Excerpts from Japan Sketches, Haibun from Travels
hundred miles we have trained today, and arrive in the gloaming
at Tazawako. The place we seek lies yet ahead, to the north
and into the mountains. The
tattooed driver of the local cab has heard of it, and we are relieved. He quotes
a price, and we are dismayed. His breathstream plumes white into the cooling
air as we converse, agree, and bid him take us there.
The valley road is two lanes wide, straight
and smooth all the way to the Pacific Coast. We follow it
for several minutes, then turn north onto a narrower road
aimed straight at Mt. Iwate.
The dusklight has now faded, and no moon has
risen. The mountains crowding round are discernible only as
a greater blackness against the blackness of the sky. The
snow which skirts the road deepens as we rapidly rise.
We turn again, onto a road even more ragged
and narrow. We cannot see around the switchbacks the road
makes to accommodate this steep climb. The headlights illumine
only the wall of snow which now surrounds us. The shapes of
the roadside trees, mere shadows hurrying past, are mixed,
then become all pine, then disappear altogether.
When at last we crest, the road turns to gravel,
and we careen down into an unlit valley, snaking along a river
whose rush we can hear above the rattle of the cab, but cannot
We have grown accustomed to this dimness, but
there is nothing out there for our eyes to hold, merely the
apparitions of snow and landscape. It is in some other manner,
then, that we slowly become aware of a looming
presence, the blackness which presides here. As we have plunged down, a mountain
has risen up before us, whose dimensions we cannot take in with a single pass:
it is the genius of the place. Its arms extend around and behind us; there is
no other place to go but into its embrace.
The cab, fishtailing in the mud and ruts, slows
and finally stops. We remain seated before the presence, silent
in the darkness. Only then, and slowly, do we make out the
dim light of kerosene lamps strung out before an ancient building.
We have arrived.
into the dark
of an unknown country--
beginning to see
The night is bitter, and utterly black. We
have donned our yukata--the heavy one supplied against this
mountain cold--and leatherette slippers, the largest they
have but not quite large enough for our feet. We carry a lighter
cotton yukata used after bathing over our arms, and set out
in search of the hot springs.
For at least a thousand years people have come
here. Almost nothing has been done to improve it. It has been
the right choice. The rustic lodge dates from the fifteen-hundreds.
Its thatched roofs, black from centuries of kerosene fires,
might be original. No one is sure.
Electricity has come to this valley, but this
place will have nothing to do with it. Each of four baths,
four distinct waters--black, green, white and clear--issues
from the belly of the mountain. Each possesses its own temperature,
odor and feel. Each is specific for a host of ailments, from
sciatica to psychopathy, and they do not overlap. Thousands
attest to the properties of these elixirs, and each swears
by his favorite.
We, unafflicted and careless, sample them all,
lingering last and longest in the large outdoor pool, whose
cobbled bottom massages the feet as one scuttles about. Other
stones, larger and exposed, accommodate a variety of resting
postures. My favorite cups my head like a pillow, permitting
me to lay immersed while gazing up into the blackness of the
sky. A few stars can be glimpsed, but a mist obscures them.
I shift left and right, but they come no clearer. It is some
time before I realize they are hidden by the fog emanating
from my own bald head.
on the bathhouse eaves,