>Where Heike warriors walked… and bathed!

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It was an overcast day but the grey clouds only served to add mist and atmosphere to the hidden valley deep in Tochigi prefecture. From Asakusa Tokyo, it took me the better part of three hours to get to the remote Honke Bankyu ryokan atYunishigawa Onsen. But it is well worth the journey.

From the Villa Fontaine at Shiodome, it was an easy walk underground to the Ginza station where I took the subway to Asakusa. What I love about Tokyo is the connectivity of their buildings with the transport system. Seems like everything is well-planned and thought out. Underground malls and passages connect both JR lines and subways with the major buildings.

From Asakusa Tobu station, with lots of sign language and smiles, I managed to buy a 2-day pass for travel in the Kinugawa/Nikko area which covered both my bus and rail journeys.

I was early and as always, it was interesting to see the cleaning crew on standby at the platform, and then bowing before making their way into the train to clean up the train and reverse the seats.

The train I took was a sleek nosed model called the SPACIA. I had to pay a supplement for this but I think it was worth skipping most of the smaller stations along the way. I was seated across the aisle from a group of excitedly chattering obachan, clearly out for a girls’ day out at the spa. Again with smiles, bows and sign language, I asked one of them to take a picture of me and the tiny obachan cheerily obliged.


Passing the wide grey Sumida-gawa, I passed the usual views of Tokyo with all the ferroconcrete structures cheek by jowl, a small patch of grass and tiny playground, schools, workers in a cafetaria having a break, passengers waiting for trains on a platform. All that soon gave way to farmland, running alongside the tracks, bamboo groves, gentle green hills and clusters of houses with the occasional Jizo statue standing guard at some road junctions. As the train snaked deeper into the countryside, we passed mist-covered pools of water, fringed by dark trees. The further away from Tokyo I went, the more of an adventure I felt I was in.

Almost two hours into the journey, the train pulled up at Kinugawa Onsen. Kinugawa Onsen itself is a popular spa town among the Japanese. But I was looking for something a lot more traditional than the many blocks of hotels that ringed the area. So off I went, asking for directions again at the stationmaster’s office, just to be clear that I was on the right track. Just outside the station is a large plaza with a series of bus-stands and right on time, with just a few minutes wait, the bus for Honke Bankyu pulled up.

Again, I am always amazed how much clockwork precision went into timing train arrivals and bus connections to fit just right. If this sort of mapping can be done in a country like Japan, connecting even the most remote towns so efficiently and painlessly, why can this not be done in a city like Singapore?

The bus trundled over hills and valleys, passing in the middle of sleepy quiet towns, over bridges spanning wide rivers. About half an hour into the journey, it stopped at Yunishigawa train station, a tiny station in the middle of nowhere. No houses stood in the vicinity. It was just the station and the river. No one got on. I was the last passenger on board. A bit apprehensive, I clarified once more with the driver, who made an OK sign and grinned reassuringly.

On we went for another half an hour – just me and the bus driver on a road that was increasingly narrow. On one side was the tree and foliage filled face of the hill and other, a drop into a steep canyon where a tiny river trickled by on a pebbled bed. There was some construction along the way and it brought to mind Alex Kerr’s bitterness about the desecration of Japan’s rivers and streams by constant damming.

Finally the bus lumbered into a one-street town and the driver nodded to the left – Honke Bankyu ryokan. I got down and there it was – a double story white and timber building at the background of a gravelled parking lot.

The ryokan must have been expecting me. A ryokan staff, dressed in a dark green kimono, hurried up to me with an umbrella. At the foyer, I slipped into a pair of slippers and the lady of the house who spoke halting English, welcomed me warmly. Someone struck a drum, a deep sound of welcome reverberated, marking the centuries of tradition at the ryokan to announce the arrival of a guest. I fumbled for my camera apologetically and with warm smiles, they struck the drum again.

My room was up a flight of dark wooden creaky stairs and timber beams. The main building, where I stayed, is a 300-year-old building with beams that look uneven in size and texture, floors that have been worn smooth by time and altogether, imbued with the tradition and rustic charm that I was looking for in a ryokan stay.

I had the standard room, which the picture does not do justice to. The sliding doors of the main entrance opened to a tiny vestibule where the slippers are kept. On a raised wooden platform, another set of shoji screen doors open up to the room itself. What you see in the picture is a sitting area with doors that open up to a view of mountain, forest and stream. The area even had a wooden trapdoor that concealed an irori – an indoor hearth. On the left, unseen in this picture, is the wood-lined bathroom with a deep cedar tub.

