We arrive after a 6h bus trip. Japanese countryside greets us. And I don’t mean the New Zealand kind of ‘countryside’, where you have low level buildings, green pastures, off-white sheep and the occasional petrol kiosk. I’m talking about rice fields, thatched ryokans (inns) and running streams.
We walk around to explore the place a bit. It’s like exploring a piece of Japan that was locked in time. There are no railway tracks, no power lines, no wifi (a fact that makes Soo whine). The occasional car reminds us that this is the 21st century. Apart from that, this is truly countryside.
The village (seems a particularly apt word here) is set against a backdrop of coniferous trees and snowy mountains. It’s zen. Not in the way that shrines and temples and gardens constructed by zen-masters are zen. More of zen – in the way that nature can be zen. Naturally zen. Authentically zen.
At 6PM, a bell (think recess-bell) rings throughout the village. We come back to the ryokan we’re staying at to the best dinner that we’ve had in Japan so far. It is complete with self-cooked beef, tempura veggies and sliced oranges. And also fish, tofu, and miso broth. The four of us sit in one line at a long table with two other Japanese guests. The innkeeper comes out to light the fire for the sukiyaki, then stays to chat with us. So instead of saying grace together as we normally do, we say our own grace and began to feast. The other three punctuate their meal with exclamations of how awesome everything is. I eat in silence because of how awesome everything is.
Later at night, we hear the sounds of crickets and toads. We also hear the guy snoring next door (after we return), because nothing here is sound-proof. The sliding doors, after all, are covered with only paper. The street lamps are too far away from one another, so night walks are rather exhilarating.
But we have a 9PM curfew. And the night sky is disappointingly star-less. So we take turns to bathe, then curl up in the beddings that the innkeeper rolled out over the tatami flooring while we were at dinner. Thick nice beddings that make cold nights warm and make sleeping exciting. Jes journals, Jess reads Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness, Soo reads Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. We laugh occasionally at the way the guy next door snores, eat some pretzels, and talk about IVFs and the Church’s dilemma with frozen embryos.
It’s 11.02PM. What a wonderful night.