Feeling Natsukashii in Nikko

January 18, 2012

When I first moved to Japan fifteen years ago, I was living in this tiny little fishing village off the coast of the Japan Sea.

The town is, supposedly, quite famous for its fresh seafood. Or, at least, that’s what everyone told me as soon as I arrived. Conversations would go something like this: “Welcome to our town! It’s famous for seafood! Please don’t leave!”

The town’s other main attractions included these talking fish statues that lined the main street and a bridge which every hour would play music while these plastic cartoon characters would pop out and dance around. And before you all start making that loopy gesture with your finger around your ear as a sign that I’m crazy, I assure you I have photographic evidence.

Me & one of the talking fish statues. He obviously has good taste in eyewear.


The bridge. See? I told you it exists.

The town was quite charming in a rural Japan kind of way. My job was rather easy, and I had a fair number of friends. I had my own house which was located conveniently behind a fish paste factory, should I ever, you know, really need some fish paste. And the people were all ridiculously nice to me despite the fact that my knowledge of Japanese was limited to approximately three phrases, including, “Good Morning,” “Excuse Me,” and “I’m a triplet.” (You’d actually be surprised at how much ground this covers. Just saying.)

Despite all that, I left after one year.

I had always fancied myself something of a big city girl meant for much more exciting environs than a fish paste factory and a handful of talking fish statues. (Mind you, I still thought the bridge was pretty fantastic. In fact, a few years ago I convinced some of my friends to go there while we were on a road trip. My main enticement to get them there was so that they could see the bridge for themselves. When we arrived and were told the bridge was closed for the winter, I almost cried. Okay, so maybe I did cry.)

When I moved back to Japan a few years ago, I was happy to be living in the decidedly more cosmopolitan area of Kobe, where there was a lot more going on than statues of fish… like, umm, statues of naked people in awkward formations.

Most awkward family gathering. EVER.

Every once in a while, though, I would feel this twinge of nostalgia or what the Japanese call natsukashii for small town Japan, where life was simpler, people were a tad bit nicer and statues were not the things of creepy nightmares. (Okay, so maybe talking fish statues are totally the things of nightmares — but you have to admit they are a lot less nightmarish than that naked family statue.)

The great thing about Japan is that it’s such a small country that should you ever need your small town fix, you can easily head off into the hills for the weekend. And then be back in the big city by work on Monday.

Last week, I was feeling a little bit of that old small town Japan nostalgia.

After soaking up the city for five days in Tokyo, I decided to head north to Nikko to soak up a little small town life. Located two hours away from Tokyo by train, Nikko is famous for its shrines, mountains and hot springs.

It’s also super famous for being freezing cold in the winter, as I would soon find out once I told all my friends that I was planning to go there for a few days.

“I hope you’re prepared to freeze your butt off,” one of my friends said on Facebook.

I was not.

Admittedly, I wasn’t prepared for much.

You see, when I arrived in Japan the only thing I had on my itinerary was to get to Tokyo and go to my friend’s wedding. After I’d crossed those things off my list, I didn’t really know what to do. So I spent five days hanging out in Tokyo, gawking at all the cute hipster boys and eating deep-fried food balls. Because that’s just how I roll.

This was a deep-fried pork ball.


And, this was a deep-fried cake ball. Yes, you heard me correctly.

I should also mention that I had packed my bags at 5 AM the day I was leaving China. So the contents of my bags are the contents of the bags of a crazy person. Needless to say, I did not have any clothes appropriate for battling below freezing temperatures or hiking up mountains.

I did have five t-shirts – because, you know, you can never have enough t-shirts in the middle of winter.

I also had a pair of spandex running pants even though I haven’t gone for a run in, like, five months.

And there was my pair of high-heeled pleather boots that I can’t wear for longer than two hours or my feet will start to convulse.

Luckily, being in Tokyo, I was able to pick up a few things before my trip. Like this pair of long underwear:

Japan technology, don't fail me now!

(Yes, those are men’s long underwear. The women’s long underwear looked rather, err, flimsy. And, let’s just say, after all those deep fried food balls, I felt I might need something a bit, ahem, sturdier.)

After arriving in Nikko, checking into my hostel and strapping on my new long underwear, I took a trek through town to see what was going on.

What was going on?

Well, not much really.

But in a charming rural Japan kind of way.

