Admittedly I wasn’t sure about coming on this trip at the very beginning of the planning stage. The cost was mostly unknown, where we were really going in Niigata was unknown, and what we would be doing was also unknown. But then I remembered something: I love the unknown! The unknown is inspiring, to jump into something and then work out the rest later is a skill in itself (to be used n moderation too), and something that life simply wouldn’t be the same without.
So the 10 of us found ourselves wandering out of the dormitory at roughly 9:15am on a Saturday. I was in good spirits – fuelled by half an hour’s sleep and on a desperate hunt to find a caffeine fix. Upon finding it my excitement exploded upon hearing the news – we were going to be riding the bullet train for free! It turns out that Nagisa had won the tickets from a JR lottery. I chuckled inside that so many people would be missing out, their loss.
Now, I’ve ridden the bullet train several times over my trips to Japan, however this time around I hadn’t ridden it a single time because the cost is quite frankly ludicrous unless time is of the utmost essence. Without a doubt it is one of the fastest ways around though and probably beats the plane to most locations. By the time we sat down on our seats I was a great bubbling fountain of childish excitement – this was multiplied by the fact that there was definitely some casual flirting going on. On occasion I would get up and walk to the windows in the doors and stare avidly at the rolling fields, cities and mountains. Yeah, to say I was anywhere but on cloud nine would be a total lie!
(https://youtu.be/bt70-Oq971A for shinkansen love)
Before I knew it we had arrived at our transfer location, so it was with a weight in my heart that I bid the Shinkansen farewell. The next train took us past a mountain vista overlooking a city and paddy fields, we all stared in amazement at the beauty of it all. Then, as if it all had just begun, it was over, we stepped off of the train and into Matsudai station where we were greeted by a happy old man of about 75 by the name of Kazuo. From here our incredible, but sleep deprived day began.
We were first of all guided to the station’s eatery for lunch, where I chose a simple かつ丼, we didn’t have much time and the portion sizes were quite big – which proved to be a little bit of a challenge. During this time we did self-introductions to our newfound elderly members of our party; I introduced myself as a person who considers himself an adventurer to their amusement and bewilderment. I’ve done so many self-introductions it is hard to take them seriously these days. In that café the general age was about 65, this place wasn’t bubbling with youth, but there was joviality in the air!
Then we were off, heading over the hills in a minivan that had been arranged by the town council’s head manager. We saw a place called 星峠の棚田 (Hoshitouge rice terrace) which was apparently incredibly famous, where the water of the cascading paddy fields reflected the sky above, giving the area a surreal look. It wasn’t as strong as pictures I’d seen, but you could still see the effect. Just from this the place had such an old feel to it, it were as if we had stepped back in time – perhaps they were magical portals!
Our next location was a set of houses built by a german fellow named”Karl Bengs”. They looked almost as if they had come out of a fairytale, so perfectly placed, nestled in a secluded canopy on the side of the mountain. They would be cold in Winter. Apparently their creator actually received some kind of reward from Abe Shinzo because thanks to his architecture it helped to bring tourism and young people to the area. The area is also home to a once-every-three-years art event.
After this we were guided around a building located roughly 4 metres above the ground that was yet another art museum of sorts, it had a particularly dynamic piece of artwork that made use of both the building and the mountainside to portray the relationship between the turn of the seasons and harvesting the rice. It was ingenious and amusing as storytelling goes. Here we sat down for a while to rest; a moment’s respite in a busy day!
We then visited the seminar house to drop off our effects (I’ll explain this in greater detail later) and then proceeded to one of the most beautiful onsen I have ever bathed in! It was situated on the top of a mountainside, a strange place for an onsen or so I thought, but the view from the main bath was a true spectacle! From the water you can see insanely far, you can follow the peaks and troughs of the mountains, even the snow-capped ones far away. It was as if you were flying, or in a sky-high hotel with a swimming pool at the top. I sat there for a while and took it all in. Without a camera all you can do is burn the scene into memory and take it out often enough to remember! It was a breathtakingly beautiful place to relax in. After I got out I even had a double serving of thick, creamy milk!
Relaxed and reeling from touching the sky in the nude we hopped back into the minibus and headed toward where we would stay the night: Waseda’s seminar house. I had lost a bit of respect for Waseda due to it being a big part of mental state being little to be desired of late. However looking at this well-upheld place several hundred miles away with its own baseball field and tennis courts I couldn’t help but admire the flamboyancy of the university. It was a lovely building that had a wooden smell to it, I wonder how many people had come here seeking inspiration in the past, or even began love lives here. That was the kind of atmosphere that this place exuded.
Dinner was ready upon our arrival which we set upon with abandon. There was one guy who didn’t wait and started eating straight away who I couldn’t help but feel disdain for honestly. This was a time where you should feel the mood and although only two of us were Japanese there are still cultural protocols that should be followed. The dinner was delicious, I even got an extra serving of hamberg steak, “mottainai” right? I needed a bit of a rest and managed a 20 minute nap before the next phase began. A nomikai of sorts.
