Sukayu Onsen

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Bullet trains, wood-paneled labyrinths, suspected octopus, incessant snowfall, lone onsen, pattern clashing, forbidden art, roiling vapors, metered yen, polite banishment & the Hakkoda.

It is pouring rain in Nagaoka, but by the time I get to Morioka it is snowing. No time to stare—the Shinkansen bullets on, into another tunnel, out of another tunnel, tearing across and under the Japanese countryside at an incredible two hundred miles per hour. I haven’t slept much and am feeling terribly dizzy, but the thought of my destination buoys me.

In the late afternoon, the Shinkansen arrives in Aomori, near the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The city is draped in fresh snow, and from the train I see small trucks carting it away. I grab a shiny little black Peugeot taxi and tell the driver, a no-nonsense man in a suit, where I am headed. He balks, and as we drive off across the city under a heavy gray sky he keeps trying to deposit me elsewhere. I repeat my destination and settle into the seat, covered by a spotless white doily-like blanket. The kind man tries one last time to detour me, scribbling furiously on a scrap of paper: 8,000. He means the price of the ride, eight thousand Japanese yen, or about seventy U.S. dollars. Yes, I had been told as much and have the cash. Soon I discover the reason for his reticence: the sun is setting and the way to get to where I’m going is insane.

About fifteen minutes into the drive we turn onto a narrow road and begin a spectacular ascent into the Hakkoda Mountains. Two or three feet of snow covers the ground, and the road is wet and slushy. The mountains ahead are lost in a deep fog. By the time the fare climbs to 4,130 yen, it is flurrying and the road is snow-packed. When it hits 4,760 yen, there’s no one on the road but us, it’s snowing lightly and the snowbanks on the side of the road are as high as the taxi. With each turn, they seem to grow. A sign warns of avalanches. At 6,200 yen, we reach the Kayano Plateau, moderate snow is falling, the surrounding forest is fingered in white and the road has become an impressive snow canyon with walls ten feet high. We still have two thousand yen to go. But my driver has now chippered to the task and winds us skillfully through the dark snowy forest.

Madness, I keep thinking, this is madness. Eventually the situation just becomes obscene.

At around 7,100 yen a bus passes on its way down the mountain, giving me a chance to more accurately measure the snow walls. They are nearly as tall as the bus. Madness, I keep thinking, this is madness. Eventually the situation just becomes obscene. Snow walls twelve to fifteen feet high and furiously falling snow. And suddenly we are there: Sukayu Onsen, a massive traditional wood-beamed Japanese hot spring hotel glowing like a starship in the storm. I pay my 8,430 yen fare and step out into a full-on howling blizzard. There is eleven feet of snow on the ground.

Sukayu Onsen receives seven hundred inches of snow a year. That is twenty-eight times the amount of snow New York City gets in an average winter, and six times snowier than Syracuse, often named America’s snowiest city. By all available records, Sukayu Onsen is the snowiest inhabited place on Earth. I am slowly compiling a book of tales about the weather, and to capture snow, I determined that the snowy west side of Japan was the spot. A bit of searching led me to Sukayu. It took three years for the stars to align and me to make the trip. Absolutely nothing could prepare me for what I was going to find there.

Inside, the onsen is bustling with activity. Two attendants—a thin man in a black suit, a plump man in a red sweater—swiftly greet me. The suited man checks me in, arranges for my cab back two mornings hence, gives me a room key and takes my shoes. I am to wear slippers during my stay. Although the floor is neatly lined with extra pairs, he rushes into a side room and returns with some fine beige ones: “Big size.”

The red-sweatered man whisks me into the bowels of the structure, crudely pointing out notable markers as he marches me toward my room. It is a terrific wood-paneled labyrinth, like in The Shining, but with more snow, and everyone is Japanese. “Big bath,” says my guide, indicating a sliding door near which a handful of elderly Japanese men in kimonos shuffle about. That, I presume, is the infamous thousand-person mixed-sex hot spring bath. There’s a wonderful photo you can look up displaying hundreds of naked, mostly elderly, Japanese crammed in and smiling. “Dinner,” says my guide, gesturing vaguely down a hallway, occupied by shuffling kimonoed Japanese ladies. “Bathroom,” he says. At last we come to the small sliding door of room 705. I enter, and my plump red-sweatered guide shuffles back into the labyrinth.

