.
As the first bus load of Chinese tourists stopped at the lake we left the beautiful vista for a pleasant walk through the nature research trail following the majestic Azusa River to the small and slowly disappearing Tashiro Pond.
Onwards we walked on wooden trails through the marshland surrounding Tashiro Pond all the way to the Kamikochi centre and main bus station.
We quickly realised that the ‘no public garbage bins’ issue was not only a phenomenon in Nagoya. We had thought to be smart and bring along a lunch package from Matsumoto, but after a day in the fridge and with the option of steamy breakfast buns, we had no particular interest in eating it. But throwing it out proved impossible and we had to carry the food in a plastic bag attached to my backpack for the entire day.
But despite the white plastic bag bumping along on my back, we had an amazing walk through the untamed beauty of Kamikochi.
The creation of Kamikochi
The Northern Alps as they are seen today, were formed in a geological process between 0.8 and 2.6 million years ago. During the relative abrupt rise of these mountains, the Azusa-gawa River carved a deep valley, flowing towards Gifu Prefecture. The transformation of Kamikochi to the flat and elongated shape we see today began 12,000 years ago with a release of ejecta from the Mt. Shiratani volcano, which sits next to Mt. Yake-dake. This ejecta blocked the valley and the flow of the Azusa-gawa River, resulting in the formation of a huge lake. Over time this lake was slowly and evenly filled with sediment via run-off from surrounding mountains. The water was forced out of the southeast of the trough, and gave birth to the current Azusa-gawa River which flows into the Matsumoto Basin. The sediment goes down to a depth of 300 meters at Taisho-ike Pond.
Copied from informational sign in Kamikochi
We crossed the Azusa river at the infamous Kappabashi (Kappa bridge) and trailed up the western side of the river through the Wetlands. I felt like the hobbit trailing along on a grand adventure:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
My boyfriend and I were being swept off into a land of green lush trees and muddy waters. Walking on planks we passed through the Wetlands and beyond, reaching our final destination the magical Myojin Pond.
This must be the landscape which inspires the Japanese zen-gardens, because here you’ll find natures own zen.
After enjoying the unspoiled beauty of Myojin Pond we crossed the Myojin bridge and followed the eastern shore of the Azusa bridge back to Kamikochi where we jumped on a bus to Hirayu, and onwards to Takayama, a town I have been looking forward to seeing.
Kamikochi is such a beautiful place that I have had serious problems choosing between my many many photos, so you get a few extra below.