I knew nothing about Gunma Prefecture and that’s why I went there. A few weeks ago, depressed by the damp, dank dullness of an Osaka winter, I realized that I had four days off in March, and I immediately started to make elaborate plans to go somewhere sunny. Okinawa? Taiwan? Kyushu, even? I couldn’t decide. I hesitated, changed my mind, stared into space in front of the computer, put it off, stood outside travel agencies like I was approaching the Confessional. Finally, the looming deadline had placed the tickets to the destinations I had in mind out of my price range. It’s Grad Month in Japan, so kids are taking their final trips together to all the places I’d like to have gone. Even Miyakojima, a relatively reasonable little island in the Ryukyu (Okinawa) chain, would cost about ￥90,000 to get to and from. I could fly to Vancouver for that (and Hawaii for probably less). He who hesitates, etc.,etc…
Inspiration came to me while schlepping my futons (bad back – I need three) to another room to escape the noise of the next-door neighbour (I don’t have to wake up until 8 at the earliest; she’s taken to vacuuming at 7 A.M.; the man upstairs has recently bought new speakers and his stereo is set to come on at 7:40 every morning. The couple below me seem to have got a good deal on an iron lung and rev it up every evening, so getting to sleep and staying asleep have become challenging of late). Looking around for something to read in bed, I grabbed from the bookshelf a back issue – I never throw anything away – of an expensive but beautiful Japanese magazine of expensive but beautiful Japanese things, Kateigaho. I flipped through until I came upon a photo essay about Japanese hot springs (温泉, onsen). They looked really inviting, and most looked prohibitively expensive (some of them over ¥30,000 per night). One caught my eye, though: Houshi Onsen, an old spa in the mountains. Sounded familiar, but I didn’t know why.
I checked the name of the author of the article: Robert Neff. I remembered that I had a copy of his book, Japan’s Hidden Hot Springs, somewhere. I glanced at the book while researching an article last year: I recall giving it a positive, but rather too flippant thumb-nail review. I looked around, found the book, found Houshi Onsen, and the Choujikan, Neff’s review which was very positive. I decided to go. Alone.
Well, I didn’t exactly decide to go alone, but nobody else could or wanted to. The more people who go to an inn, the cheaper the room is, but I’d decided. I paid more than I had first expected, plus the transportation fees (that’s the real killer in Japan). A Japanese friend called the inn, and made a reservation (I’m better in Japanese in person than on the phone). And there I was: all decided. From looking for a four-day trip to a warm place to an overnight trip on the edge of Snow Country. It’s a funny old world.
While you’re waiting, here are some photos of Houshi Onsen.