Nearing perfection

Nearing perfection

Dave Broom takes us on a trip through his Japan to discover inner peace and fabulous whisky.

Travel | 31 Oct 2008 | Issue 75 | By Dave Broom

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I’m clean. In fact, I am cleaner than I have ever been. I never knew anyone could be so clean. Even my mind seems scrubbed. I’m imagining other guests inadvertently looking out of their windows and catching sight of a glowing, pale, hairy ghost walking past their windows, robed and wooden-slippered, a plume of steam rising from its head into the chill night air.The idea of visiting an onsen has hung above every trip I’ve made to Japan and while I had a brief dip in Hitoyoshi city, it hardly counted. This time, after a few days of the usual Tokyo madness of tasting, talks, meetings, bar visits, more tastings, and late nights which blurred into early mornings it is decided that we head for the hills to recharge.I was not aware that Japan’s countryside appears to be menaced by giant-eyed, outrageously fanged monsters, but that’s what the road signs were telling me.Apparently it simply denotes raccoons, though I have my doubts. I’ve seen Japanese movies and know this is a land populated by terrifying monsters. The next sign warns about a plague of monkeys. Quite what they do I know not. Hold up the car so the raccoons can chew through the metal and eat us while the monkeys make off with the luggage? An interesting way to start what is meant to be an exercise in calming the mind.All around are rusted mountains, their rippling ridges fringed with trees like a ragged horse’s mane, their leaves the colours of old whisky, some the same shade as the hair of the girls of Shinjuku. Small towns snuggled in hillsides are passed, as the intestinal twists of the road bear us higher, eventually depositing us outside the gatehouse to Hoshinoya Karuizawa resort.The 4X4 beast is parked and we enter a waiting room complete with gamelan. Tea and bean cakes are brought. The air is sweet and filled with tinkling bells.Time seems to slow, smiles already replacing the manic conversation.We are buggied up to the complex, which forces a further readjustment. Hoshinoya is not a hotel, but a resort, though that description is also insufficient; it’s more of a traditional village imagined in a contemporary style. There are 77 black, wooden-timbered units clustered around a river which winds its way through the complex, tumbling through man-made waterfalls coiling back on itself under bridges which lead to the main hub, the equivalent of the village hall I suppose, where there’s a restaurant and library.People have bathed in the hot springs which bubble up beside the Yukawa river for almost 100 years, firstly at the original Hoshinoya onsen, which was founded in 1914. This latest reincarnation opened in 2005. Our mini villa overlooks the river: a main room where three hairy gaijin (foreigners) have to share a sleeping shelf like the three bears, leading to a lounge plump with plush cushions and a balcony.Spa time. We’re immediately into the thick grey pyjamas, draw black woollen cloaks around ourselves and force our feet into wooden sandals and hobble into the darkness to find the spa. The Tombo-no-yu hot springs are open to guests and the public, but the guest-only Meditation Spa is closer and more intriguing.There’s more to bathing in Japan than just sitting in hot water. A booklet explains how to maximise the enjoyment and also to gently steer stupid gaijin away from making some terrible faux pas, though as the sexes bathe separately, learning the Japanese kanji for ‘men’ and ‘women’ is surprisingly not included. This causes some confusion, but she seems remarkably good humoured about it.The Meditation Spa has its own additional rituals: a drink of water, then a ferocious washing in a black marble cubicle before a searing sauna, then a plunge into a freezing pool before a gentle walk into the comforting darkness of the pool itself. There are even instructions on how to breathe, though after a few minutes in the enveloping darkness it seems to become natural. The laughter of the sauna drops away as the water begins to embrace you.My eyes pick out a dark cube in the blackness. A passage which leads to a tiny enclosed, water-filled space. This black stone box, Bath Yami, is the nexus of the spa. The absence of light means it is possible, though only if you are a clumsy gaijin, to accidentally sit on the lap of a meditating Japanese bather. Once again there is some confusion. My friend apologises and silence eventually returns, the only sound that of the water gently slapping the stone.We steam slowly back to our room and, amazingly, pass on the suggestion of a dram.Sleep is deep and dreamless.The morning light cracks open the eye.The early morning is chill but clear, so I go and sit on the deck with some green tea. The sun is shattered in the river. Tokyo? Where’s that? Amazingly Hoshinoya is just over two hours away by car or train. Already my lungs seem clearer. Time for some music to wake up my companions.The previous night we’d clacked across to the library and taken some of the CDs which guests are