There was this bridge.

Pretty, yes. But, sadly, with no dancing cartoon characters.

And there was a park with lots of Buddha statues.

Also pretty. But none of them talk. I guess I should just be happy that they're all wearing clothes, huh?

And there was this charming little restaurant where the walls were covered in notes from previous customers.

And there were lots of really nice people. Every time I would pass someone on the street, they would nod and say good evening. A few of them even stopped to make comments about the weather. People were so nice to me, in fact, that I started to suspect there was something in the water.

The following day, I tromped through temples and hiked up mountains and was treated with so much kindness it made me feel like I might be some kind of minor deity.

Twice, I stepped out into the street and cars stopped. Like, actually stopped so as not to kill me or anything. (Note to self: Do not get used to this. You have to return to China next week. Where cars aren’t really into the business of stopping for pedestrians.)

The owner of a café I went to made me origami cranes and gave me a small packet of origami paper before I left.

The waitress of another cafe came running after me when I left my hat on the table.

Now, I’m used to Japanese people being, for the most part, pretty ridiculously nice — especially considering they have to deal with me and my limited Japanese and my tendency to scream out things like, “I’m a triplet” whenever I get lost for words. (Which is often. Considering I don’t really have that many words to begin with.)

But this behavior was not natural. I mean, people can’t just be like that all the time, can they? Wouldn’t that be exhausting? And hard on the fingers —  you know, with all that folding of paper cranes?

And then I learned that there really, truly is something in the water in Nikko, so that could explain it.

This could also totally explain why I tend to be a snarky jerk. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have this kind of water in Buffalo, where I grew up. So it’s not my fault I gossip about people and forget my family members’ birthdays — it’s the Buffalo drinking water’s fault.

On my last day in town, I took a bus from Nikko and headed up into the mountains to visit the blustery lakeside town of Chuzenji, where it was so cold I had to wrap my scarf around my face for fear that it might fall off.

My scarf is the only thing holding my chin on.

After scurrying around in the howling wind, I grabbed another bus to the snow-covered town of Yumoto Onsen to sit in the hot spring baths. Where, again, I discovered the water of Nikko to be pretty special… and, in this case, tinged with sulfur. Which sounds kind of gross, but was actually quite heavenly.

And, I swear, after an hour of soaking in it, I felt like a much nicer person. Or at least like I might be able to remember my mom’s birthday this year.

After three days in Nikko, I’d gotten my fill of the small town Japan (and, coincidentally, a few more fried food balls — hey, it’s my thing), so I hopped a few more trains and ended up in bustling downtown Osaka.

Where the statues are awkwardly posed and naked.

Really. How is this even a good idea?

And, instead of drinking Delicious Nikko Crystal Water, we drink margaritas.

Or at least I drink margaritas. While snarkily gossiping with my friends. Proving once and for all that you can bring a girl to Nikko water, but you really can’t make her nice.

Or make her remember her mom’s birthday. (It’s in November, right, mom?)

What about you? Are you a small town person or a big city type?


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On January 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm TG said:

    I found you through Kunjum. Keep Up the good work.

  2. On January 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm MaryAnne said:

    You make Japan sound so pleasant and peaceful! And if it really is that pleasant and peaceful, should I be afraid that you’ll leave me stranded here in China by myself, with no deep fried cake balls to call my own?

    Oh, and in answer to your question, I’m in theory a small town person (I like trees and houses and a yard and quiet and being able to walk everywhere and meet friendly unjaded people) but I tend to end up in cities– the world’s biggest, noisiest, most aggressive cities, actually. Not sure how it happened.
    MaryAnne recently posted..Nothing to Say Here (The Solutions Edition): Put A Shirt on That Pig!

    • On January 19, 2012 at 1:25 am Sally said:

      So, how did you end up in the biggest city in China while I ended up in the sticks in Wuxi? I feel like we’re in some weird switched at birth Parent Trap situation. (You know, because we’re twinsies.)

      • On January 19, 2012 at 1:33 am MaryAnne said:

        In an ideal world, I’d be living in Cicely, Alaska (yes, I know that Northern Exposure was a fictional show, but still!) or that place where the Gilmore Girls were. I’m not sure real life small towns that are suitably weird in a non scary way exist. I grew up in one and, really, if there were fewer rednecks and more jobs, I’d totally be back there (at least part time, when I’m not in Bali or wherever).

