I've been in this region once before with my best friend Robert (see Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together [LINK]), but whereas that was only an 11-day long tour through three cities, this here should actually turn out to be a genuine working holiday experience that would last three times as long. Either way, I am now officially once again in…
Touhoku is the northernmost region of Honshu, the main island, and is also Japan’s third-largest region, right after Hokkaido and Chubu, measuring a total of 66,889.55 km² – that’s somewhere between Myanmar and Afghanistan. With a headcount of 9,335,088, it’s also Japan’s fourth-least (or fifth-most) populous region, which places it just a little bit below the Republic of Belarus. Finally, from a population density point of view, Touhoku is the second-least-dense area of Japan after Hokkaido. At an average density of only 140 people per km², Touhoku is about as densely populated as the small Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga, and surprisingly only a little less dense than China, which despite its huge population only has an average density of 145 people per km² thanks to its large area. That means that 75% of Japan is more densely populated than China.
Appi-Kogen (安比高原 “Peaceful Coexistence High Field”) is located on a mountain saddle in the Iwate prefecture, not even 40km away from Morioka. The name “Appi” was actually taken from the Ainu language and means “A place where people live together in peace”. Since the place is covered in snow for a whopping 6 months a year, it’s one of Japan’s biggest ski resorts, and consequently the town actually consists almost exclusively of pensions, hotels and holiday homes. During the summer months it is also known as great place for hiking and enjoying the peaceful tranquil landscape of Touhoku.
And within Appi-Kogen, the place I’m staying it is located in the Pension Village…
…which is located here.
Climate-wise, I am extremely happy to be here during this time of the year, for while it certainly is fiendishly hot for the majority of the month…
…that is still nothing compared to the ultra-extreme temperatures which the centre and south of Japan have to endure.
In fact, this summer should set a new record high temperature for Japan with 41.1°C, measured in Gunma-Ken (群馬県 “Herd Horse Prefecture”). Consequently, the topic is all over the news as people are dying in the figurative boiling pot that central and southern Japan has become.
And it's not only people that are dying. The temperatures are hard on the crops as well, and price increases of up to 50% for certain types of procure are the consequence.
Truly, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, it seems like now the entire south of Japan is experiencing a meltdown.
Blissfully, though, up here in the mountains of Tohoku, the temperature rarely rises above 30°, which is one of the reasons why many people flee the southern cities to seek refuge in the cool heights during this ongoing heat wave. As such, I consider myself lucky to be able to stay here during this time.
It is in this remote, beautiful and reasonably cool location that I should experience some…
Honestly Helpful Hospitality Happiness
I am helping out at a place by the wonderfully inviting name of Pension Mutti (ペンションむってい)…
…which is run by the wonderfully kind and caring Kayoko Morikawa…
…who runs this place together with her husband Hikita – who also happens to be an adept runner…
…as well as a diligent kitchen hand by the name of Yuki.
They also have two pets, both of which are former stray animals that Kayoko kindly took in. The first one is a fluffy, over 10-year old dog by the name of Sasuke. He can actually be a real handful. Stubborn and irritable, I actually manage to get bitten twice by him before I figure out his issues: Apparently, he had a tough life on the roads, and as such he gets all snappy when you move your hand next to an object which he considers to be his or if you startle him. By contrast, when he wants to be petted he actively comes to you and starts pawing at your hand, which is actually quite cute. After figuring out that much we actually get along quite well together.
The other pet is a pudgy stubby-tailed tomcat by the name of Nyantaro, or Nyanta for short. Apparently, he managed to get into Sasuke’s dog food store, which is how he grew to his current proportions. Unlike Sasuke, Nyanta is relatively uncomplicated and should often make himself comfortable on my lap, or invite me to visit and pet him with his mewling calls.
And then there’s the other helpers, for running a place like this sure is a handful, so the more helping hands we have around the better we can handle the workload. When I arrive there is a cool American student from California by the name of Adrian, who would be my mentor for the first few days. In an unfortunate turn of events, however, his father should suffer a stroke, forcing Adrian to cancel his travel plans and return home prematurely. I sure hope his dad turned out to be alright.
As a direct consequence, I should be the only helper in this place for about two weeks, which should increase the workload to a considerable level, even with Kayoko’s daughter Asa coming all the way from Tokyo to help out for one busy weekend.
It goes without saying that I’m more than grateful when the next pair of helpers arrives. The first one should be a girl from Stuttgart in Germany by the name of Chiara, with whom I should quickly become very good friends, and we should spend much time together chatting about this and that and generally connecting and bonding. Like me, she is on a working holiday, but unlike me, this is the very beginning of her adventure, so there is much for me to teach her about working holidays in general and Japan in specific.
Ying – a notably big young man from China easily 10cm taller than me – is more introverted. About him I should learn that he’s from Shanghai and works in the IT sector, but little more. Even so, he certainly isn’t bad company, and I would clearly pick him over a good number of people I’ve had to endure on my travels so far.
The last helper to come during my stay there should be Kotryna, who would arrive one week later, and only five days prior to my departure. She is the first person from the relatively small east-European country of Lithonia whom I should meet on my travels, and is currently studying in Kyoto. Her absolutely valid motivation for coming to Touhoku during the semester break is to escape the merciless heat wave that is currently ravaging central and southern Japan.
