Soak up the sights

Ferry tales and fiery hot springs in win­try Ja­pan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - JU­DITH ELEN

River cruis­ing is not the first thing that comes to mind when trav­el­ling in Ja­pan, but a small, lo­cal ferry on the Shogawa River, in the cen­tral-west of the main is­land of Hon­shu, opens a win­dow on the dra­matic trans­for­ma­tions that sweep wa­ter­way and land­scape as the sea­sons turn. Shogawa River Val­ley and Gorge are cru­cibles of quar­terly changes, blos­som­ing in spring; green in sum­mer; awash with colour in au­tumn (south of the Shogawa Gorge is a fa­mous au­tumn-leaf view­ing area); and, in win­ter, at their most dra­matic, the sur­round­ing moun­tains are deep in snow, ev­er­green forests as­cend from the wa­ter’s edge and ici­cles stab the air.

I’m here in late March. Snow still blan­kets the high slopes and dec­o­rates the near ground in patches and rivulets, while an oc­ca­sional brave bud shows amid tan­gled branches. The Shogawa Yu­ransan ferry plies its pic­turesque route be­tween Ko­maki ferry stop and Omaki Spa, a 28-room hot springs on­sen on the river’s edge. Early in the 12th cen­tury, a wan­der­ing, battle-scarred war­lord came upon this ther­mal source and healed his wounds. Logs floated down­stream in an im­por­tant tim­ber-cut­ting in­dus­try for more than 400 years un­til 1930, when the Ko­maki Dam was built. Th­ese days, this area in Toyama Pre­fec­ture is hot springs cen­tral, pep­pered with small lo­cal baths and calm on­sen ho­tels.

I’m here for an hour’s round-trip. To have a day or two to spare and hop off at Omaki would be heaven. It is one of Ja­pan’s most re­mote spa ho­tels, ac­ces­si­ble only by the river. Omaki’s wood-framed three storeys clus­ter like a small vil­lage above the river, its fa­cade ris­ing above wa­ter-washed py­lons, snowy moun­tains at its back. In­door and open-air hot baths of­fer views over moun­tains and for­est. There’s also river fish­ing.

Back at Ko­maki board­ing point, the small white ferry waits be­side a wooden pon­toon be­low a metal gang­plank. It has a glass-wrapped lower sec­tion, roofed and open­sided up­per deck, and a fes­tive air, with bright turquoise floor­ing and fresh blue and yel­low stripes along its length. Pink spring-fes­ti­val flags flut­ter ver­ti­cally above a bank of im­mac­u­lately packed river stones.

Here, the river is nar­row, the op­po­site bank ris­ing steeply, with foot-worn tracks run­ning through the trees across brown earth touched with patches of green. The wa­ter is a glacial olive-green, like a trans­planted Norse fjord.

Fur­ther on, a 19th-cen­tury stone viaduct strides to the edge, be­fore col­laps­ing into ru­ins. Then a new bridge, spare and red against craggy snow-pow­dered moun­tain­sides, echoes the red-lac­quered torii gates of Shinto shrines. Be­yond the bridge, frigid green-black wa­ters and black fir for­est could place us in the Canadian Arc­tic or Scan­di­navia. But, on the re­turn loop, I spot a strangelook­ing an­i­mal for­ag­ing in the snow. It means we can only be in Ja­pan. I take pho­to­graphs and later iden­tify it as a kamoshika, a wood­land an­te­lope-goat unique to this coun­try.

“To spot [this soli­tary an­i­mal],” a nat­u­ral­ist wrote, “you must scan the wooded slopes”, their “ashy, grey­black hair, cam­ou­flages them ... like for­est wraiths”.

Back at the ferry ter­mi­nal, the small room is thronged with ticket-hold­ers, not for­eign sight­seers like me but el­derly Ja­panese in padded snow coats, gaz­ing in­tently at the river pic­tures pa­per­ing the walls be­tween timetable no­tices and car­toon-maps, be­fore ven­tur­ing up­stream to Omaki Spa.

Less than 3km from here, in west­ern Toyama, I spend a night at the tran­quil and el­e­gant Yumet­suzuri hot springs inn, a cocoon of oiled blond wood and warm lights. Fol­low­ing a din­ner of seafood fresh from Toyama Bay, I’m lulled by the night-long rush of wa­ters flow­ing from Shogawa Gorge.

Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Toyama Pre­fec­ture.

Re­mote spa ho­tel at Omaki, left; and tra­di­tional on­sen pool

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