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.
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.
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.
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:
(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.
And there was a park with lots of Buddha statues.
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.
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.
Where the statues are awkwardly posed and naked.
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?