        I tend to end up in mega cities because… um… karma? Dunno. Work, most likely. London, Istanbul, Shanghai? I do try to land in the most villagey, walkable neighbourhoods of said cities though. Can’t say I’d stay sane here if I had to leave my current leafy little area.

        Speaking of twins, which of us is the evil twin?
        MaryAnne recently posted..Nothing to Say Here (The Solutions Edition): Put A Shirt on That Pig!

        • On January 19, 2012 at 2:06 am Sally said:

          Omigod, we truly ARE twinsies. I was going to write a comment about how I do have a fantasy of living in a small town like the one on Gilmore Girls or Ed (Did you watch that one?), but I have a feeling it wouldn’t be quite the same. I also secretly have always wanted to live in Alaska solely because of my obsession with Northern Exposure.
          And I do so like living in villagey places of big cities. Kobe was probably my favorite place to live so far. I lived in this really cute cobblestoned neighborhood with lots of parks and cute restaurants, but I was only about 5 minutes away from downtown Kobe by train. I loved it. Umm, why did I leave again?

  3. On January 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm Laurence said:

    Love the photos in this post, particularly the first one. And although I’ve barely spent any time in Japan at all, it’s posts like these that make me think I need to get back there and explore it more closely. Thanks 🙂
    Laurence recently posted..In photos: Wolfe Creek Meteor Crater

  4. On January 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm Katherina said:

    I grew up and spent the first 18 years of my life in a fishermen town of not more than 30.000 habitants. I was a nice girl. Naive, too. I moved to a big city for University and that’s where everything changes… the shopping choices, the fast tracks, the thousand cafe, bar and restaurant options, this sensation of being in a city that never sleeps… I loved it!

    I’ve been jumping from village to city life ever since and must say that, now that I can realistically assess the pros and cons of each option… I’d rather be in a village – as long as I’m there with people that matter to me (it can get a bit frustrating to make new friends of your own age and interests in a small town after all!)
    Katherina recently posted..Photo Essay: Cape Horn, Chile (Seamen’s Dream and Nightmare)

    • On January 19, 2012 at 1:23 am Sally said:

      I don’t think I’ve always been a big city girl. I grew up on a farm (where I dreamed of suburbia). Then I lived in a small town for college and loved it. And, while I liked living in London, I hated living in New York City (probably because I lived there in the winter when everything was grey… and kind of smelled like urine). Also, the first time I went to Tokyo I was completely overwhelmed and hid in my hotel room for 3 days. This time I was practically dancing down the streets I was so happy to be back in a big city again.
      So, who knows, maybe I’ll change and want to go back and live in a small town? Or maybe I’ll finally fulfill my childhood dreams of living in the suburbs? (Errm, my childhood dreams also involved having the Mr. Softee ice cream truck on speed dial, so I kind of hope so!)

  5. On January 18, 2012 at 7:50 pm Ken C. said:

    I think that small town Japan suits you; it calms the soul, opens the imagination, and helps the words to flow. People recognize you as the unbrave one, so they treat you with gentle kindness.
    For your next winter trip, you should dress more warmly.
    Yes! I enjoy both small villages and large cities.

    • On January 19, 2012 at 1:18 am Sally said:

      Thanks, Ken. It was a lovely three days there. And I do like small town life, but I think I’d go a bit bonkers without a steady flow of margaritas. 🙂

  6. On January 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm Steve said:

    Do the dancing fish eat the deep fried cake balls? Because that would make the town just too cool to ever leave (except in the winter of course, which is when you really need deep fried cake balls).
    Steve recently posted..My Deep, Dark Vegas Secret

    • On January 19, 2012 at 1:17 am Sally said:

      The fish do not dance, they TALK. The cartoon characters on the bridge dance. Duh. Everyone knows that fish can’t dance. Or at least shouldn’t. They are notorious for having two left fins. (Badabum.) 🙂

  7. On January 19, 2012 at 12:55 am Maria said:

    Capped and scarfed Buddhas… great shot!
    Maria recently posted..When a Stranger Calls

  8. On January 19, 2012 at 4:43 am Sarah said:

    Blaming things on the water?

    Smooth move, Sally. Smooth move.

