Catching Breath in Nagano

By Anna Husson Isozaki

I’ve fallen a little behind, and all I can see in any direction is tall, straight cedar trees growing up the mountain on my right, and down the nearly sheer drop to the river below on my left. I sigh, relieved at the change from frenetic urban Japan’s construction and cement, and notice the fresh cool air on my skin is tinged with hot spring sulfur. 

This cedar walk leads to the snow monkeys’ hot spring in the backwoods of Nagano. The first monkey tried out a bath here in 1963 and she, followed by other monkeys and then a trickle of photographers and tourists, has ensured visitors to this hill town and inn for the four decades-plus since. Now we are joining the small stream; expat English teacher-translator from New York, my Japanese salaryman husband, our little boy, and professor friends from my university days, Jim and Char, on a brief holiday stopover between international conferences. They have seen Kyoto and Tokyo, but here there are only deep green hills.

We leave the forest’s canopy and see heavy clouds about to give way; fortunately what we hope is our inn is also in sight. The collection of ramshackle wooden buildings leaves us with room for doubt….

Just inside the rickety glass sliding door a shaven-head man, likely owner of the powerful motorcycle parked outside, assures us that we have come to the right place. His mild manner reminds me of the Buddhist monks I’ve met, despite his jean-clad legs. The gorgeous wildlife photography on the wall inside makes me think that the inn’s setup is not as haphazard as it appears, and this proves true.  

The rooms are furnished with fresh tatami flooring and comfortable futons. Pressed sticky-rice treats and green tea are set out for us, and the only audible sounds as we inhale them are the rain now hitting the roof, the creak of old floorboards, a geyser outside shooting skyward, and the river rushing by. 

We’re guided around and shown the locations of the inn’s hot spring baths: those reserved for women, for families, for men, and most spacious of all; the mixed outdoor bath. The women’s outdoor bath has boulders ringing the edges, fresh air from the green mountainside, and best of all a bamboo screen, sparing me a view of the hiking trail and sparing passing hikers a view of me. I follow expected manners scrupulously in my first bath, sitting still to avoid making ripples that might lap against those around me, even though I’m alone. Like all hot springs in Japan there is a list of specific ailments this one is supposed to relieve: rheumatism, nerve complaints, and others. I’m not particularly interested in anything but the relaxing warmth sinking into my tired muscles. A light scent of sulfur hovers above the steaming water, despite the attempts of the rain and cold air to press it down. Raindrops striking the water’s surface cause miniature domes to appear, which linger a moment and then pop into invisibility again. The geyser spouting from the riverbed below, however, remains visible and vocal, never pausing in its five meter spray.

Dinner: hot pot duck. We examine the side dishes, and whip out our cameras. Beside the grilled fish on each member’s plate lie two locusts. Char and I consider them while the guys try the local brewery beer, labeled “spicy.” “Spicy” beer earns its name and their faces flush. Jim gamely crunches down a locust. “Salty.”

After dinner I head out for an evening bath in the sulfur-clouded dark. Alone again, this time I trace the mist into fantastic shapes which rise around me.

Later I approach the shared sink to wash my face. There’s another guest, a Japanese woman a bit younger than me.

“Are you Bulgarian?” she asks me. She says I look like people there, when she went last summer. 

“You’re well-traveled.”   

She demurs but I can’t see how. Many Japanese holiday-goers visit France and Italy, but I have not spotted a single travel brochure for Bulgaria.

Her son, six or seven years old, sidles up to join her and looks up at me with wide eyes. We exchange names. She’s Miki. Easy to remember with her cheerful way. I ask if they’ve seen the monkeys. The guidebook had warned firmly, “Only at 8:30 in the morning and then they’re gone.” 

“No, no – they were playing there all afternoon! We just got back from seeing them and then had dinner.” 

Well, that’s good news.

I’ve just finished washing my hands and am turning to pluck the plastic lenses from my eyes when inexplicably she grabs my wet, cold hand for a handshake in parting. Maybe she thinks this is what I’d consider normal, as an American. But I’ve lived in Japan nearly twenty years and a brief bow now comes more naturally to me than a handshake. Startled, I shake her hand and then extract mine, say goodbye, and start again on the hand washing and contact-rinsing.