Now then, the cast is all introduced. However, I feel that this time I must make a little change to my usual routine since there is just so much to tell about my stay here, so just this once let us begin with a tale about…
Interlude: Two Men Down the Slopes
One of my first exploratory strays around Appi-Kogen should take me up the mountainside along a road, and then down a currently unused ski slope. Short though it may seem in comparison to some of the other strays I've done in the past, it is still quite an exercise due to the fact that we should climb a total of 200m in altitude.
With “we” I mean myself and Adrian, who is up to exploring the surroundings as much as I am. He has only been here one week longer than myself, and there’s many a hidden road he has yet to see.
Kayoko tells us to be careful though, since there are bears around – for real this time. People regularly see them. Granted, they may only be relatively small black bears, maybe the size of a large dog, but since I genuinely enjoyed not being eaten by bears back in Hokkaido, I decide that the security of carrying a noisy bearbell around outweighs the potential discomfort of being digested by an ursine.
For the first part of the stray, we explore an abandoned loop road that is continuously being reclaimed by nature.
After that, we hesitate a bit before follow a rather boring main street up the mountain in order to get onto a more scenic forest path…
…that would eventually lead us to the middle station of the ski lifts and the ski slopes, which around this time of the year are vibrant lush heaths.
After that, it's down the mountain along a slippery slope. Since these last few days were a bit rainy, I only narrowly avoid sliding down the hill on my backside. Fortunately, we make enough noise as a result that we probably scared off any bears in a mile-wide radius.
As a finale for this admittedly short stray, we would walk wone way which I've been wanting to try for some time: One of the idyllic green pedestrians’ pathways connecting the bigger roads of Appi Pension Village: The Tanuki Footpath.
And that’s already it for this initial stray. Now let me proceed to tell you a bit more about…
As I already mentioned, I am staying in a Pension by the name of Mutti, which happens to be an Alpine-European-Style twos-storey-house with a souterrain.
Anyway, let me give you a tour of the place.
Halfway during my stay, just before Chiara and Ying arrive, I should move into a different bedroom in order to stay in a private room. That new room is on the other side of the helpers’ lounge, and used to belong to Adrian before he left. Consequently, we should come to call it the Senpai-Room (先輩 “preceding comrade” = “senior”). This one actually comes with its own TV, though I should end up not using it at all.
As for the surroundings of the Appi Pension Village, the most prominent feature is the Hotel Appi Grand that towers over the entire village like a giant, yellow monolith.
The Pension Village itself, meanwhile, is much more rustic, with lots of pretty greenery.
Maybe the most amusing feature is the variety of creative pension names around here.
But then, there’s also a number of curious statues to be found around.
There’s also a sports areal with a nice view of the mountain in the middle of the Appi Pension Village.
On one weekend, they hold a tennis tournament there…
…and on another, there’s a soccer competition going on.
If you go a bit further beyond the boundaries of the Pension Village, there’s a nice big Soba field nearby…
…which gradually ripens over the duration of my stay, though I should not get to see the fabled white flowers.
And speaking of Soba: This tasty plant and the noodles made from it are this region’s specialty, and as a result, the official mascot of this area is an anthropomorphic Soba-bowl.
There’s also a walkway that I like to call “Dragonfly Alley”, where the little bugs are flitting around me all over the place. I am literally surrounded by a cloud of dragonflies. I try to take a movie, but the buggers should prove to be too small and swift to be captured by my humble little camera. But at the very least I can take a few pictures of the ones that are sitting still.
It shouldn’t happen all that often due to the unnaturally hot weather this month, but every once in a while we should also get a nice misty morning, dipping the entire place in a nice, mystical flair.
That place in the last picture, by the way, is a dog run in the back of Pension Mutti, for you see, in this place, it’s not only humans, but also dogs who are welcome (and foxes too =^,^= ).
And finally, let you tell me a little bit more about the Ofuro (お風呂 “Wind Spine” = “Hot Bath”) that we have here. We have one for each gender, inside and out each. The baths – in a traditional Japanese manner – are covered with wood planks when not in use, and are uncovered by the guests when they want to use them, and re-covered after use. The outside one is especially nice a night when you can see the stars shimmering between the trees. Also, allow me to explain the difference between this place and an Onsen (温泉 “Hot Spring”). While both an Ofuro and an Onsen are used in the same sequence (get naked, shower , bathe, shower again and maybe wash hairs), the main difference is that an Onsen has to get its water from a natural volcanic hot spring, while an Ofuro can just get its hot water however they like. The main difference are esoteric healing qualities that are attributed to natural hot springs and which apparently can’t be replicated even using modern science and chemistry (probably because sulphur is pretty toxic and an Ofuro that artificially added sulphur to its water would never be authorized).
So much to explore in such a quiet place… enough that I would before long embark on…
Interlude: A Solo Stray to the Station
[To be continued…]
Interlude: Of Waterfalls and Shrines
Interlude: Riding Down the Valley
Interlude: Un-Climbing The Mountain
Interlude: The Morioka Sansa Matsuri