    I would usually take the whole “the margarita did it” approach every time my snarkiness got a bit out of hand.

    But now?

    It’s all about the H-0h-2, baby.

    Thank you once again for helping me normalize (and validate) all my jerkface moves.
    Sarah recently posted..What Wes Anderson Forgot to Mention about Train Travel in India

    • On January 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm Sally said:

      Basically, if you didn’t grow up in Nikko and drink Delicious Nikko Crystal Water as a child, there is really no hope of you becoming a nice person. So we’re both off the hook. You may now go kick puppies or something.

  9. On January 19, 2012 at 8:15 am Michi said:

    Fried food balls, mmmmmmm!! Japan sounds so wonderful, I’d love to visit.

    I’m a big city girl, but have lived in small Spanish towns over the years. At the moment, I’m enjoying having the best of both worlds – living in a small town by the mountains and river with the city (a small, but very charming one at that) only a 20-minute bus ride away. Ahh.
    Michi recently posted..Years of fun & travel compressed into a minute and a half. (video).

  10. On January 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm Marta said:

    How would you call a city with 2 000 000 inhabitants, only one airport and only one single underground line? A city where you can easily get from the suburbs to the centre by bike (bicycle not a motorbike), that makes you discovers deers, foxes and pheasants in your garden once in a while (And wild boars on your way from the bus stop)?

    If you ever feel like having 2 in 1 – feel free to move to Warsaw. (Now I’m waiting for the job offer from the Promotion Department of the City of Warsaw)

  11. On January 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm Patricia GW said:

    I love your sense of humor so much! Nikko sounds like such a lovely town, full of unbelievably nice people.
    I enjoy both big cities and small towns, but I feel more comfortable in big cities because there is always so much to do and discover, plus modern conveniences are available like super-comfortable couches. And margaritas.
    Patricia GW recently posted..The Brooklyn Bridge

    • On January 19, 2012 at 9:43 pm Sally said:

      Yeah, I love big cities too because I like the idea that there is lots of stuff going on… even though I hardly ever do that stuff. (By the way, I technically live in the suburbs in Wuxi so super comfortable couches are also available in the suburbs. So maybe the suburbs are where it’s at?)

  12. On January 19, 2012 at 7:08 pm Andrew - The Unframed World said:

    I think I lived in a similar town as Nikko. Was the average age around town about 200 years old?
    Andrew – The Unframed World recently posted..HDR Photo POWER-UP: LLBean Christmas Lights

  13. On January 23, 2012 at 12:00 am Tom Stockwell said:

    Now I thought Korea could give Japan a run for its money on the whole creepy-yet-kinda-cute thing, but I think the talking fish statues just delivered the knock-out blow to Korea’s stake in that department.

    Also, all this talk of cute Japanese hipster boys made me think of my friend Katherine. I think she’s like your doppelganger who lives in Seoul but looks nothing like you, and replace Japanese hipster boys with Korean hipster boys (obviously). She also likes gifs with cats (I assume you also like gifs with cats?)

    Best not to get used to the calmer Japanese countryside drivers, either. I’m already terrified that I’ve gotten so used to British drivers, that the Korean ones are going to mow me down as soon as I step out of the airport next month. Red lights aren’t here solely for decoration in England.

    This is turning into a long comment, so I’ll simply add “beautiful photos” and “send me some pork balls” to finish off with.

  14. On January 24, 2012 at 11:15 am Divya Anand said:

    Another awesome post Unbrave Girl….Happy Birthday. Looking forward to see u on Saturday at Kunzum !!!! 🙂

  15. On January 25, 2012 at 11:33 am choi kum fook said:

    Happy Birthday To you and your two brothers ! Enjoy your life! I have been lived in city, KL, for a short period. I found that I am more suitable being a small town habitation. Like my working place, Kahang and my home town, Kuala Rumpin. May be I just dislike the noise, air pollution and heavy traffic in city!Staying a few days in city is okay as I think!

  16. On February 21, 2012 at 6:54 am Ceri said:

    I really want to be a small town person … or at least someone who can enjoy the wildlife/countryside every now and again, but the truth is I start feeling panicky when I’m not in a big city for a while. 😛

    Nikko seems like a great town to visit but could I stay there for longer than a week? Errrrr, nah.
    Ceri recently posted..Return to Blogging (with a Vlog)


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