Saturday, March 16, 2013

A tiny unexpected pleasure

What the hell, we thought, the weather has at last turned sweet so why not take a short break outside the city? So we reserved a room at Kawaseki-en, a great rambling Japanese inn in Yugawara, a town bubbling with hot springs geared for bathing, which we knew to have excellent food and its own fine bathing facilities, including several small private baths which couples could reserve for themselves, all for 50,000 yen a night including an elaborate dinner and breakfast.  (Top-class ryokan where you eat from antique bowls and the furniture is museum quality can cost twice as much.)

After we had settled in, we decided to explore the area.

Sprawling Makuyama Park accommodates a series of hiking courses and a great rolling slope called Yugawara Bairin planted with a variety of flowers, some of which are always in bloom. At this time of the year, the plum is just coming into bloom and the mountain is laced with flowering pink.

People come from all over the country to wander through this grove of flowering pink plum, whose fragrance seems to roll down the mountain in clouds.

But first we had to trudge up the long long road to the beginning of the flowering slope, past the tangle of  cars with license plates from all over the country, past dozens of roadside stands offering cups of tea and baskets of just-harvested mikan tangerines. When we finally got to the flowering slope itself, we were encouraged to carry on and offered hiking sticks to make the climb easier. It was also suggested that we might like to take off our hiking boots and dunk our tired feet into a wooden enclosure filled with hot water from a local spring and white stones to massage our soles.

After a few minutes in this foot bath, which was so hot it takes a minute or two for our feet to adjust, all the while looking up at the flowering hillside, many people decide that they don't really need to climb the slope after all, that this is as far as they need to go. After all, they can see the flowering plum very well from here, with their feet resting relaxed in the foot bath, and can smell the plum very well too. Ahhhh.

This is the best time to view the plum, said the man next to me with his feet soaking - the plum is almost in full bloom. Full bloom is too late, he said. A little lesson in Japanese aesthetics.

- Alphonse de Tiende

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