Day 8 in Japan is “Iya Valley Sightseeing by taxi” from the hotel Oboke Manneken Ryokan. We are on our own now, without friend and neighbor Kaori here to translate, so I rely on the detailed itinerary prepared by our state-side travel agent Noriko. My hand-written notes on the spreadsheet: “10:00 Guide, front of hotel. incl. lunch Soba-making.”
After breakfast, we walk past our names framed with American flags in the ryokan’s entryway, and see the “jumbo taxi” that the travel agent has arranged for this local tour. The driver, a youngish woman, greets us and the six of us find seats in the roomy vehicle. “My. Name. Is. Nobuko Asako.”
Well, Noriko promised us an English-speaking taxi driver, and that is English.
We start out, but less than two miles down the road, we hear, “I solry. I solry.” Nothing to be sorry about, she pulls into a gas station. We’re happy to watch a white-gloved attendant fill the taxi with a hose and nozzle hanging down from overhead, and feel lucky––it will be the only time we see that in our seventeen days in Japan.
Nobuko drives us around mountains on winding roads. At one point, just before we get to a lookout that includes a toilet and a bench of life-sized, stuffed doll-people, she points out the opposite window, “House.”
More English. Turns out she’s telling us that we are heading to a house in the village that we see plastered against the opposite mountainside.
Once there, she pulls into a driveway where a little signpost says “Minami.” A moon-faced man wears an apron, a kerchief tied around his head, and a big smile. His mountaintop patio is lined with flowerpots and holds a picnic table and a small concrete oven structure. Minami’s wife, also smiling, tells us to enjoy some hot tea, which tastes good, but feels even better. The day is cool and our hands welcome the warm cups. Minami-san says, “Come. Only three.”
He leads us three oldsters to a door at the back of a small adjoining shed, where we’ll make soba noodles. Inside are lacquered bowls; a wooden table with three work areas, each holding an egg and a small plastic bag of pre-measured buckwheat flour. Using a scale, he weighs out the exact amount of spring water for each of us, and shows us how to mix and roll the dough. When it comes to cutting it into noodles, though, he has to correct us. “No. Thin. Two-millimeters.” How much is two millimeters? A lot less than what we are cutting. He laughs, “Too fat. Udon.” Maybe our noodles are even too thick to be udon.
Next the three boys, cousins, make noodles while we take pictures and enjoy the view. The wife points to bushes lining the hillside just past the house and tells me in broken English that she grew and dried the tea used to fill the hot thermos. She moves in and out of the house preparing lunch, while we marvel at sloping hillsides planted with sweet potatoes in mounds still covered with black plastic.
We listen to the rushing water sounds of a small stream flowing past the house and down the mountain. When I ask about a toilet, she leads me inside the house. It is a modern bathroom, with little slippers to put my stocking-ed feet into, a heated seat, and two bidet options. A hose with a levered nozzle at the end hangs on the wall. She shows me how to use the spray nozzle to flush the toilet. One by one, we all use the restroom, each person showing the next how to flush the toilet.
Then it is time to eat. And eat, and eat. The wife must have cooked for days. Not only do we dip and slurp our soba noodles, thin and wide alike, that our noodle teacher has cooked in the shed, but we are treated to soup, the lightest tempura that I’ve ever eaten, rice balls, various pickled vegetables, and more noodles. Delicious. There is plenty for Nobuko, the host couple, and our group of big-eaters.
Soon Mr, Minami comes out of the house wearing a blue happi coat with a red butterfly on the back. “Work. Now.”At least that is what we think he says.
“OK.” We nod and smile as if to say, “It’s been fun,” because we think he is leaving to go to work. We don’t move.
He stands there, still smiling, for a couple of minutes, then says, “Follow me.” Oh, he said “walk” not “work,” and this is the “walk through the village” listed on the day’s schedule. We follow him on a narrow, steep path, down the mountainside. He stops by a retaining wall and shows us how long stones are used perpendicular to the slope to hold the rocks. We go down and down. Mr. Minami is looking at his hands most of the time, reading an electronic dictionary. We walk past tall, brown grass waving in the breeze, where he stops, re-checks his translator, and says, “Roof.” This is a field growing thatch to make a roof. And when he says “Antler,” we realize this must be where he found the deer antlers that hang on an outside wall of his home. We walk past mushrooms and wildflowers and flowing streams, to a small historic house.
We have only five minutes to admire the structure, then he shakes our hands to say good-bye.
At the bottom, his wife picks him up and we pile into Nobuko’s vehicle to head to our next stop: the Iya Kazura vine bridge.
The bridge is scary. Wrist-thick vines lash wooden slats together to form a swaying walkway attached to cedar trees on either side of a ravine. Between the narrow boards, we can see the Iya River churning past, almost fifty feet below.
Irv’s brother Ken, the one who closes his eyes in the car to avoid motion sickness, chooses to stay on the concrete bridge to take pictures.
The rest of us inch our way across, then walk past a vendor heating six-inch-long river fish on skewers around a fire. We don’t buy any though––we had our river fish for breakfast––and walk on to another photo op, the Biwa waterfall where our driver and her van are waiting for us.
We pile in go to our final stop of the day. Nobuko says, “We go. Pee-boy.” Ahh. So “Mannekin Pis” on our schedule really is the statue of the boy peeing over the side of the mountain––a fun stop for more pictures. And a perfect ending to a perfect day in the mountains of Japan.
Date of travel: late March, early April 2016.
Hotels, trains, and tour guides arranged through IACE Travel, Saratoga, CA.