allowed to borrow. That’s a first in itself for me. At a UK spa, there wouldn’t be free CDs because the guests would nick them and what music there would be available (to buy, at inflated prices) would be muzak for people who don’t like music: New Age twaddle, pan pipes, pseudo ‘Celtic’ bleatings. At Hoshinoya it’s different.The music is modern, minimalist: Morton Feldman, John Cage, Keith Jarrett. I leave Feldman’s tones resonating in my friends’ heads and make a break for the woods.There’s a nature reserve across the road.Needless to say there’s more wild animals to be aware of. Bears this time, though judging by the drawing they are less of a worry than the frankly drug-crazed raccoons. The last leaves are on the maples, an occasional flash of scarlet against the bleached out steel grey and fawn. A still pond reveals an inverted world where small fish glide over the tree tops as the sun gleams palely without strength. I head uphill, the intention to get a view of Mount Asama. It’s nowhere to be seen. Then I turn around and Bam! realise it’s sneaked up behind me, its summit cone touched with a wisp of smoke.After a morning dip we head into Karuizawa, 15 minutes away. An old woman in a pink apron sweeps leaves into a bonfire at the crossroads. Past the tennis courts where the Emperor met the Empress to a centre composed of wide streets lined with half-timbered buildings, giving it the look of an English market town crossed with somewhere in the American mid-west.Every second shop seems to sell jam. “Hold it in your hand, Love it in your tummy!” There is, obviously, a distillery as well. A good distillery at that with some stellar old whiskies, rich, resinous, mysterious and deep with plumes of smoke threading their way through. Outside the still house is a black and white poster of a fierce-looking man, pebble-thick glasses, defiant beard. I ask who he is. “Santoka”. How perfect is that? Where better to have a picture of the famous, drunken haiku poet than outside a distillery? Both reducing things to the essence. His name, “burning mountain peak” seems equally appropriate given the location next to Honshu’s most active volcano.There’s just time for a pre-dinner spa before a superb 10 dish kasuke meal at the resort’s restaurant, washed down with sake that tasted of moonlit fennel and then another latenight sit and steam before a warming Benriach cask strength or two. This is a perfect whisky place. I can just see a small, well-chosen selection, guests sipping slowly, the intensity and complexity of the drink in perfect balance with their chilled openminded state. We watch the lamps bob like little messages on the inky river.This bathing is getting addictive: drink, wash, sauna, dip, sit, but this morning is different. It’s a cloudy day and I wade straight to the darkened Yami pool, rest and regulate my breathing. By the time I push out from the womb-like gloom into the main room the sun has come out, its white walls scream with pure light. It’s just water, white, black, light and lack of light. So simple, so powerful.If there is one growing realisation from this immersion (literal in this case) in Japanese life it is the importance of ritual.Even the simplest gesture appears to be imbued with meaning and active thought: the laying of a table, greeting people, the preparation of a drink. Conceivably it is unconscious, simply part of the way things are done, but after a week even the clumsiest foreigner becomes more aware of movement and detail. At Hoshinoya this aspect of Japanese life is accentuated. Time stretches, revealing the difference between “the time of the body and that of consciousness,” as the writer John Berger defines it.Maybe Japanese culture is more aware of this separation.I have yet to master the Japanese talent of being able to sleep anywhere at anytime and never has that ability been more pressing than now. It’s 10.30 at night and I’m wide awake. Not a great surprise you may think, but in three hours I’ve got to get up and start climbing to the summit of Mount Fuji.Trouble is, the Giant Gaijin (also known as David Croll) and I are wedged into a space that’s big enough at best for two Japanese children. He knows this as he’s sleeping alongside one. Meanwhile, I’m trying to avoid putting my elbow up my neighbour’s nostrils. This place is just not designed for gaijin. Our feet are hanging over the edge of the sleeping platform and therefore are being bashed by a constant stream of walkers either going to the loo, setting off for the summit or just having a wander. Beneath us is a layer of sleepers covering the entire floor; there’s another layer in the rafters where the rest of the team are.The night is endless, filled with snores, snuffles and whispered conversations. The world is put to rights in my head, it’s too stuffy to sleep, too ridiculous to even try. Is anyone actually asleep or are we all just lying in the dark, eyes open, waiting, like some great organism with a single intention for a signal to start the next part of the adventure?The mind drifts back to the morning. The forested drive to the starting point, the slow shift from deciduous to coniferous and then, through the