Today, we at WestCoastToFarEast.com bring you to the beautiful Hounoki Ski Area in Takayama Japan, or as some call it the Japanese Alps. There is excellent skiing, snowboarding, sledding for kids, and more. There are multiple lodges here where you can rest after a day on the slopes with warm, affordably priced meal. Or soak your weary bones in a hot onsen bath (my personal favorite) and overlook the mountain tops.What’s great is that it’s a relatively quick and painless ride up the mountains from Takayama City. There are several ways to get there via bus or tour, or simply drive. If you drive while it’s snowy be sure to have a 4wd vehicle for slippery roads though! Once you are up here you’ll also be in the vicinity of several famous Onsen locations.
Depending on where you live in Japan, the seasons can be a bit extreme. Summer often brings heat and humidity and winter brings the beautiful snowfall. One thing you can count on is that there will be plenty to entertain you. Where I’m located, near Takayama City in Gifu prefecture (often referred to as the Japanese Alps), snow is basically guaranteed.
So what can you do?
It seems like every neighborhood has it’s own community center, open to the public with activities and exercise equipment, as well as indoor sports like rock-climbing which help keep the kids busy and active during the winter. For us parents – we get the additional exercise of shoveling snow from our driveways and cleaning off our cars every morning along side our neighbors.
But another thing small Japanese towns can brag about is the sense of community created through everyday interactions, and local events and activities – such as a day for kids to come together and play in the snow at the local park.
Truthfully this list could be any size. Why not 20 things? Or 100 things? Well, these things don’t always hit my brain at once folks!
So let’ appreciate them in small bites. Also I could go very broad and just say “nature” or something, but I don’t think that’s very interesting.
Instead I’ll list some tiny observations along the lines of, “things that make me smile on the inside” as they happen in my day.
- Baiten Stands 売店
Within, say, a 6 block radius of my home I have a nice handful of these little sheds, typically stocked with vegetables grown in the field right next to it. Nobody is working at these little stores because they are self-serve on the honor system. Basically everyone grows vegetables, so why not sell your extras? These are all priced lower than the supermarket, usually around $1 US for most vegetables. Super-fresh and locally grown, Japan wins the battle of vegetable superiority.
- Changing of the Leaves, or Kouyou 紅葉
It’s fall here in Japan right now and the colors are nothing less than stunning. Red, orange, yellow, green – and vibrant. It doesn’t ever get old. Coming from California (basically a seasonless land) it’s a beautiful thing to see, and also a powerful marker – a reminder that time is passing.
- Kids can run, breathe, and be free
This gets to the core of why we moved here. Yes the early childhood education here is better and far cheaper. But even more than that… I love that there are numerous huge parks around the city, and outside the city are fields, mountains, hikes, rivers, and everything a kid could hope for. Want to play in the dirt? Go for it. And the playgrounds here can get rather impressive.
- Home-Style Cooking 鍋物
It always comes back to food for me somehow. I can’t help it. It’s a big part of all our lives. And yes, while i love sushi, and ramen… these are things that can be found in the US. What you see much less often in the US (because the average person is unaware of it) are the many home-style foods that most Japanese enjoy. When it comes to this, it varies a lot depending on region. But for example, where I am… Nabe (hot pots, soups, stews) is very popular. Especially as it’s getting chilly now.
- Rice 米
Is all rice the same? Of course not. And like anything, the more of you eat the more difference you can taste. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve had my fill of bland, mushy rice in the US. In the countryside everyone has a rice field 田んぼ, and we’re fortunate enough to receive some big bags of rice from family members. It’s delicious and healthy, and helps round out almost every meal. This year was the first year I was able to witness, and semi-document the process of a rice field coming to life, and eventually being harvested.
- Biking in Relative Safety
I love walking and biking, because it gives you the opportunity to witness all the tiny details in your surroundings as compared to being in a car. Now… I would not bike in Los Angeles, because LA drivers certainly do not care about your safety – and even the ones who are good drivers are probably on their cell phone. Scary. Stereotyping? Yes. Here’s another one for you. Drivers in the Japanese countryside typically take great care to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists.
- Local Festivals
The city has very famous matsuri / festivals in the spring and summer which the tourists flock to. They are quite a spectacle. But the countryside is filled with many local food festivals, and farmers markets, and local events which are generally attended by the locals. I’ve been to more than one where I was the only non-Japanese person in sight. Nothing against tourists, but it’s nice to attend something which feels genuine and unique the neighborhood.
- Baiten Stands 売店
Ahh my favorite, the hot spring baths. I will try not to mention them in every blog post. But while many cities offer them (water piped in from natural spring) the countryside often offers a wide variety of Onsen which are right on top of the source. Literally, there are entire villages nearby which appear to just be a bunch of different Onsen locations/resorts/hotels. At times it looks like some have closed their doors, and I worry that visiting Onsen is not as popular as it once was. I only know I hope to visit hot springs across this country far and wide! (more about Onsen here!)