As the custom in a ryokan, I was given a brief orientation, tea was brewed and I was asked what time I would prefer to have dinner and breakfast. It was all a bit formal but once the kind lady had left the room, I skipped about the place gleefully, unable to stop grinning. I made it! I am here in this wonderful room, with only the rustling of leaves and the murmur of the stream far below.

Dinner was at 6.30pm so I had about an hour or so to check out the onsen. The Honke Bankyu had segregated baths, one an indoor bath and the other a rotemburo for ladies. The changing area was large, well-lit and came with bells and whistles such as hairdryers, warm tea, all the tiny amenities that ladies needed and even a weighing scale – which I steered clear of!

So here’s the truth – no matter how many onsen you visit, you’re still an onsen virgin until you’ve bathed with strangers. In earlier visits to Japan, there were only my girls with me in the bath. Here, at the Honke Bankyu, I met my waterloo. I tried not to look at them and I tried to scrub down as quickly as I could but it was hard not to sneak a peek. I’m glad I did because it was good to see that I’m not the only one with all the weird bits hanging out! You do get used to it after a while and once in the water, no one really cares if you look like the Goodyear blimp since everyone’s just spacing out or talking quietly to friends.

After the bath, I suddenly realised how hungry I was. At 6.30pm sharp, I crossed the kazura bashi – the vine bridge that linked the old main building to the dining hall. It was all so atmospheric. In the deepening purple and mauve light of dusk, the hills were only dark shadows and outlines. Far beneath my feet, water with glints of light, gurgled past. The lights of the ryokan had come on, warm and orange. Dressed in my yukata, standing there gazing at the scene, I felt as if I had gone back centuries in time.

Dining was communal in a large hall laced with lanterns. We all sat on the floor, flanking our own irori where food was already skewered and standing ready in the sand, gently heated by a small fire. Next to me was my own personal tray of food – always so impeccably arranged and in tune with the seasons and setting. I had read that the food at the Honke Bankyu was unusual even by Japanese standards, so I was prepared for something really special. True enough, it did not disappoint. My favourite was the shiksa sashimi – raw deer meat sashimi, lightly torched. There was no hint of gaminess and neither was the meat chewy.

The waitress patiently tried to explain and describe each dish to me. As we tried conversing a bit, I heard a familiar accent. A couple seated across from me smiled and asked me where I was from. When I told them, they grinned: “So are we!”

They were friendly folk but ack, what are the odds of bumping into other Singaporeans in this remote, far-flung corner of Japan! We chatted for a while but it was clear that they were in a different social strata. Retired, well-educated, clearly well-heeled and well-travelled, they were in Japan tracing an onsen route through highly expensive exclusive ryokans. For them, the Honke Bankyu was a stop in an itinerary punctuated by the best ryokans Japan had to offer. For me, this was a splurge!

Midway through dinner, the owner of the ryokan gave a speech. All in Japanese so I was completely lost. She then went from one party to another, being the gracious host. Yikes, I was not looking forward to that! In fact, I was thoroughly intimidated. I could not speak a word of the language so past the initial smiles, she stiffened up a bit and beckoned me over to the other Singaporean party where she also invited a young Frenchman (but fluent Japanese speaker) to translate. It was all a bit awkward. French guy was cute though.

After dinner, it was a quick exploratory walk through the ryokan. The living space had a large irori as a centrepiece. Above it, near my room is a cosy library corner complete with leather couches, book-filled shelves and an internet corner. Back in my room, I found the table cleared away and my futon already laid out – an invitation to slumber which I gladly accepted.

Snuggled there, bean pillow beneath my head, I gazed out at the night sky – just an insignificant little dot tucked away in a far-away corner of Japan. I liked the feeling of anonymity and solitude. I was glad I made the journey to the Honke Bankyu. I liked the sense of anticipation for the next day’s travel and the delicious thrill of not knowing what comes next. But right then, at that time, I could not sleep better anywhere else in the world.

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2 Responses to >Where Heike warriors walked… and bathed!

  1. Anonymous says:

    >the ryokan and the way the food is served reminded me of one of the ryokans i saw in japan hour! and boy, you are truly adventurous to have embarked on this on your own! i don't think i am brave enough to do that, cause i am quite hopeless when it comes to directions plus the fact that i don't speak the language…regardsoctopusmum

  2. Momto5 says:

    >hi octopusmumits very liberating to travel on your own. i also don't speak the language but japan is very safe and there is adequate signage in english. i think japan is one of the easier places in the world for solo travel. i really enjoyed my solo trip and would like to do this again.

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