This nomikai involved the members of the council who had helped to organise this trip, I daresay it was a little bit daunting at first. The chief manager barely cracked any sign of happiness in the early stages, his eyes were very dark and clouded at first, or perhaps he was simply well practiced at being unreadable; it set me a little bit on edge – what was his game-plan? What an unfathomable man. After yet another round of self-introductions we began drinking.
Conversations started slowly, but after a few drinks and time everybody began to warm up to one-another. It can’t be helped but there is both an age and cultural difference that can get in the way. After around forty minutes even the chief was laughing, his apparent mood reflected the ambiance of the room: friendliness. I chatted about umeshu, the difficulties of keigo and especially about the usage of it, I even helped one of the younger workers with her confidence in English, encouraging her to speak it enthusiastically. The most interesting conversation was with Kazuo, explaining why young people go to the city and then why people return to the countryside. It was almost like a circle of life thing.
After it was over I had a rather tipsy lady thanking me profusely for helping her with English, and promises from another guy to give me a bottle of his home-made umeshu! I lucked out! For the record, the umeshu is extremely strong, but delicious! It was at this stage that the night took me in another wonderful direction. With nothing else for us to do we were finally left to our own devices. I took my camera outside and began taking photos. It was a clear night and we were quite frankly in the middle of nowhere – a true rarity, resulting in some wonderful photos. I messed up the ISO, however I captured a shooting star and also a picture of the milky way. It wasn’t as bright as in Bulgaria, but all the same it was still a true spectacle of nature!
It was here, beneath the starry night sky that I somehow ended up getting close to and making out with someone on the cosy grass. We had been flirting all day, and it was most certainly welcome. I suppose the mood just fit quite nicely. I mean, sure it isn’t all the way, but it certainly is a memory that I’ll think back to for years to come. A brief flash of summer’s romance beneath the glittering heavens; it is something that most only dream of yet alone experience! After a while we returned indoors, had a few drinking games and went to bed, everybody was exhausted and the alcohol’s initial rush had ended.
The incessant chiming of an alarm clock. Please somebody, make it stop! It isn’t stopping. Ok, I’m awake – were some of the first things that popped to mind at 7:36am. The next idea involved having a shower. I daresay this shower was reminiscent of Scotland two years prior – when the Glen Coe hut’s shower broke, resulting in bathing in a river of meltwater from the mountain peaks. The water here was cold too, so I showered using freezing water. It was really rather refreshing! We all slowly shuffled in for breakfast – a classic multi-piece Japanese breakfast.
We then prepared ourselves to leave. I had a brief chat with my romantic interest of the previous night, of which she seemed really quite embarrassed, also came close and cuddled, but also seemed very unsure of what to do. She kept a bit of an emotional distance in our conversations this day but also was probably quite tired. I’ll work this mystery out some other time. In the meanwhile we went to the nearby castle and dressed like samurai and ninja. I felt like a badass and had real issues putting my face into that angry-dejected look that reeks of “everything the light touches is my kingdom” kind of look. I’d make an awful warlord – I’m simply not angry enough.
After this we ate lunch – it was delicious, the soba was a tinge of green and had a peculiar flavour to it. There was also chestnut, and an interesting type of tea which you would add to the dipping sauce at the end. The tempura also consisted of some strange local flowers; flowers which were battered, eaten and tasted fantastic?! How do people think of these things is anybody’s guess, did this kind of spectacular madness strike them during their dreams? My personal favourite was the mushroom, it was battered too, but this only served to enhance and contain the flavour within the fine coating, it isn’t something I could possibly replicate in the UK unfortunately!
Our final location was a house that was 150 years old. It was built to last without a doubt and used to be where the leaders of Matsudai lived. Thick, polished wood gave off a slightly smoky smell – giving the building a faintly incense-like fragrance. There was an old cooking pit, pictures of various deities (do not fall asleep in front of them so we were told), and many old tools. Most of the tools were retained from its past occupants’ times. They were well equipped for everything – even the house with its second floor exit was ready for the 4 metres of snow that befell the area yearly. Human ingenuity truly is fantastic, as smart as I think I am, I would barely understand the bones of such a structure. Thank goodness for books if everything went bad.
We were given tea and some kind of mochi bun containing either seaweed or adzuki, relaxed, and then had to leave. I was glad – I was falling asleep on the spot! We bought souvenirs, purin (3/10 on the purin scale) and departed, beginning our trip home. Most of us slept on both trains, but I couldn’t help but stay awake for the Shinkansen; I will reiterate that I am a child. A child that regretted nothing. A child that was happily reminded that we are small, insignificant creatures in the turnings of the world. A child that at the strangest of times rediscovered the joys of rolling in the grass in another’s arms.