Cold Streams and Hot Springs
Toronto Globe and Mail, 27 September 2003
© 2003 by Greg Breining
TAKAYAMA, JAPAN—We popped our heads into a tackle shop called Gyoshin: "fishing god."
We were in luck. The god was in. His name was Toyoda Toshiaki.
In Japanese unexercised for 30 years, Susan, my wife and angling sweetheart, asked the god where to fish for trout. Toyoda began to describe a place that sounded far away. "No car," we said.
Then he described something that sounded like a pond. No, we said, a river. "Kawa," Susan said. I made wavy motions with my hand. Toyoda pointed emphatically to our map. Little use.
What was possible to communicate, given Susan's rusty Japanese and Toyoda's complete lack of English, fell so far short of the demands of the moment that, as if to say "The hell with it," Toyoda pushed us out the door and led us down a street that followed a rushing stream to a fishing spot in the heart of town. He left us there but minutes later showed up with his own tackle.
But Toyoda was not content merely to introduce us to the Takaharagawa. No, for two days, after watering his potted orchids and tending to his aquarium of char and trout, he locked his shop and drove us around the region of central Honshu known as Hida, or the Japan Alps.
Such was the generosity we encountered. But gracious people are not all there is to recommend this mountainous land a half-day's train ride from Tokyo. Many rustic pleasures are possible, among them our own indulgent aims: fly-fishing for trout and lounging in hot springs.
From Tokyo, our bullet train had sped through the green countryside to Nagoya, where we caught the express north to Takayama, the pre-eminent tourist town of this region. At the information center, we scanned a list of minshukus, the family-run guesthouses common throughout Japan, and picked one within easy walking distance.
Sosuke had a cozy entrance with a spartan interior. We stashed our packs and reported to dinner. Seated at low tables with other guests—some Western, but most Japanese—we ate the local specialties: beef and peppers simmered at the table in miso, with warabi (a fern) and eggplant.
The next morning, we rented bicycles to tour the town. Surrounded by mountains as high as 3,000 meters, Takayama was historically isolated and poor, known as a region with too many people and too little food. But isolation has meant the preservation of old streets with museums, historic buildings and sake merchants' homes. In Sannomachi Suji, the old center of town, we walked down crowded streets perhaps two-arm-spans wide, lined by traditional homes with interlocking eaves and sliding doors, dating to the 1700s. These days, brewers still make sake, and merchants still sell food and local crafts, such as sparsely adorned lacquerware, made of sensuous Japanese cypress.
We toured the Takayama Jinya national historic site, built by the local government in 1615, complete with prison and torture instruments. Commoners knelt outside to shout requests through a slotted barrier. Now, neither commoners nor prisoners wailed. Instead, the Spartan geometric layout, dark wood and tatami-covered floors imparted a sense of calm.
We biked to the base of Shiroyama Park—"castle mountain"—where Takayama Castle was built in 1590 and destroyed a century later. We followed a trail past Shourenji Temple, through glades of pine, cedar, bamboo and ferns. By the time we rode back into town, the shadows were long and the streets were filled with junior-high students visiting from large cities, touring a Japan that was more traditional and pastoral than the one they knew.
In Takayama, we found a shop packed with sophisticated tackle, including feather-light telescoping graphite rods, the likes of which I had never seen. As we bought licenses, Susan asked where we might fish. The owner gave us a brochure, printed in Japanese, with pretty photos of a stream called the Takaharagawa. In the center of the map was the town of Kamioka. Stepping off the bus, we discovered that Kamioka had no travel information center. But we found, in this order, a man who spoke English, a hotel, maps of the town, and Toyoda Toshiaki, the fishing god.
For two days, Toyoda served as guide. Roaring up the mountain in his tiny four-wheel-drive Suzuki van, we fished a small tributary that spilled from a small hydro station, one of many that divide the Takaharagawa and its tributaries into watered and de-watered segments. The gorge was suffused with emerald light. We caught a few trout, all small. I asked Toyoda about the largest trout he had caught. Fifty centimeters, he said, or about 20 inches.
