Have you ever thought about opening a map, picking a random place and just going there?
That’s what we did this new year’s day.
New year’s in Japan is a pretty quiet, family affair. It would be our final full day of the trip, but most shops and restaurants in Hiroshima would be shut. We had just come back to the city we’d depart Japan from after six days immersed in quiet, stunning, rural Kyushu, and realised we’d focused so much on our rural onsen escapade that we hadn’t planned this part of the trip to urban Hiroshima, which we’d already visited several times. Uh oh, what to do?
It occurred to me as I was sitting in a popular Hiroshima onsen complex the night before. We’d so enjoyed road tripping around rural Kyushu, why not do the same on new year’s day? While waiting in the freezing winter night for the tram back to the hotel, we managed to connect to the free city WiFi and booked a car. While most businesses are shut during new year’s, thankfully Times Car Rental wasn’t.
It turned out to be one of the best days I’ve had.
A mere twenty minutes or so out of the city, and the scenery had changed. We saw monkeys in someone’s yard – wow! – and stopped to appreciate the river. All we could hear was the water.
We drove through small villages, spotting abandoned, crumbling houses here and there. They creeped out my husband, but they fascinated me. I wondered what had led to it, what happened to their former inhabitants, if they were physical proof of Japan’s rural decline. We also saw a different kind of building, this time intact, with a special kind of high, steep roof which resembled that of a rural homestead back home. I later heard from a friend from Hiroshima that they’re for the snow, so that it falls off easily.
Speaking of snow, we spotted traces of snow in the fields. For these two antipodeans, that’s pretty exciting!
At around the same time, the GPS directed us to turn right onto a toll road, and the toll was quite expensive.
Further in the distance, down the same road we were on, we could see ski slopes on the mountain. I later found out it was a popular ski resort. Intrigued, we decided to stay on the same road. I’m so glad we did.
We were getting higher and higher in altitude, and the there was more and more snow on the sides of the road. A few days ago in warmer Kyushu, we’d seen bags of salt left on roadsides and wondered if it would ever be necessary. A few days later, we could see that the salt definitely would be in a few weeks. I’ve since heard from friends in that region that they’re getting quite a bit of snow. I’m envious.
Of course, we had to stop and touch it. Anyone reading this from colder climes may laugh, but I’m fascinated by snow, which is so foreign to someone who’s grown up in the tropics. I didn’t see snow for the first time till I was in my early twenties!
We kept on driving, following this beautiful road. It started to get really winding and narrow, and we started to drive through a pine forest. The road was only wide enough for one car at a time, and some drivers thundering through in the opposite direction didn’t yield at all.
By this point, we suspected we had crossed into another prefecture, we’d driven that far east.
Passing abandoned stalls and cafes which used to sell the region’s specialty, wasabi, we saw a sign notifying us of a nearby onsen. Perfect!
The onsen was located next to a shrine and some really cool eco cabin style lodging. How wonderful would that be to stay there, surrounded by nature, steps away from an onsen. A tourist map in the car park showed us that we had in fact crossed into Yamaguchi prefecture, and the omiyage (local souvenirs) in the lobby, proudly declaring they were products of Yamaguchi, confirmed this.
The onsen, which I had to myself for most of the time I was bathing, was fantastic. While soaking, you could look out onto the shrine and forest. I was so very happy at that moment – we’d had such a fun, spontaneous day and everything was new and surprising. I laughed, not knowing where the hell I was, but loving the fact that I was nowhere else but there.
The light was fading and it was time to head back to Hiroshima city. We followed the road back, listening to a new year concert on the radio, which seemed to alternate between sombre traditional music and cute, catchy J-pop. We stopped for dinner at one of the few restaurants that was open (albeit with reduced trading hours), a popular family-style sushi chain.
Spontaneity, discovery, being completely in the moment – this was the most wonderful day. While driving, we talked and talked, about stuff that really matters, stuff that we just never get to in daily life. I felt completely alive.
What a fantastic start to the year. Here’s hoping it continues in such a positive direction.