Day 8—Namahage

Emotions fluctuate/As does the landscape transform/Fifty miles more

(Photos by Nao of Masura, Toshi, and Kaz)I must mention one more thing that we learned when speaking with Masura, Nao, Toshi and Kaz last night. It is a correction to some information in one of my earlier posts. In addition to learning the correct way to wear the yukata and that we shouldn’t climb into the wash basin sinks, we learned that saying “domo” as “thank you” isn’t really a thing, only very casually. “Domo” on its own is used most commonly as “you’re welcome”, a response to “arigato”. “Thank you very much” in its most polite form is spoken “arigato gozaimasu”. We heard and used this phrase frequently. Gozaimasu is used in many ways. “Ohayou gozaimasu”, for example, is a polite way to say good morning. In fact, we heard “gozaimasu” so much on the trip that we joked we could utter “gozaimasu” in any situation and probably be covered. We actually had quite a laugh about it, the kind where you choke on your laughter and your eyes tear. The kind of laugh that you do only with someone for whom you are very fond. My mom and I shared this laughter during a language class in Cusco, Peru. There is much humor to be had when learning a new language.

I wake up at Aoni early in the morning, around 6am. I collect my towel and washcloth and put on my yukata and head to the baths. This morning I use the female-only bath which faces the waterfall. I enter the building where I disrobe and leave my slippers. I dip the yellow bucket into the barrel sink and rinse my body in the warm water. I use the provided pump bottles of shampoo and body soap to clean. A woman is soaking in the bath in front of me. This is the first bath I take here with others present. I am aware of my tattoos. The picture windows reveal the backside of the property where the waterfall, three stories high, exits the forest and falls to the smooth rock river below. I pass by the indoor bath and exit to the outdoor bath just on the other side of the windows. I relax in the water and take in the view and sounds of the scene. It is serene. I think about where I am and where I have been in the past week. I think about who I am sharing this adventure with. I think about how far away I am from my life and yet how this is the closest to life I have felt. This is a special place. It reveals the simplicity of existence and resets my barometer.

I am clean and at peace. I return to the room and am pleased to find that Jason and his towel and robe are missing. We hadn’t planned time to use the baths once more before leaving but it would have been a pity not to. He returns shortly after and we share looks of contentment. We head to breakfast. This is the impeccably prepared traditional Japanese breakfast I mentioned in a previous post that still could not excite me. By that I mean the food itself, not the ritual. The ritual is delicious. The pot of morning stew topped with fresh egg and the dried fish is quite good, if not what I am necessarily craving. The pickled items are what don’t appeal to me so early in the day. Jason and I linger yet again, in love and wistful for this experience at Aoni which is fast becoming a memory.


We go to our room and begin to pack. We realize that we have not yet asked if the man with the truck might be able to bring our bikes up the driveway. There is a morning shuttle that brings guests to the parking lot just 500 ft away and to a further location below the mountain. Jason finds Nao who translates to the staff our request. They agree and let us know we must be ready in 15 minutes. We rush to collect our things. The shuttle and pick up truck are waiting. Jason and I throw our bikes into the pick up and Jason boards the shuttle which erupts in laughter as they watch me open the truck’s right side door to sit passenger but find the steering wheel instead. The driver laughs, too as I run around the truck to the other side and take my rightful place. I am filled with a sense of glee and adventure as we head out. Once at the top I unload the bikes into the same turn around where I first met the truck and driver the day before. The shuttle arrives and Jason disembarks. Everyone is waving to the two Americans traveling by bicycle.

In our rush to leave I have forgotten my journal and Jason his water bottle. We contemplate leaving them behind in order to avoid the time which will be lost retrieving them from the onsen. Jason encourages us to go back, mainly for my journal. I begin to run down the driveway, frustrated, when I hear the groaning of the shuttle brakes behind me. I wave and the driver stops and I jump on. The shuttle struggles down the driveway. I run back into the ryokan and retrieve our things and fill water bottles with water. The last shuttle out is scheduled to leave in 5 minutes so I simply jump back on. Pretty painless.

