Local Japan : Bessho-Onsen, A Real Experience of the Inaka
Have you ever taken a turn and completely gone off the main road then ended up in a totally unexpected place? In December 2017, when I resigned from my job as an English teacher at a conversation school in Yokohama and had planned to explore the Kansai region, never have I once thought that I would be living in the countryside of Nagano prefecture instead!
Of course, I should not have been surprised. My plans never really turn out the way I imagined them in my mind. I ended up taking on a pet and house sitting job in, you guessed it, Bessho-Onsen or Bessho for short. More specifically, Nogura Village in Bessho-Onsen, Ueda city, Nagano prefecture, Japan. Not to be confused with Besshou. That is in Kyushu.
Bessho-Onsen is a small onsen resort town known to be the oldest hot springs town recorded in the Shinshu region and only popular among locals. You will sometimes see Chinese tourists on a bus tour or caucasian couples a few times a month or so, but that is as international as it gets. The village I was living in is a 10 minute drive to Bessho-Onsen Station. I was to take care of three super adorable Shiba dogs. If you don’t know what kind of dogs are they, think Hachiko or doge the meme.
I would probably describe myself as your stereotypical city girl who was born and raised in a tropical country. Coffee from a hipster cafe in one hand and my Iphone loading up my instagram feed in the other. I think it is hard enough as it is to live a complete contrast to my city life but to add winter to that, it is a whole new world to me. I was ecstatic.
After arriving in Ueda on the bullet train, I took the Ueda Dentetsu Bessho Line from Ueda Station. It is a cute little old railway train, one that does not automatically open its doors for you when it stops. There were only maybe five people on the train including myself. I could totally feel the bustling megalopolis city trailing behind me.
The pet/house owner’s place is situated higher in the village, with a dangerously steep and narrow road leading up to her farmhouse. It is situated right between a forest and an abandoned house. Yeap. Despite the rural location, there was high speed internet! Thank you, Japan! I had a day with the owner showing me around before I had to drive her to her station early in the morning the next day before sunrise. When I got back to the pitch black village, coming up to my parking spot, my oh my I could not believe my eyes. A deer. A majestic deer with antlers and everything. A wild deer! It went away before I could snap a picture.
I later found out that some villagers were licensed hunters so I would be unlikely to see more wild animals after that. I got out of the car with my flashlight, and once again, completely stunned. I was mesmerized by the beauty of dawn. The vast, peaceful midnight velvet sky was completely filled with infinite diamond-like stars, glittering, illuminating, blazing its shine for my open eyes, stealing every thought from my mind. It was approaching sunrise. Leaks of light were escaping from behind the silhouette of the mountains, a smattering stretch of clouds hung low just above the mountains. I was just awe-struck watching the sky’s hue brightened as more streaks of white light appear. After a while, I start to notice the eerie atmosphere when flocks of crows start to congregate above the village. Yeap, I am done! Back to the house!
This was my routine, the kind that I would wake up and be excited about. I went on a hike with the dogs twice a day. The dogs were my perfect forest/mountain guides as they were familiar with the area. I would be lost without them as the trails were not very clear. Branches and fallen trunks of trees in the way. The forest floor saturated with pine needles, rocks, and fallen leaves. I was always on the look out for more wild animals during our hikes. Thankfully, bears hibernate in winter. I was told there are some in the area during other seasons. I do not know what it would be like to chance upon a bear and I do not wish to know.
Once I was back in the house, here comes the fun. I have to start a fire. As you might know, gas is expensive in Japan. Using the gas heater all day in the freezing winter is not the most economical thing to do. Being the city girl that I am, I have zero experience. The house owner showed me how on my first day and it took her less than ten minutes to have the fire burning fiercely in the wood-burning stove. On average it still took me half an hour to get a decent fire that will keep going for the whole day. If I took the wrong wood for burning (meaning it is still wet), I would see and hear bubbles of water screaming and squeezing itself out of the wood. The struggle is real.
When it snowed, it was so beautiful. Freezing, but enchanting. Watching the snow fall onto the rooftops and trees in the village from the house was such a tranquil experience. The dogs had a blast destroying the perfect snow-covered paths, eating frozen persimmons on the ground and the snow itself. I, on the other hand, had mini heart attacks every few minutes slipping on the icy roads and trying not to fall hard one too many times. It was then that I realized that my Dr. Martins boots were not appropriate for this season.
After a long day, it is time for a hot shower. But the farmhouse I was living in had no showers. Yeap! You read it. Fortunately, there is a free hot spring for the people in the village. As I was new to the village, it was ill-advised to go take a hot bath on my own. Thus, only in the evenings, I would meet my lovely neighbors and go together. That is a normal thing in Japan, apparently. To socialize while bathing in the hot spring. Thankfully I was already used to this you-have-to-be-naked-when-you-go-to-a-hot-spring-in-Japan culture. So, it was not too awkward. Besides the free hot spring in the village, I often go to either Oyu or Aisomenoyu in Bessho for a fancier bath. True to its reputation, the hot springs in Bessho are pretty amazing. The town is filled with ryokans (traditional Japanese Inns) as well so taking a private hot spring instead of going to a public one would make the experience even greater.
One of the major drawbacks living in Noguro for a city girl like me is that there were no proper flushing toilets. Especially not with those fancy Japanese toilet seats and the automated buttons. No. Just a hole in the ground with a cover. Japanese eco composting toilet, the owner calls it. It is a hole in the ground. Apparently everyone’s toilets were like that (unless you live closer to the center of the town). Even though it was winter so I could not actually smell anything, I still held my breath every time I had to go. I was also always trying to wait until I got into the stores or cafes in Bessho to use the toilets as well. This is a good example of what I had hidden from social media about my life in Nagano. Perhaps a little TMI (too much information)? That was my reality, though.
Bessho is busiest on New Year’s Day. Bessho Onsen town is not only known to be one of the oldest hot spring resorts in the Shinshu region, it is also a part of the temple town of Kitamuki Kannon. One of the traditions for the Japanese New Year Celebration is to visit a shrine or a temple. Hence, on New Year’s Day, people come from out of town to Bessho-Onsen for hatsumode (the first shrine/temple visit of the year). On New Year’s Eve, the roads leading up the temples in the area were blocked and festival stalls were set up selling festival snacks and drinks into the night. This was in anticipation for joya no kane (a ritual event of ringing the temple bell for 108 times). The roads were packed with cars and police navigating the roads. This continued for four days. I stayed in the village for four days.
I think the most interesting Japanese New Years tradition I experienced in Bessho was on the last day of the New Year’s celebration (January, 15th). It is called Dondoyaki. If I were celebrating New Year’s in Tokyo, I would never have learned about and experienced this event.
Everyone in the village is familiar with my three adorable dogs. Sometimes people would stop and play with the dogs and we would make small talk with my broken Japanese and their broken, if not zero, English. The locals were so friendly and hospitable. It was really easy to socialize with them. They invited me to their Christmas parties and New Years parties. They even threw me a farewell party when I had to leave for travel. I gained so many friendships and memories in this village despite the language barrier and lifestyle challenges. Every time we had a private gathering, I was given the leftovers. I never really had to cook! (Score!)
Living this inaka (country side) life has given me so many invaluable experiences. However, the city life is still where my heart is at. Events every weekend, hipster coffee shops, the city skyline, flushing toilets and hot showers, crowds of tourists, and high-pitched salesgirls screaming “time-sale desu”. It all sounds terrible and wonderful at the same time. I hope to stay in Bessho-Onsen again, just not too long though.
Written by Shui Sim