4 Shirabu Onsen: The woman in the rice

I spent my first 3 nights in Yonezawa without having one bath.  With so many hot spring-resorts nearby, not bathing felt like a sin, like going to Brighton without going to the beach.

After a night sleeping with the Buddha, (the monk of the Dragon Spring temple had kindly offered to let me sleep in the main hall when I returned to fetch my umbrella), I took the bus from Yonezawa station for the short ride to Onogawa Onsen, a small village in the hills filled with empty beds and hot-spring baths.

I got off the bus and wandered the two neat and narrow main streets – both deserted.  The now familiar smell of sulphur wafted up from the drains; plastic slippers lined up in entrance halls of ryokans indicated guests on the way,

At the Umeya Ryokan, I ordered a coffee and sat in their small courtyard overlooking a trim ukogi hedge.  Two souvenir shops were opening their shutters across the road. The sun was bursting through the grey clouds. I felt completely relaxed, with 24 hours dedicated to this tiny town. If it was Brighton, I would have ordered bacon and eggs.

Instead I asked for the room price. I was quoted 7,000yen without meals.  Over-budget.  And irrelevant.  The apologetic receptionist told me the whole town was fully booked for a Junior High school athletics meeting the next day.

With time suddenly at a premium, I headed straight to see the woman in the ricefield.

Tanbo (ricefield) art is a recent innovation where different colour strains of rice are planted in spring to form an image which emerges as the rice stalks grow; rice art is a time-consuming but popular project.  The artwork attracts tourism and advertisises Yonezawa`s brand of rice, tsuya no hime.

At Onogawa this year, the image is of Niijima Yae, heroine of the popular NHK drama, Yae no Sakura.  Yae lived a colourful life in turbluent times in late 19th century Japan.  Over the hill from Yonezawa in the kingdom of Aizu where Yae fought as a gun-slinging soldier in defence of the castle.  After Aizu`s defeat and humiliation, she moved to Kyoto and married a famous Japanese Christian educator, worked as a wartime nurse and made bloody good cups of green tea.


Plenty of sightseers turned up at the viewpoint while I was there.  The only people under 50 were 4 members of With優, a local NPO that provides free schooling for children who cannot or will not attend school.  Twice a month the staff come to clean the streets of Onogawa.

“Look under the platform; last time there was a load of rubbish down there,” one of the girls called out.  Perhaps Japan is more well-cleaned than clean.

Anyway, to cut another long blog short, I shouldered my backpack and walked 10 miles to the next onsen, found an empty room and slept very very well.

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