Eight tatami mats are laid out like interlocking Tetris blocks across the floor. In one corner is a little mirror and a shelf with a little razor and a little toothbrush and the tiniest little tube of paste you ever saw. In the other is a closet with an orange towel and two types of neatly folded kimonos: blue and white striped, and gold and brown squared. At the far end is a window looking out onto the snow world, although I can’t see much; the snow outside rises higher than the window. The room contains a powerful space heater and, in the middle of the tatami floor, a low table with a pretty blue tea set, a hot water pitcher and a bean curd treat, which I devour immediately. Then I rush off to dinner—but I can’t find dinner.

There were the snow nights alone, or just me and the dog, wandering deep into the whitened woods, the flakes electric, connected by invisible streamers, a great mesmerizing beast welling up in the sky, a great impossibility, a great ship.

The hallway my guide had indicated is an endless option of sliding wooden doors. The first one I try opens onto a large furniture-less room where a group of men in red kimonos are seated on the floor, eating a meal. I hadn’t seen red kimonos anywhere and figure them to be high-ranking onsen officials. Clearly the wrong door, and I bow clumsily and exit. Then I accidentally enter the kitchen, which is freezing and filled with airplane-cart-like trolleys of food. I retrace my steps back down the hallway. None of the other doors seem right, and I circle back to the room of men with red kimonos. One kindly acknowledges me, but in a way that means “Go away.” I again wander into the kitchen, thinking maybe you must walk through it to get to the dining area. Nope.

I find the red-sweatered man sitting at some sort of security station. “Uh, dinner?” I ask. He brusquely directs me to a large traditional dining hall, laid out with tatami mats and little tables and hung with lanterns and, wafting through the air, some sort of majestic and ancient-sounding music. A waitress in a brown suit leads me to my table, where a twelve-course feast awaits, set out in tiny decorative dishes. There is the green root of something and bits of red radish. There is a bowl of fermented mushrooms, gooey and stringy. There is a little sampler tray of raw meat shreds, ham slices topped by lemon slices, a gelatinous cube filled with nut bits or maybe tofu bits, and a rice ball dabbed in barbecue sauce. There is a hot-pot soup with a soft slab of tofu and big floppy Dumbo-ear mushrooms. There is a salad with what I believe to be bits of octopus. There is another hot-pot dish, onions piled under strips of raw meat. There is another sample platter, sashimi with a puff of seaweed and little button of wasabi. There is a mushroom-heavy miso.

And there is more: tiny crockery chambers, one containing a potato pierogi, another containing banana peppers and octopus tentacles; a bowl of rice; a plate of apple slices. Shuffling about the great room to the traditional music are the brown uniformed hostesses. I am vegan, but at least for tonight I decide to be pescetarian. Still, where to begin? I start with the gelatinous cube and move forward through the meal like a drunk lunatic shoveling snow off a sidewalk, left-right, back-forth. I have no idea where I am going.

Compass Rose

It is difficult to explain the draw snow holds on me, in particular a snowstorm, and then most especially a blizzard. And to be in a blizzard in Japan deep in the Hakkōda Mountains at an onsen that is literally buried in snow, to be in what may well be the snowiest inhabited place on Earth, injected me with a startling delirium. Yes, there were the memories of a childhood spent mostly in suburban New York, the snow days, the suiting up of snow pants, the thick socks, my mother handing me my snow hat, the various sleds, the green one, the red one, the blue one, the sledding accidents, mending the sledding wounds, the hot cocoa, there was all of that. But there was something else, something grander. There was the snow portal, opened by the storm. I knew it instinctively, a door to another world, and each storm I crawled toward it. There were the snow nights alone, or just me and the dog, wandering deep into the whitened woods, the flakes electric, connected by invisible streamers, a great mesmerizing beast welling up in the sky, a great impossibility, a great ship.

