In working out the plan for this trip, I recognised that I had a game in Tokyo on Sunday and the next game in Oita on Wednesday.
Which gave me a journey of 1278 kilometres, and two and a half days to do it.
And having spent so much time rushing around and being in big cities, I figured that a bit of quiet and relaxation with a slower pace would be just the thing.
For reasons of train timetables I picked out Yamaguchi as the likely spot. Just that, no other research at all. A Monday double Shinkansen would get me from Tokyo to Shin-Yamaguchi, and then a local train to Yamaguchi itself, and a local hotel. And two days of slow and sloth. With zero expectations of what I’d do when I got there, before I got back on the rail to Oita.
Well, dear reader, prepare for a love fest.
And the best thing about love is that it hits you in the guts with all the subtlety of Ardie Savea introducing himself to an Australian first-five.
The switch at Shin-Yamaguchi to the local train was where it started.
The local train for Yamaguchi was a two-carriage rail car. After all the high-tech Shinkansen excitement it was a treat to go old style. Big chunking diesel running up some gears, taking 24 minutes to go 13 kilometres up a river valley because it makes six stops along the way.
And at every stop some school kids would get on, and some school kids would get off, and they were just school kids larriking around after school.
Just a day in the life of Japan. Perfect.
From the Yamaguchi train station I walked my bag 500 metres up to my hotel, which I had picked at random from some website, and it was perfect. Three desk staff were waiting to welcome just me, and I hand over my passport, and they have my reservation to hand, and I’m in my room. Which is small, but immaculate and proper, with everything I need and nothing I don’t.
Unpack my toothbrush, and decide I’ll have an early dinner. It’s a Monday night you realise, and this is not the metro area of a big city. It’s maybe 190,000 people, which feels real small after Tokyo and Kobe and all. I wander down what I take to be the main street, and choose a restaurant at random because it has some nice pictures of some really nice meat.
It’s a barbecue place, run by two young fellas, and I’m their only customer right now. They don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Japanese, and it’s all good because there’s Google Translate, and I can point at pictures for food and drink.
They light the small gas barbecue on the table, bring me a whisky and dry, and a bowl of rice, and the prettiest little plate of beef fillet slices you have ever seen.
I barbecue it myself, perfectly seared outside and bleeding inside, and dip it in some sauces which are delicious. Sublime.
Which is when I figure I should figure out where I’m at, and what I should do. Thank you interweb, because now I find out exactly how lucky I am.
Yamaguchi city is the administrative centre for Yamaguchi prefecture, which straddles the western section of Honshu. All the busy industry stuff is down on the southern coast, and on the northern coast is Hagi, an old castle town which I sure will get to another time.
But there’s plenty to see around here, I realise, and my hotel has bicycles out front, which guests can use, at no charge. (Have these people never heard of rapacious capitalism?)
So the next morning I borrow a bicycle, put its seat up to highest which isn’t quite high enough but never mind because I’m only pootling around, and it’s got a basket in front for my bag, and I feel like the emperor of all I survey.
I know vaguely the direction I’m heading for, a five-storey pagoda I’d read about, but Lady Serendipity is guiding me. I turn along a small lane, following a small river, which is lined with cherry trees: bare at the moment, but in April they’ll blossom and bloom and drop drifts of delight on your head.
It’s the prettiest pootling on a bike you can imagine: the river, the trees, houses of quiet discretion. Now maybe I just happen to be riding through Yamaguchi’s version of Fendalton, but it also feels like this is just a street I happened to turn onto. I can almost hear a Jonny Mercer song that he almost wrote about just this moment.
It’s a gentle ride up to the Rurikoji Temple Pagoda. Built in 1442 in Hagi, before being relocated here to nestle into a curve of wooded hillside, it’s stunning. Gorgeous. Exquisite. All of that and more. And it’s just here, and you walk in, and there’s no charge, and there are no crowds, and you stop and hold your breath.
Walk up close, and you can see the grain of the wood, and the settling of the joints, and it was all old a long time ago.
