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Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010

Old Japan lives on at Ikaho Spa


Special to The Japan Times

The ways are various in Japan for having one's sense of local pride bolstered by recognition on some official list.

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On a roll: A Kiwi worker at Ikaho Green Bokujo farm-theme amusement park shows the professional way to turn over a sheep in order to start shearing off its woolly coat. CHRIS BAMFORTH PHOTOS

Japan has its three most famous scenic spots, its three most celebrated gardens and, more prosaically, UNESCO's growing roster of World Heritage Sites. But none of these honored listings comes anywhere near the venerable clout bestowed on somewhere that is name-checked in the "Man'yoshu."

Japan's oldest — many would say its greatest — collection of poetry, the "Man'yoshu" was completed in 759, with the earliest poems included in it probably dating from the previous century. And in this superb tome, which embodies what renowned U.S. poet Gary Snyder has called an "in the morning of the world" feeling, Ikaho figures in no fewer than three poems.

Among them is this evocative piece: The mountain wind of Ikaho There are days when it blows And there are days when it blows not. But my love is timeless. I was there on a day when that mountain wind blew not. (As for love, well, that's another story.)

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Sights to see: This long series of 360 stone steps forms the main axis of the ancient spa town of Ikaho in Gunma Prefecture.

It was a bright spring morning when I reached this ancient spa town in Gunma Prefecture.

The air was thick with swallows, which sped over Ikaho's grand central feature of 360 stone steps that form its striking main axis. To the right and left are inns, restaurants and stores hawking the usual range of souvenir fare, plus such items pertinent to the bath as cotton yukata (kimono) and wooden geta (clogs) for clomping around in afterwards.

Beyond the top of the steps toward the public outdoor bath, the graceful arch of Kajika Bridge spans a stream. From the bridge, the chief mineral content of the hot spring is clearly evident in the ruddiness of the water, caused by its high iron content. Those with a fondness for strong metallic flavors can sample the stuff themselves from a small drinking fountain beside the road.

In odiferous contrast to Gunma's more famous — and stinkily sulfureous — spa town of Kusatsu, which is some 20-odd km distant on the other side of the Agatsuma River, the tea-brown waters of Ikaho are easy on the nose.

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Square meal: A hearty dish of the local okirikomi soup made with thick, broad udon noodles and a variety of vegetables.

If you have an ailment — and it seems practically any ailment — the chances are that the waters of Ikaho will somehow be efficacious. The list of conditions that they are reckoned to cure ranges the gamut from gastrointestinal disorders, burns, arteriosclerosis and sprains to high blood pressure, chronic disease (presumably all forms), nervous disorders and weakness in children. In fact, so beguilingly comprehensive is the list that you almost feel inclined to take a quick dip in the water just to be on the safe side.

But of course you can't spend all your time simply soaking your way to rude health, and around Ikaho an impressive number of attractions have sprung up to delight the jaded tourist eye.

Ikaho Green Bokujo is a farm-theme amusement park where you can ride ponies, milk cows, cuddle rabbits and marvel at the Kiwi staff on hand to demonstrate the fine arts of rounding up sheep using razor-witted dogs. As a bonus, they (the Kiwis) then pepper their explanations of how they do what they do with jokes in Japanese that nobody understands.

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The pagoda of Mizusawa Temple is unusual for being hexagonal and featuring just two stories.

For those with a more cultural bent, there are museums nearby focusing on such niche themes as teddy bears, chocolate, chansons, dolls, optical illusions and hideous glassware. Regarding another form of Japanese heritage, gaudy hotels with names such as Riviera and Free Time are also readily available to accommodate visitors who prefer more horizontal forms of entertainment.

In contrast to Ikaho's hedonistic diversions, the nearby temple of Mizusawa presents a more ascetic side of things.

As anyone of a pilgrimaging inclination well knows, Japan has no lack of routes to cater for the wayfaring devotee. The best-known such courses in eastern Japan are those dedicated to the bodhisattva known as Kannon. In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas were originally all male. But when Avalokiteshvara made his way to this country and became Kannon, the Japanese decided he was far too butch and that a spiritual sex op was in order. "And then," in the words of Lou Reed, "he was a she."

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Local color: The ideal footwear for trips to and from the baths for which Ikaho is famed are geta clogs like these on sale at a shop in the town.

The Bando pilgrimage route for Kannonophiles dates back to the 13th century and covers 33 temples in the Kanto region stretched out over a 1,300-km course, which would take a person on foot around 40 days to complete. Founded over 1,000 years ago, Mizusawa is number 16 on the Bando route, and with the steeply pitched roof of its main hall, bold brick-red color, exotic decorative details and two-storied hexagonal pagoda, it presents a distinctive architectural character.

Mizusawa's main object of veneration is a statue of 11-faced, 1,000-handed Kannon. But those hoping for a glimpse of this plurality of body parts will be disappointed as she is not out for public inspection. Instead, they have to content themselves with paying ¥500 to push a huge wheel in the pagoda around three times and earn themselves a little good luck. Or they could spend ¥100 to ring the temple bell, which has been thoughtfully calibrated to a "wake the bloody dead" volume level.

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Founded more than 1,000 years ago, Mizusawa Temple features a number of exotic architectural flourishes.

The temple is also famed for its udon (wheat noodles), and a dozen eateries nearby serve up Mizusawa udon. But I preferred to try the more intriguing- looking local dish of okirikomi — a hearty soup with udon and vegetables.

Each restaurant, just like each family, has its own way of making its okirikomi, though generally the noodle dough is prepared immediately before use, then cut and dropped into the soup. The okirikomi I sampled was made with carrots, Satsuma-age (fish-paste cake), potatoes, burdock, daikon radish, mushrooms and warabi bracken along with the thick, broad noodles.

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Since Ikaho is halfway up a mountain, winters here get numbingly cold. And the rib-sticking fare of okirikomi is no doubt as effective a remedy to the icebox conditions as a good long steep in all that hot iron water.

Ikaho is not the kind of place that tends to figure in many English guidebooks, but it is absolutely worth a visit. With its deserted pop-gun game arcades, wooden traditional inns, old-style souvenir stalls and antique metal ads touting long- forgotten products still adorning many walls in the town, it presents an engaging picture of a Japan that is quietly and sadly slipping out of existence.

Getting there: From Nerima Station in Tokyo, Ikaho can be reached in just over two hours by Joshu Yumeguri express bus.


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