As we clambered from the river, Toyoda asked Susan if she had caught any fish. She had not.
"Well, it really doesn't make any difference, does it?" he remarked.
Back at our hotel, Susan pulled out a beribboned envelope with money we hoped would compensate Toyoda for time away from his business. He would have none of it. He jumped in his van and, as he sped off into the setting sun, we were left speechless, unable to express our gratitude—in his language, our language, or any other.
VOLCANIC MOUNTAINS and icy streams have created the onsen ryokan, or hot-spring resort. They are scattered throughout Japan. As our bus wound east from Kamioka, we saw steam rising from natural vents in the hillsides. At Shin-Hotaka, the air was pungent with sulfur. Plumbing ran everywhere, carrying hot, mineral-rich water to spas and hotels along the rushing Gamatagawa. Phone calls and brochures at the information center made it clear that the resorts came in all varieties. The brochure of one resort was gorgeous . The rooms were $270 a night per person, more gorgeous than we could afford. We decided on the Yarimikan at half the price.
Barely pausing beneath the massive beams of the soaring lobby, where a small fire burned in an irori (hearth) surrounded by fur seat cushions, we ditched our grubby travelling clothes and donned flip-flops and cotton yukatas to explore Yarimikan's seven rotenburos, or outdoor baths.
First, we eased into the private bath (one party at a time) in a secluded grotto overlooking the cascading Gamatagawa. Steaming water trickled from a bamboo pipe into a pool that appeared to have been carved by nature from the cliffs and boulders of the river gorge.
The next bath was open to men and women. We gazed at the sky and green-clad mountains as we clutched small, white washcloths to preserve our modesty in case company stumbled by.
By turns, we tried the others: a women's bath for Susan, a men's bath for me. The Disney World of baths, with a rope swing and slide. A big, rectangular, cedar tub for soaking. A rock-lined whirlpool.
What most impressed me were simple iron tubs, imbedded in the ground, each covered by a floating wooden disk. The cover both retained heat and kept us from burning our feet on the metal bottom. I eased into the tub—essentially a big stockpot—and tucked into a ball, with only my knees and head above water. After a few minutes, I had cooked enough and fled.
Everywhere we heard water: The rush of the stream, the drip of pipes, the swirl of the baths. We cooled off next to a pond fed by a trickle of water. More than a dozen trout, some nearly a half-meter long, swam through the pool. If only we could fish for trout like that! We plucked stoneflies from the trees and tossed them in the pond. Trout swirled and sucked them down.
Limp from hours of bathing, we ate. Dinner came in waves; small waves, but they seemed never-ending. Beef with shiitake mushrooms, peppers and eggplant simmered at our table. Sashimi, tiny "lightning bug" squid, warabi, prawns. Salt-broiled char, skewered to appear as though swimming. Tofu so fresh it quivered. Sushi, salt-pickled egg yoke and bamboo shoot. Ham salad, jellied aloe, baby corn, tomatoes, button mushrooms. Finally, sweet grapes the size of peas, served with cherries. We drained our sake and crawled to our room.
During our stay, our every need was attended to by the manager, Suzuki Toshio, which was surprising, considering we had wandered in toting backpacks, grimy with travel. In his eagerness, he made me think of a tiny atom, spinning furiously. When we told him we hoped to do some fishing, he chauffeured us to another hotel, where he helped us buy licenses.
Ultimately, what draws you on isn't what you find. We traveled to Hida for the fishing and hot springs. Instead, we found generosity.
IF YOU GO
Takayama is 241 kilometers from Tokyo. Take the bullet train to Nagoya, then the Takayama Main Line Limited Express north.
Where to Stay
Family-run minshukus are common and pleasant.
For more information, call the Japan National Tourist Organization in Toronto at (416) 366-7140 or visit www.japantravelinfo.com.