Up the path is the Rurikoji Temple itself, also stunning and gorgeous and exquisite. And layered with Buddhist rituals and symbols and heartbeats of generation upon generation of veneration.
All of this surrounded by a perfect garden, with only the sounds of birds and insects and the artful trippling of water, arranged just so.
I stood and listened and breathed in and waited.
And after some time I got back on my bike, and headed for an onsen.
Yudaonsen is, if you like, a suburb of Yamaguchi. A short ride from the temple pagoda, it’s really the domestic tourism centre of the place.
Because of the hot springs and the white fox.
The legend has it that the Yuda Onsen hot spring was discovered approximately 800 years ago when a white fox was spotted washing its wound in the hot spring. There was a small pond at the foot of Mt. Kongen that belonged to the Buddhist Kongenyama temple, which the white fox used every evening to try and heal its wounded foot. Amazed by this observation, the head priest of the Kongenyama temple ventured down to the pond and scooped some water up with his hand, and to his surprise, the water was warm. He then plunged his hand deeper into the water and felt the rushing flow of warm water gushing out from the base of the pond. His amazement did not stop there, however, as he soon discovered a Yakushi Nyorai Buddha golden statue which also appeared from underneath the water.
Placed around the town are a number of foot spas, where you can take off your shoes and recuperate your tired feet. (And they’re still not charging anything!) They appear to be perfect places for older woman to gather and gossip and giggle.
But I am here for the full body experience at an onsen in one of the hotels. I pay the entrance price, and hire the small and large towels.
There’s a way of doing this which I hope I am doing right. First rule: naked. No togs, no undies, just you. Get natural. (Somebody asked me if I was okay with that. Sure, I said, I don’t have to look at me, that’s the other people’s problem.)
Second rule: wash yourself first. There are low stools to sit on, with hand showers and better yet buckets to pour over yourself.
Third rule: lie in the water and just lie in the water. Bliss.
Also exhausting. I came out and had to rest for half an hour.
Cycled back in the general direction of the hotel.
Lady Serendipity took me past a coffee house that brews with individual vacuum pots, delivering an absolutely perfect cup of afternoon joe. I’m still on a roll.
Back to the hotel, hand back the bike all in one piece.
Yamaguchi is the perfect place for a cycling holiday. Just pootle about town, for a temple and an onsen. Or take a longer ride down to the coast and back, or go hard out in the karst hills. (And add in a shrine, and an onsen to recover.) The drivers are decorous, and in most places there are footpaths or slow lanes, where you can amble along.
I did some planning for later in the trip, and then went out for a spot of dinner at a place I’d spotted earlier, along the lovely river with cherry trees. (It’s called Yama-Tora: ‘yama’ is mountain, and ‘tora’ is tiger.)
Which is where I really get lucky.
It’s an early autumn Tuesday evening, and there’s just one other customer. A young man (but everyone looks young now), he’s clearly a regular, and he has a good bit of English, and we fall into conversation. I ask him to order for me, whatever’s good and local. (That would be bonito sashimi, and an udon noodle dish with beef and a raw egg in a broth. Which is all indeed local and very very good.)
And so we chat through his dinner and mine, with Google Translate to help the questions and answers both ways, and he introduces me to the famous chef whose place this is. He asks about New Zealand, and I ask about Yamaguchi, and because he’s an official in the prefectural government he knows everything I throw at him.
Come back in April with MrsDavy, he insists, when the cherry blossoms are out. And the Great Chef brings out his photos of the blossoms around his restaurant, and then they insist on taking me back to the Pagoda, because it is lit up at night, and my goodness it is beautiful in a whole new way, and they drive me back to my hotel, and I say an inadequate thank you.
And as my Great-Uncle telegraphed to my Grandfather many years ago, when he’d met the right woman, “Ain’t love grand?”
Yes it is. Indeed it is.
Folks, put Yamaguchi on your list. This is the Japan you’re looking for.