Back in our room on the soft futons, my husband and son are sleeping like the rocks the river is tumbling over, below.

Breakfast is a full rice, tofu, miso soup, grilled fish, green tea, and (thank heavens) coffee breakfast, then we hustle ourselves across the river and up the steep slope to the monkeys’ gathering place. But there are no monkeys. It’s breeding season and the troop of about two hundred monkeys have other things on their minds. 

People are speaking in hushed voices; quiet reigns. 

We wait in the chill, still shadowed valley, the air crisp and fresh until some older men light up cigarettes, “tobacco,” as it is called here, and wherever I turn I can’t escape an acrid cloud of smoke. My chest tightens, so I clump back down the muddy path and cross the river to the inn. I try to quell my irritation with the thought that I can prepare for checkout, too, but that’s slim comfort.

An aged golden retriever struggles up to greet me at the entrance. 

“She’s so sweet!”

Saru yoke,” the shaven-head owner answers shortly, with the trace of a smile. 

I laugh – he’s just told me she’s a “monkey deterrent.” Apparently monkeys come straight into the inn and cause a lot of damage if they get the chance. 

I have mixed feelings packing up. Maybe I’ll ask the owner if I can stay permanently. I’ll walk his dog for him and do my translating work off in some inconspicuous corner. 

I’m putting in my contacts when Miki reappears. “There’s no hurry this morning,” I tell her, glad to repay her helpful information-sharing from yesterday. Again, I move to nod goodbye and instead, my wet fingers get grabbed and shaken.

Back up the hill across the river, it is monkeys everywhere. They are big, confident, red-bottomed, and take no guff. We’re warned not to look them directly in the eyes – a sign of aggression. I’m not tempted.

We walk around in awe. My son borrowed the camera and I can see from his two-handed grip and intent photo-taking that he won’t be relinquishing it, so I take the ascent to the monkey pool to see if they really do take baths in the hot spring. There’s a mother and baby pair in the water, the baby swimming, skinny legs and long toes stretching out, a blissful look on its expressive little face.  Other monkeys arrive and depart, and sometimes dominant males with shocking red rear-ends stroll by. Lesser monkeys clear out. 

People are clustered around the pool and out of nowhere Miki appears in a fluffy white down coat, taking my arm, introducing me to her siblings, and telling me to get in front of the live cam camera – I’ll be able to see myself later on, on the Internet, if I do. I’ll pass, I think, smiling and nodding, even more sincerely as she informs me this is goodbye. They’ll be driving back to Tokyo now. More handshaking.  

I relax and lean against a railing on the wooden stairs between the monkeys’ favorite bath and the river below, observing the monkeys grooming each other and the people clustered around them, snapping photos. There’s a sudden eruption of monkey screams behind me and I cautiously glance back. A monkey family wants to use the railing as a bridge to lower ground. Translation: “Get out of the way!”  

I do. With alacrity. The monkeys troop down the railing, not sparing me a glance, and I follow at a safe distance to rejoin my own group. 

Miki is back. They’re really leaving now, she says. She grabs my hand and shakes it yet again. Her siblings look on, embarrassed, her son looks up, confused, and my husband looks over, knowing I’d rather blend in after so many years in Japan than be the fussed-over foreign guest. 

“What’s up?” Char asks, and I smile and shake my head, and sigh.

Later that day we’re in Matsumoto, a small plateau city surrounded by mountains, with an exceptional castle set at the center of the city’s wide plain.

So unlike the industrializing city where we live and have watched cultural heritage bulldozed and green spaces asphalted over, Matsumoto has saved its history, and its culture is alive and celebrated. People on the streets have individual, creative styles. I spot some wearing combinations of traditional patterned fabrics and modern, attractive designs. They’re handmade, probably remade from treasured old kimonos – taking the unwieldy old style out of the backs of dressers and making comfortable, wearable clothes from the lovely lengths of silk that would otherwise lie unused.

We walk past thick white-walled old storehouses, converted into craft shops, galleries, boutiques, restaurants and inns. We’re staying in one that began as a coffee shop in the 1950s, drawing people with classical music, live concerts, and really good coffee and toast in an era when that was quite new to Japan. The inn founder is still here every day, though at ninety-three it’s becoming a challenge. His family takes care of the day-to-day work of the inn and café, and we meet them in the evening because of a coincidence. 

I kept hearing my son’s name called by the owner’s family from the hall downstairs, but my son, with me upstairs, was thankfully up to no mischief and I puzzled it over in silence. 

Out to dinner nearby for grilled eel, tofu slathered with miso sauce, and rice mixed with fragrant chopped shiso leaves, all for a lower bill than any fast food meal. I translate the menu: “And there’s horsemeat. Would you like some of that?” My translation is accurate but I didn’t expect any takers this time.

In the small, homey lobby of the inn afterwards we’re welcomed back by a young man with big brown eyes and dark curly hair pulled back smoothly into a short ponytail. He’s the grandson of the founder and he and my son share their first names.  

The founder’s son and family are visiting Matsumoto now as well, it turns out, from Venezuela. It must have been an upheaval, thirty years ago, when the eldest son had a year to do as he wanted before coming back home to take over the family business, and he ended up falling in love and moving to Latin America, instead. But it doesn’t need asking, nor is it said. 

My son’s eyes widen when more guests arrive – from Barcelona – and with our friends also fluent speakers, musical Spanish flies along with the English and Japanese that had preceded it.

There’s a dichotomy set up in Japan, between Japanese and Other: and all Other is carelessly lumped together as “monolingual-English-speaking-foreigner.” It’s so pervasive it leaves little air for other possibilities. I’ve seen it close in on international kids born or raised here, when they’re constantly asked by strangers if they speak Japanese, demanded to explain their racial and cultural background in detail to be remarked upon and judged, or surrounded at schools and playgrounds by bigger kids shrieking “GAIJIN!” (foreigner), or “Heh-Ro! Heh-ro!” into their faces. Some try to hide, others try to be “more Japanese than Japanese.” Despite the latter being used as an expression of praise, it never changes a child’s skin color, postpones, or eases the next jarring encounters for them, and the tense effort involved can be exhausting.

This joyful, breezy flow now between English, Japanese and Spanish makes that mental wall crumble, because with both English and Japanese as his “native language” it is clear even to a very little boy that this is something more, and people’s faces don’t necessarily define all of who they are. New possibilities in the space opening up seems to suddenly give my little bicultural son some breathing room.  

In the morning we wander the sunny, windy streets, stopping in at souvenir shops selling locally made crafts, working our way toward the castle in the center of town. 

Colorful handmade string balls. Carved-to-order name stamps. Old shrines doing a brisk business in blessings for students with upcoming exams, who rush in between the falling leaves. I wonder if my son, too, will be rushing into shrine grounds for blessings in a few years.

The castle, rising ahead of us from its stone foundation and wide moat, is a rare black one, built in the 1500’s. It didn’t see much action and fell into disrepair, and by 1872 it was on the auction block, scheduled to be torn down. A local aristocrat bought it to save, instead, and a school principal set the children to donation-collecting for repairs. Most castles in Japan are white, and set on hilltops overlooking their cities, and the vast majority now are replicas, rebuilt in concrete after fires or war. This one is original. It’s also compact, quietly off the main tourist trails, and the color of its aged wood has brought it the nickname, “Crow Castle.” 

Today the castle is beautiful in the morning light. White swans congregate in the moat and an eagle circles in the sky above the carp-deities topping the castle, fish tails in air and mouths open, poised to release torrents of water from their mouths in the event of fire. Wishful thinking led to some impressive feats of imagination. 

Times I’ve visited it before have been memorable for the deep cold on one’s stocking feet touching the unbelievably wide floorboards, polished to a dull glow by centuries of people padding across. Thick, dark beams hover low overhead. The climb up to the top story is memorable too – especially since the steep staircases and low ceilings tell a secret. Counting the flying rooflines of each story from outside, it looks like there are five – but inside, in fact, there are six. A hidden floor was designed in, to surprise invaders with a defending army of samurai. The upper floors hold weapons and armor from the era, including (as a visitor from the New York Times noted a few years ago) a set of armor with a bullet hole. 

We shed our shoes in the entryway and carry them in plastic bags, following a new, narrow, roped course as the tour busses arrive. One after the other. It’s the season for fall colors and apparently, high tourist season for this castle. 

In the sudden crush of the determined horde I lose sight of my son. It’s easily done despite the constant chorus of insistence that he’s “so big” and “must be the biggest in his class” at school. Belying the lens of “half-American” clouding their gaze he is still much smaller than many of the Japanese boys and girls his age. Now, searching, I’m bashed in the face with overflowing shopping bags as those descending the steeply angled stairs clobber those trying to climb them. Elderly men’s fashion statement – hair oil – stifles, and choking, I fall out of line to sit aside, hoping for a break in the line that never comes in the tightly-timed tours. 

Eventually I maneuver back in, and up to the top of the castle, where my son has been gently roped in by our friends, who have patiently waited for me there. I join them by a window, gulping the fresh breeze coming in through the bars at this height and admiring the view through openings originally created for dropping rocks on invading armies. Jim notices the under-siege look in my eyes and jokes sympathetically that I must wish I’d gotten there earlier with a supply of my own rocks for the tour busses.  

My laugh is interrupted; a woman, about forty like me but in full de rigueur tourist get-up with a hat and camera wants to take a picture – not of the famous view of the mountain range in sight out the window, but of my American guests. I ask her where she is from, internally curious as to why she’d think anyone not Japanese qualified as a tourist camera target. Thirty years ago, when Japan had fewer international residents, maybe, but now?


Possibly the most international city in Japan….

Our group separates for shopping time for our friends, while my son wants to return to the grounds around the castle to see the swans. 

We’re supposed to be charged the entry fee for the castle and museum again, but we only want to stay in the grounds, so we get surreptitiously waved in. I enjoy the various angles of sun playing on the black castle walls as the hours pass and my son takes his fill of bird pictures. Hungry, tired, and satisfied, we drift out through the imposing wooden castle gate. 

There’s a Western woman, in her seventies but with hair dyed uncompromisingly blonde, hanging around the admissions building. She spies me and beelines.

“Where are you from? America? …Upstate New York? Oh, I’m from upstate New York too. Near Tappan Zee Bridge.” 

I suppress a snort at hearing that “upstate” is still what I’d consider the city itself, on the southernmost tip of a fairly large state, while she draws breath and asks if this castle is “worth” seeing.

Enthusiastically I explain that it is, it’s a national treasure, and why. 

She sniffs and says she’ll “pass,” waving her husband in and staying to interrogate me, instead. 

“What hotel are you staying in? Ours (sniff) isn’t very good. Have you been to any hot springs here? I heard you take off your clothes and it’s men and women together. I don’t want to do that.

I explain that actually, it’s more usual to have separate baths these days, and invite her over to a nearby area map to point out a well-known soaking spot within easy walking distance.

Sniff. “No, I think I’ll wait until December, when we go to the Dead Sea again. Have you ever bathed in the Dead Sea? It’s the best in the world….” She lists off places she’s been in Japan (a whirlwind tour of the “must-sees” only, once she got off the cruise ship), and regales me with the rest of the world’s must-see cruise ship stops, then presses on with her quiz.

“What do you do? Do you travel too?”

“Um, I live and work here…. I teach English and translate.” 

“Oh, my husband and I were teachers too.” 

She launches into the full employment history of her absent adult son and then offers the complaint that he doesn’t call or visit often enough.

Later I hear from Char that she’d encountered this same woman in a souvenir shop, bellowing from the entrance, “Does ANYONE here speak ENGLISH?” No wonder I run into Japanese who want to run from Americans.

My son is hitting the end of his rope and I’m about to join him and swing like a monkey from mine. Offering our excuse that it is dinnertime and nearly sprinting for the street it occurs to me that if we were back at the monkey hot spring again, I’d pelt down the hill after Miki to shake her hand.

The next day we’re heading home to the construction zone, and then our friends will be leaving. Stalling this, I steal away to the inn’s coffee shop. The founder enters, slowly, for his morning coffee, through a side door. Bach is playing in the background as he shuffles to a counter seat. His son stands by him, toddler son in one arm, the other hand supporting his aged father’s back as he settles on his perch there. They order, then the son holds his little boy up to his white-haired dad, who blows kisses into the child’s neck. The little one throws back his head laughing with delight, and I glance toward the young woman waiting the tables – she’s watching with a smile, too.

Our friends leave, and life returns to routine, but after school a few days later, my son informs me that he wants to learn Spanish. 

“You can do that.”