I could go on-and-on. And I will! Look out for upcoming blog posts about things to love about living in the Japanese countryside. Until then, check out my post about amazing Hida Beef – possibly the best beef in the world.
Do you live in the Japanese countryside, or want to? Comment and let me know something you love.
Not being from the countryside, let alone Japan, I’ve asked myself the question: How are all these beautiful rice fields prepared, planted, cultivated, harvested? I’ve heard the same question from friends and family as well.
Fortunately, this year I got to see the process take place over a couple months as the one behind our house was turned from a dry, already-harvested field – into a fresh newly-planted one.
By the time we arrived in March, winter was fading away along with the snow, and most rice fields sat empty with dry stubs where the rice had been harvested last year.
But as spring would start to appear, I would see these fields being prepared for growing in the new year.
This starts out as you probably might expect. A tractor tills the dirt with large rotating blades, turning the soil over and chopping up any plant material.
Next the sides of the field are shaped up, corners rounded, and sometimes covered with plastic to help “keep water in” later on.
Next the fields are flooded. How? Well.. up here in the mountains, water runs everywhere, a constantly supply from the snowy mountain tops and several rivers in the area, so everyone has plenty of water to irrigate their fields naturally.
(Quite a difference from water-deprived California from where we moved.)
Next, the fields are tilled once again…. maybe 3 or more times, getting the soil into a nice fine, smooth texture. I often see people adding fertilizer pellets at this point either walking the field and throwing it by hand, or via a machine (backpack with a pellet shooting attachment hose).
After some time and continued irrigation it’s time for planting the Nae (苗) or baby rice plants.
It seems like most people purchase these by the crate from a nearby grower. And next comes the fun part. The crates are loaded into a small tractor type vehicle which is exclusively for planting the little seedlings into the ground. It is quite satisfying to watch.
From here the water stays with the seedlings for a good, long time. As the rice grows, the water subsides, and more is added… it’s safe to say the soil must always stay moist, if not flooded with water.
And there you have it. I’m sure there are many more steps involved, but for a visual overview, this is what it looks like. Check back for my post on harvest time.
I’m always surprised when I bring up Onsen to Americans as one of my favorite things about Japan – and they aren’t familiar with it. Onsen is the Japanese term for “hot spring” but really it covers a lot more than that. It means the whole cultural experience of partaking in these volcanically heated natural baths. There are literally thousands of them in Japan!
What do I love about Onsen? So many things!
The fact is – usually your are out in nature and you can have have a rare moment to meditate or ponder life, and to enjoy a truly uniquely Japanese experience. A sense of harmony with nature, a sense of healing through the mineral baths, and a chance to reflect.
Oh, did i mention how amazing a HOT bath outdoors in the winter feels as snow falls around you… amazing!
Answers to common questions:
- Is it nude?
Almost always yes, and men and women’s areas are separated / not visible to each other. So nothing to worry about there.
I’ve also been to a co-ed one where a towel is provided for the women and men to cover sensitive areas – but I hear this is less common.
- Is it clean?
Very. In fact it is required that you shower and clean your body/hair thoroughly before entering.
This part is great, and usually an enjoyable, almost ritualistic time for a nice shave. Always be courteous to those in showers around you.
- Towel or no towel?
You will have access to a small towel for your use, but NO TOWELS IN THE ONSEN.
Keeping the Onsen water pure is a big deal, and you will likely upset someone if you bring a towel or any foreign object into the Onsen.
You may see people with their towel on their head, or possibly on a nearby rock.
- What kind of people go to Onsen?
Some American spas or “bath-houses” may have developed some stereotypes or a reputation. Do not compare this to Onsen!
I can assure you that Onsen is a big part of the Japanese culture and enjoyed by almost everyone.
- What about tattoos?
While there is still some stigma attached to tattoos in Japan, I have not encountered any difficulty in the few that I have been to.
It probably helps that I only have 1 tattoo, kept mostly out of view, and am also accompanied by locals.
If you have a lot of tattoos it might be worth checking with one of the locals regarding the specific Onsen in question.
- What’s in the water?
There are some specific requirements for a bath to be considered Onsen including concentrations of certain natural minerals.
The Onsen waters are generally considered to be good for the health, and offering healing properties.
Odds are if you are familiar with Japanese customs, and are able to go with the flow – you will greatly enjoy the Onsen baths, and it will become a favorite like it has for me.
If you are extremely concerned about being naked – many hotels or ryokan 旅館 offer private Onsen where you can experience without anyone else in eyesight. Also with a little research, co-ed Onsen can be found where towels are offered.
My recommendation? Try to enjoy the experience as if you were a local. Just follow what everyone else does and you’ll be fine! Good luck.
Are there Onsen’s you’ve already visited and would recommend? Please comment and let me know so I can add them to my future visit wish list!