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Photo from Atlas Obscurer

23 May 2023

The Denizen of Peaceful Yamanouchi


The 7:47am Shinkansen from Kanazawa to Yudanaka is busier than I'd expected. The low hum of the tannoy and muffled phone discussions of preoccupied commuters vanish into a noiseless ether, replaced by the deafening tranquillity of dense fog over the Saitama countryside that permeates my window; it is three hours to Yamanuochi. With Valerie blasting through my cheap headphones and a clumsy, half-filled scrapbook sat atop a Japanese guidebook on the table in front of me, I’m acutely aware of my ostentatiously ‘sore thumb’- esque presence, shooting for, and widely missing, any kind of acculturation.


Stepping off the train at Yudanaka station, I’m immediately presented with a wholly antithetic environment to that of Tokyo and Kanazawa, my previous stops thus far. A small town in the Shimotakai district, brightly bolstered, ubiquitous advertising and saturated commercialism occupies no space here, tumult or commotion is an unpracticed concept and the heavy snow, aside from immediately drenching my poorly-chosen suede coat, has completely cleared the streets of its mystery inhabitants. Walking through its alleys, the town of Yamanouchi is provincial and unassuming, frozen in a time far simpler than the modern frameworks of contemporary cultural infrastructure. Visual markers of its mindfulness of heritage and preservation of Japanese tradition are inscribed on its well-kept wooden architecture and supremely unpretentious restaurants and storefronts; authentic and non-westernised Japanese culture is truly alive and still kicking here. The furthest possible cry from west London, I am culturally dislocated from anything vaguely western-normative, and as the snow unsparingly pelts against my wide-eyed face, I privately harbour my wonder at Yamanouchi’s charming intimacy. 


Arriving at my ryokan, my first impressions of the mountainous town are brought to an epitome. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guesthouse, and my digs for the night. Named Seifuso, the building is small and homely, relying on classic wood, tatami flooring and sliding paper shoji in an enchantingly minimalist design aesthetic. The elderly lady at the front desk greets me with a warm smile, asking my name and enquiring, in her politely hospitable way, what brings an overtly-gauche looking English tourist to the small town of Yamanouchi. She nods along as I tell her that I’m here to see the Jigokudani snow monkeys (she’s seen my flavour of traveller before), but is immediately displeased once I tell her that I’ll be setting off early in the morning, and not to worry about breakfast. ‘No, no…no no…you must have breakfast….traditional Japanese breakfast….’; the sincerity of her insistence warrants me to agree to a quick bite in the morning. She tells me that after my journey I must make use of the rotenburo onsen, their outdoor hot spring bath. She proudly explains that it was built in the early Showa period, that the region is known for these, that the health benefits are multifold, that theirs is one of the best… I frown, confused, and remind her that it's practically blizzarding outside, to which she smiles wryly and says ‘perfect onsen weather’ as she hands me a robe and leads me to my washitsu, where I leave my belongings and head out to Jigokudani Park. 


After walking back to Yudanaka station, I board a local bus that transports me up to Kanbayashi Onsen, a small complex a little way up the mountain from which the park can be entered. Immediately, the magic of Jigokudani park floods my periphery. The steam of the springs rise above the crystal snow, peppered with the pink faces of countless snow monkeys emerging from the otherwise blanket white landscape. The monkeys roam free, comfortable and unthreatened, embracing their human company by calling from wooden bridges and dancing around our feet. One being close that I could almost shake his hand seems indicative of an unspoken respect between us that depletes the voyeurism of a typical enclosure; I’m merely a welcomed guest in his home, and he greets me with the same warming and hospitable eyes as the elderly lady at Seifuso. 


Upon returning to the ryokan, I take the elderly lady’s advice and visit the onsen, where myself and a smattering of miscellaneous guests share silent yet cathartic relaxation; she wasn’t lying about its wonders for personal wellbeing. After freshening up, and grabbing a quick donburi from an unmarked restaurant down the road, I settle in to sleep in my washitsu, accompanied by a head full of gratitude that I had stumbled upon the unexpected respite this unassuming little town had given me between my city-hopping, which would resume again tomorrow. 


As promised, I am up bright and early for breakfast, not least for the feast I was guaranteed, but mostly to see the rosy smile of the elderly lady once more before I leave. As I seat myself on a little cushion on the floor she enters with a tray full of colour, all for me, and places it down at my table. ‘Traditional Japanese breakfast’ she announces, before disappearing once again. Salted salmon, miso soup, steamed rice, egg tamagoyaki and greens sit in front of me accompanied by a pot of tea, and I become thankful for her insistence that I stay, as this bountiful spread truly puts a continental display to shame. After demolishing it all, I look for the elderly lady to bid farewell, but to no avail. I settle up with a younger woman in the front room and head back to Yudanaka station, bound for Kyoto. 


With snow monkeys and mountainous serenity swirling through my train daydreams, I wonder if I’ll ever experience a place characterised by such concord again. I never did get the elderly lady’s name, so I decided that she’ll live eternalised in my memory as the denizen of peaceful Yamanouchi. 

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