From room 705 at Sukayu Onsen I layer up, trade my slippers for a pair of rubber boots at reception and head out into the storm of all storms. Billowing sheets of snow in the blackness, trees dangled in white. I am but a tiny human bean in this snow world. I wander farther up the mountain. Tree branches arch out over the road, crystallized in snow. And a road sign arches out, glowing red and yellow with its alien Japanese highway information. The blizzard takes me in. Suddenly, the wind blows itself up into a furious gale, and then completely stops. The night is utterly silent. I hear a plastic bag crinkling in my jacket pocket. I silence that and hear nothing. The clouds thin out and a lone star emerges. Looking down off the mountain I see a strange white fog, misting up over the land. It rises and refracts into bits. Then a new formation, something spectral rising in the air—it is a black-purple mist slowly climbing the mountain, morphing like an amoeba as it rises. And it swallows the trees below me, and it swallows me and it swallows the night. As it does, a hawk screeches sharply, and another, farther away, calls in response.

Back inside, I can hear onsen workers on the roof shoveling in the night. The snow has started up again. In the wee hours, in my blue and white striped kimono, I slipper through the dark hallways down to the entrance to have a look at the storm in the lights of the parking lot; it is a perfect blizzard. Come morning, I see the storm has sculpted the entire landscape into a work of art. A foot or two of new snow has fallen in the night, and it has been blown and drifted into flutes and turrets and great towering waves. The blizzard continues on and off throughout the day. In a lull, a ski expedition tramps off up the mountain, which finally appears out of the snow fog, a dome of white against white. I track the bright yellow and orange parkas as they snake up a ridge, then with a sweep of wind the blizzard roars back on and the line is lost. I fear for the expedition.

By late afternoon, the onsen’s systems appear to have been overwhelmed. The fancy automatic sliding door to the outside has frozen shut with ice and snow, and frigid wind is funneling into the building. Some sort of alarm is going off. I see a tank being unloaded from the bed of a truck. I wander around the gift shop and eat some jam crackers. That night at dinner I wear my blue and white striped kimono under my gold and brown squared kimono. It is a smashing success; the lady of an elderly couple seated the next table over actually speaks to me. I cannot understand her—she is simply pointing at the menu and perhaps discussing the courses—but I smile back.

I start with the gelatinous cube and move forward through the meal like a drunk lunatic shoveling snow off a sidewalk, left-right, back-forth. I have no idea where I am going.

There is one last thing I must do at Sukayu Onsen, and that is enter the thousand- person mixed-sex hot spring bath. I have already enjoyed two dips into the smaller men-only onsen and they have been wonderful. But I noticed one of the onsen rules is no tattoos. Mine are lengthy quotes across my back and chest and impossible to miss. I intend to go at four in the morning, when I imagine the place will be empty, but by the time I slipper down there it is nearly six—apparently the most popular time for onsen, as the changing room is filled with softly grunting elderly Japanese men.

I de-kimono, scrub off and enter a vast foggy room of roiling vapors. The water is the color of unfiltered sake, the air thick with sulfur. I huddle on the edge of the bath like a little womb child, then drop in. I don’t even know where I am. It is a foggy mire with bobs of light anchored to the sides, but there are really no sides. Naked Japanese male silhouettes roam about the space. The world is timeless and forgotten and we are all beasts and will soon be rotting in the ground, but that is okay. You can laugh at the world, but know this: you are a human, and just by living, you are participating in something special, you are participating in something ancient. The sun rises. I have an 8 a.m. taxi out of here.

Justin Nobel’s stories have been published in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 and Best American Travel Writing 2011 and 2016 (one of which, “Growing Old with the Inuit,” was first published in Nowhere). His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Tin House, Orion, Nautilus and Oxford American. Presently he is compiling a book of journeys through some of America’s most pressing environmental disasters. Justin lives in upstate New York.

Lead image: Thomas Kelley

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