Thursday, August 21, 2008

Yaki Mochi

Day thirty-one: Yaki Mochi

Kobiru teahouse at Tōno Furusato Mura, ¥120

Tōno is surely the nicest little town that I will never visit again--at least not until all its current residents are dead, gone, or too senile to remember me.

Tōno sits in a wide, wedge-shaped valley of fertile farmland bordered by lush green mountains. I arrived too late at night to see much of it, after a 12-hour slog on more than a dozen trains. (I'm currently traveling on a bargain rail ticket known as the "Youth 18" Kippu. For ¥11500 you get a book of 5 tickets, each good for 24 hours of unlimited travel on local trains during academic holidays. Despite the name, it's actually availble to all comers, presumably on the perverse understanding that even if you were 18 or youthful when you started your trip, you won't be by the end of it.)

When I called the Tōno youth hostel to make a booking, the warden explained that the hostel could be reached via a $60 taxi ride or a 1-hour walk; since I had a map, a tight budget, and restless legs, I opted for the walk and promised to check in by 10pm. In under five minutes I was free of the knot of neon-lit bars and restaurants surrounding the station, and within ten minutes I had passed the last quiet, curtained houses on the outskirts of the town proper. It was just me, my overloaded wheelie bag, a cartoonishly inaccurate map, and the crickets...or was it?

Stopping at each dim streetlight to consult my "map" I couldn't help thinking of what I had read about Tōno in my guidebooks. In 1909 the folklorist Yanagita Kunio discovered that ancient rituals, beliefs, and tales long since forgotten elsewhere in Modern Japan were still thriving in this insular area. Many of the folktales he recorded are violent or sinister in tone, such as that of a farmer who hangs the family horse when it becomes his son-in-law. Although in contemporary Tōno most sprites and spirits have been tamed by the tourist industry, there's something oddly disquieting about being directed to local attractions by Hello Kittified depictions of kappa, slimy, beaky, pond-dwelling creatures better known for drowning children, horses, and lone travelers.

At about 10:15 I was approaching the middle of nowhere when I spotted three points of light coming my way; they turned out to be a rescue party of young hostel employees on bikes. "We worried you might be scared, " said the girl in charge. Not "lost", not "hurt", but "scared". I sidestepped the implied question with a feeble kappa joke and thanked them profusely.

Back at the hostel it was clear that I had been labeled a nutter by the management. The manager explained the house rules to me in exhaustive detail (how to bathe, how to change shoes, how to put sheets on the bed), breaking off periodically to shake his head in disbelief that such an incompetent had made it this far on her own. I got the the same treatment the next morning when I asked to rent a bike, despite the glowering sky. I was determined to visit the Furosato Mura, a reconstructed folk village, some 8km away in the foothillls.

I had been peddling for about 10 minutes when the skies opened and I discovered that simultaneously biking and holding an umbrella is not as easy as Japanese grandmothers make it appear. I had to stop every 2 or 3 minutes to wipe my glasses and by the time I arrived at the village every scrap of my clothing from underwear up was completely saturated. In the visitor center bathroom I peeled off most of my clothes and rung them out over the squat toilet. When I emerged the gift shop attendant tied a small towel around my neck, swapped by exhausted umbrella for a new one, and waved me out into the dripping village.

Over the years, Tōno's better-to-do farmers built large L-shaped farmhouses called magariya, and many fine examples are now gathered into artificial villages such as Furosato Mura, and peopled by local pensioners employed to tell stories or demonstrate crafts. At the first house I met a man and a woman who had put aside their strawcrafting in favor of sitting next to the hearth. When they realized how wet I was they invited me to sit with them and share their lunches while we roasted my socks over the coals. While I was inside some helpful sprite took my soaked shoes from the porch and replaced them with a pair of rainboots (in the largest available men's size).

On warm and dry feet, I trooped through a few more magariya before finding my sweet of the day at Kobiru, a no-frills rural teahouse. From a number of plastic-wrapped treats next to the register, I picked the yaki mochi, a rubbery pocket of rice paste grilled just enough to raise warts and scabby patches, and filled with splinters of walnut and semi-crystallized black sugar that managed to be both gritty and squirty at the same time(the shoplady advised me to leave the plastic on while I ate). It looked like a baby cane toad but tasted like heaven--solid, comforting, and somehow warming, despite not actually being warm.

Buoyed by the yaki mochi's generous glycemic index, I continued on a circuit around the village and came to a wooden boardwalk leading to a small tree-ringed pond supposedly inhabited by a kappa. Umbrella clutched on one hand, camera in the other, I clambered up on the sodden, green-tinged boards and took exactly two steps forward in my slick plastic rainboots.
I fell so hard and fast that it came as a total surprise to find myself flat on the boardwalk with no breath in my lungs and rain falling into my gaping mouth. After a few minutes of wailing like a newborn, I came to the conclusion that while much was battered, nothing was broken. I had banged my head, shoulder and left forearm, and whacked myself in the leg with my camera. For only the second time in my life, I wished I knew how to say "concussion" in Japanese.

Back in the visitor center I set up camp in the bathroom (again) discovered that while squat toilets are fine places to pee or wring out wet clothes, they don't compare to Western loos as places to hide and have a comforting cry. My left forearm, just below the elbow, was already ballooning, so I dried my face, begged a bag of ice off the kitchen staff, and spent a good 45 minutes applying it to my arm. Since the last bus had left for the day and the bike was a rental, there was nothing for it but to pedal off into the first break in the rain.

I know, I know, I should have gone straight back to the hostel, but the eight km back was mostly downhill and by the time I got to the turnoff the sun was blazing and I was feeling rather chipper. So I proceeded to bike another 12 or so km around the valley, looping around various spots of tourist interest. I arrived back at the hostel just in time for dinner, tired and sore but ready to forget about my fall--until I took of my coat and realized that my left forearm was twice its normal size and darkening faster than the night sky. The hostel staff didn't look in the least bit surprised.

I spent the rest of the evening with my arm in the air, icing when ice was available, fretting when it wasn't, and wishing that I'd stashed an extra yaki mochi in every pocket. I could certainly have used a little comfort.

No comments: