“Go to the hot springs at Tsuchiyu Onsen,” the girl at the tourist desk recommended. Her suggestion was understandable. One glance at me – scruffy, unshaven, smelling a bit fresh – and most human beings would have advised the same. I was sceptical. I only had a day to spend in Fukushima prefecture, in that time I hoped to see some local colour and culture.
But in front of me was a girl, grinning and radiating enthusiasm – and she was telling me what to do – so even though I had never heard of the place, and even though I have an allergy to bathing, I obediently boarded the bus.
I planned to explore for 4 hours. Completing a circuit of the town took 20 minutes: a cluster of fragmenting concrete buildings, sitting in a valley above a river. Hot spring steam rose invitingly amongst the cream-coloured concrete walls wrapped in pipes.
But I did not want a bath – and let`s be honest, the bath probably did not want me either. What can a man do in bathtown except bath?
I felt drowsy and gloomy. I needed a purpose, a destination, even if it was just a long walk to the WC. A wooden sign pointed towards Onuma and Menuma – the Man Pond and Woman Pond – it looked promising. Perhaps ponds are local euphemisms for WCs? Nature was calling me. The Man Pond seemed appropriate for me – it was 1 km nearer.
I marched hopefully up a deserted road. The concrete landscape disappeared. A kamoshika (serow), emerging from the woods, gave me a filthy look when I took its photo. Before long, surrounded by snow and forest, I felt totally isolated. The empty tarmac rising into the woods in front of me reminded me of the scenes at the start of the horror film, The Shining.
Just at this moment, my sometime travelling companion, Fear, made a reappearance. Welcome back. Snow bombs thwacking into the tarmac around me further upset my fragile nerves. Above my head, great chunks of snow were balanced precariously on branches. A tree with a grudge would surely get me.
Trees? Yes, trees. What kind of trees? I remembered my New Year resolution. I started looking at trunks for labels – habits developed in Tokyo die hard. Of course, I could not find any, so I will just have to describe the trees as best I can. Some were green, a fairly dark green, the rest were not green at all, their bare branches were grey or brown, or possibly black I can`t remember.
Then when least expecting it, a label appeared: BEARS. The Bear tree? No, it was a warning that bears hang out here – dangerous ones. “Ring a suzu (bell),” the sign advised.
Not having a bell, I settled on whistling – or as others call it: vigorous blowing. Unable to recall The Shining theme tune, I made do with Jaws.
A break in the trees revealed Fukushima city, its outskirts coated with orchards. Fukushima is a kingdom of fresh fruit, although its peaches and pears are not selling like they used to. In the distance, I could just make out the snow-capped peaks of the Abukuma mountain range, beyond that festers reactor 4 in the notorious nuclear plant.
The view has stuck in my mind: a beautiful landscape invisibly scarred. I wonder how all the trees feel about the radiation. I bet nobody has asked them – we do not know their names anymore.
After a couple more kilometres of up and a few hundred metres of down, I came to a turn off for Man Pond. There was a problem: a wall of snow pockmarked with unidentifiable footprints. I am all in favour of adventure, but I prefer it safe and bear-free – preferably with tea and biscuits at the end of it. I turned back.
So I may never know if Man Pond is a euphemism for toilet or not. It did not matter. The views and excitement made the walk worthwhile. I returned to the town a calmer and happier man. With mind refreshed and sweat glands breached, I was ready for anything – even a bath.