treeline into a blasted sunlit landscape of reds and greys. I buy a hiking stick, part souvenir, part necessity and we set off. It’s immediately clear that there’s a major difference between Fuji and the Scottish hills, well, there’s many I know, but the most significant one at this moment is the fact that walking up a beautifully symmetrical cone of ash means that there’s no respite in the ascent. This is a mountain you simply go straight up, there’s no hidden valleys, no mini plateaus or cols, just a relentless zigzagging climb for 3,776 metres (that’s 12,389 feet in old money).There are more spectacular and tougher walks in Japan, but none quite has the iconic status of Fuji-san, so when the Giant Gaijin suggested this saunter up its side there was no hesitation. This surely is the ultimate whisky walk and just to underline this we are combining the adventure with a spot of Extreme Blending at the summit to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Japan.We pick our way through the boiled rock, joining a long straggle of fellow walkers, the slow steady rhythm making this seem more of a ritual which is only in line with a mountain which has been considered home to a fire god, a Shinto goddess and a Buddha. For centuries, climbing Fuji was a pilgrimage.A rest at the 6th stage where the smell of woodsmoke rises as the first brand goes on to my stick, then onwards. Steeper now, the only sound is the tiny bells some have on their walking poles and the crunch of stick and boot on lava dust. We pass two onelegged men. Then they pass us. “Where’s the next stage?” comes the question, “Up there!” someone shouts back, blowing away the grey cloud which is now enveloping us.There’s a glimpse of a torii gate and then it closes again softening the shapes which are ascending and descending, “Konichiwa!” rolls back down the line like a chant.By the 7th stage there are smiles, a girl drifts by eating a dried squid. We’re now above 3,000m and the rock changes once more, now lilac and red clusters, dusted with sulphur looking like a giant’s breakfast cereal. I hadn’t expected it to be so busy, or see such a variety of people; there’s gear junkies and schoolkids, grandmothers and teens; jeans and trainers, t-shirts and fleeces, cords and waterproofs, all in one suits. At one point a girl emerges out of the mist with elbow length gloves, a floppy brimmed black hat and chic pink fleece top looking as if she’d just strolled here from Shinjuku.If stages six to seven was hard, seven to eight is worse. We’re through the cloud layer but the air is noticeably thinner. One final push and we reach the highest bunk house which is already filling up. There’s a strange silence, you’d expect laughs and banter, but people are already settling down for the night. A quick bowl of the best curry rice ever and the rest of our party climbs into the rafters, leaving the Giant Gaijin and myself outdoors, above the clouds, watching the sky turning ever paler blue.So here I am. It’s 1am now and I’ve had enough. I’ll take my chances in the dark outside. The Giant Gaijin has tried to get under his quilt but in doing so has somehow managed to catapult the small child next to him five places down the line. For some reason the kid’s mother seems a tad perturbed by this. My elbow is now hovering ever closer to my snoring companion’s ear. We grab our gear and head to the door trying not to stand on too many faces as we go.The path immediately assumes the vertical. Time is irrelevant, there’s just the path, the relentless climb, the frequent breaks. Then it seems to straighten out and we almost sprint along. Suddenly through the rocks, the summit gate. There’s much hugging as we wait in the brightening sky for the first golden rays of dawn lighting up every edge of rock, every smile and crease on the tired happy faces.We drift towards the crater and get stuck into the blending. 15 whiskies, 15 individuals, some for texture, some to counterbalance, some for perfume, some for depth, others for grip, or length, all playing a part, all with their own story, all coming together for one aim. If you want a metaphor for climbing a mountain there it is.I’d heard that the descent was boring. It isn’t, it’s a waking hell. We head straight down, through increasingly thick piles of ash, constantly shifting underfoot. Working it out, one foot, the other, never taking your eyes off the path, knowing where the next foostep will be, dancing, twisting, doing the Fuji slide. My ankles hurting, the knees are aching, as we head along a beautiful, bleak ridge back into the cloud bank.Suddenly the cloud clears and we find that we’re in an ash bowl that looks like some carefully tended volcanic garden with ordered ranks of strange flowers with the buttery smell of meadowsweet. It’s almost a relief after two hours of straight downhill to find we’ve a short climb back up to Stage 6 before a quick saunter back down to the base, the woods and thick cloud.By the time the group reconvenes for deserved beers in the evening we’ve all run up the mountain.The next morning I look for Fuji on the skyline. It’s disappeared.
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