Soak up the sights
Ferry tales and fiery hot springs in wintry Japan
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