Jason and I set a goal for the day, a campground about 50 miles away. We climb to the crest of the mountain road and then begin the glorious twisting and steep descent. About halfway down we see the shuttle returning from the bottom of the mountain. The driver slows and waves for me to come to his door. He hands me two large pears for us to take on our journey. I am grateful but met with little emotion. Perhaps he is distracted with the thought of getting the large vehicle going again on this incline. Either way, I am touched and feeling the presence of the place we’ve just left.

With shouts of joy at the rush of the downhill we continue to the main road which brought us here from Mikako’s. Jason and I make our way along the shoulder of this main road cutting through mountains. We move through the countryside, first through miles of forest and then miles of agricultural land. Rural towns begin to make a presence between the miles and then small cities. It is beautiful. Traveling by bicycle through the places between the destinations makes for an intimate relationship with Japan. I am falling in love.


dam(photo by Jason)

 (Japanese hornet decapitates grasshopper video by Jason)

woodpile(photo by Jason)

img_0431(photo by Jason)

rice(photo by Jason)

img_1208(photo by Jason)

The day threatens rain which never comes. The temperature is just right and the cloud cover blocks the sun. The view is refreshing. The hills are covered in choirs of evergreens, nestled together in their pine-cone shaped gowns and pointing ever upward. The rice fields are bright yellow. We roll into one of the travel stops I mentioned earlier. We are followed soon after by a tour-sized bus full of students on their way to or from a sporting event. Jason and I run to the counter and interpret the displayed photos into our lunch order and beat the oncoming rush. We eat and look at maps. Jason wanders off with my journal to get a stamp. Many of the travel stops, as well as points of interest, have stamps depicting an image specific to the location that you can use with the provided ink pad, usually for free.


I start to get antsy waiting for him to come back. I suddenly feel trapped and desperate. I don’t know why. Meanwhile, Jason is in the gift shop looking at figs and figurines. Representations of the namahage make frequent appearances on the trip for Jason and he grows a fondness for them. Namahage are demon-like creatures who, in Japanese folklore, come after lazy people who idle around the fire for too long. Today, they come to scare children into obeying their parents at the New Year. During New Year festivals, men in masks and straw suits carry (fake) deba knives which originally threatened the removal of scabs caused by over-exposure to hearth fire, accompanied by shouts of “Blisters peeled yet”. Modern day exclamations include “Are there any crybabies around?”, “Knife whetted yet?” and “Boiled adzuki beans done yet?”.

(photo by Jason)

The figurines, however, cannot protect Jason from the wrath of this child. I find him and indulge in a bit of micro-agression at being left alone. It was unfair of me. We eat miso ice cream and make up. It’s not always peachy on a month-long cycling trip but our arguments are usually petty and last only moments. Our teamwork and mutual enjoyment overall outweigh any obstacles we encounter.

We continue on, short climbs and descents peppering the path. Eventually we are 10 miles from our camp in a small and quiet city. Shortly before we leave this more populated area for the last climb of the day to the campground, I spot a fireman and station. My brother-in-law is a fireman and I cannot help but feel an affinity for those who answer this call. Not to mention, it is interesting to compare government services across cultures. I ask Jason if we can stop so that I can take a photo. This guy is interested in our trip and a good sport, posing of his own accord.

He has heard of the campground and waves to us as we ride on. We turn a corner and ride over a long bridge that crosses a marshy area. There are many cranes wading at the edges. We see the climb laid out before us. There is some groaning but we know that we are close. A man running along the side path and up the hill shouts “Gamabate!” as I go by and I return the sentiment.

The sun is beginning to set and the sky is fluorescent orange and pink. We stop at a convenience store for the night’s meal. Back on our bikes we find the large park complex just beyond a hospital. The information center and associated buildings are closed but we find a map and locate the campground. We ride to the entrance and find a chain across the drive. We go around it and pass the campground’s main building, pass the bathroom building, pass only empty sites and head to the furthest. It is equipped for RVs, an auto-campground, but currently vacant. The faucets are working. We set up our tent and enjoy a dinner of chocolate and beer, too tired to eat anything else and without namahage present to scold us.




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