These were the words I yelled as my snowshoes slid out from under me, sending me sliding down a hill covered in more than six feet of snow. Fortunately, the hill was neither steep nor particularly dangerous, because we were in a nice little clearing in the middle of 北月山荘 (Kitagassan Lodge), a nice little lodge and onsen complex in Tachiyazawa, Shonai-machi. Why go all the way up there in the middle of winter when it’s snowing so hard you can hardly see the rest of the mountains, you ask? Because we were invited, of course! Also, there was a bus…and food…and it was free!
Sadly, this is not a travel hacking post. Kristin and I have been avid supporters of the Shonai Visitors’ Association, and have attended (if memory serves) four out of five Shonai Tourism Expeditions, which the association puts on to promote tourism. It’s a program catered to foreigners like us in the hopes of showing off what the area has to offer so we tell our friends–friends like you! Today’s adventure took us up into the Great White North(east) of Shonai for a day of snowshoeing, mochi pounding, soup making, card-snatching, tubing, and soaking.
We boarded the bus at 8:50 and were treated to a video of the place on the 50-ish minute drive from Mikawa up to the lodge. Once there, we were strapped into our snowshoes (they even had ones that fit my giant size 12 feet!), handed our poles, and off we went into the fresh powder that was accumulating faster by the minute. Most of us had modern snowshoes with metal frames webbed with plastic and tipped with metal teeth for grip, but the guides and some more intrepid trekkers opted for classic wood frames with a few pieces of rope to hold their feet. Our first uphill climb was pretty easy going, particularly because I was right behind the lead guide. But once we started going downhill, it was all over. I figured out pretty quickly that leaning back on the hills allowed the pointed backs of my snowshoes to keep me from sliding too much. Unfortunately, I frequently misjudged how far back to lean. The powder under my right foot gave way, and before my left could lift the bulky snowshoe to compensate, I was on my butt and sliding through the snow, laughing like an idiot the whole way. My poles immediately became useless, sinking deeper into the snow as I tried to right myself. I finally used my hands to push off some snow I had packed down during my slide, and we were off again.
Along the way, we learned a lot about the Tachiyazawa area. The Tachiyazawa River has been deemed the cleanest river in Japan, and later we would be making mochi–steamed rice pounded with a hammer until it has fused into a chewy, elastic mass–with rice that was grown using water from the river. Long ago, people believed that a dragon god lived in the river, and thus an artist was commissioned to paint a large dragon mural on the side of one of the buildings nearby. To complete the motif, the street lights on the bridge over the river were fitted with dragon illustrations. In short: Dragons are awesome. Tachiyazawa has lots of dragons. Therefore, Tachiyazawa is awesome. It’s science.
We pressed on, walking through a valley that felt curiously devoid of snow–one of the many parking lots in the complex, our guide informed us–and down a sort-of plowed road to a building with several pools of water in front of it. As we suspiciously eyed the snow-laden roof of a little administrative building behind us, the guide explained that we were standing before the pools of a fish farm, though unfortunately for us (but fortunately for the fish) they were roaming in warmer waters on the opposite side of the partially-frozen pools. If that weren’t thrilling enough (and I know not everyone is excited by tiny fish farm pools), we were informed that lunch would include fish sourced from this very farm. Neat! Local food for the win.
We trekked back on the main road (no time to climb back up the hills we came down, sadly), and about halfway up Kristin and I were struck by a revelation: that little bowl of granola we’d eaten for breakfast was NOT cutting it. Once we got back to the lodge, we ripped off our snowshoes and immediately grabbed two cups of amazake, a sweet drink which you can read more about in our post on the Oyama Shinshu Matsuri. We chewed greedily at the rice left in the amazake as we eyed the steamed rice being laid into the wooden bowl, awaiting the hammer blows that would turn it into mochi. An older woman systematically turned the sticky rice over between hammer strikes, deftly dunking her hands in water to keep the rice from sticking. While it’s fun to watch, Kristin and I had both made mochi before, so we headed into the lodge itself to expand our culinary repertoire–there was mochi soup to be made!
On the second floor, another woman was busy simmering soup stock. Some burdock root had already been sliced, and one of our fellow expedition members was receiving tips on how to cut up the rest. A knife was handed to me, and before I knew it, I was cutting up some vegetables harvested from the mountain (in greener times, naturally) to be put in the soup. After that, it was time to dent up some konyaku (a gelatinous, calorie-free food made from potatoes) with wooden chopsticks and tear it into bite-sized chunks by hand.
Now, Kristin is a huge fan of konyaku, and I’ll eat it too, but the smell is…fishy. And there I was, squeezing and tearing the stuff; the substance squelching and slathering my hands in fishy-smelling juices. Hooray…! Thankfully, the smell vanishes once it’s cooked and takes on the flavors of the soup. With the konyaku chunked, all we had to do was slice a few scallions and a block of deep-fried tofu before the main event–pinching mochi!
The older woman from earlier came up the stairs carrying a huge stainless steel bowl filled with the freshly pounded mochi, and it was our job to pinch off fistfuls of the stuff to put in the soup. Not being from Japan, I think we all pinched off a little more than usual, but the woman in charge of the soup told us not to worry, it was just more for us to eat!
Lunch came in waves: first the small dishes of carrots and spinach coated in a tofu mix (trust me, it was DELICIOUS), potato salad, and a mountain veggie-fish paste combo (the fish paste is tube-shaped, which might sound horrid but again, is delicious). Then, the mochi soup we all helped prepare.
Finally, the fish. On a long plate came an entire char, sliced and grilled to perfection and dashed with salt. One of the other men working at the lodge informed us that the entire fish, head, bones, tail and all, could be eaten, because the fish is quite soft. Only Kristin had the guts (hah) to eat the entire head. Usually I’m pretty okay with trying things outside my comfort zone, but the thing had so many sharp looking little teeth! I made peace with it in my own way, though.
After we gorged ourselves on lunch, it was time to head back into the snowy wilds to help some kids snatch up some cards! The young ones love to play karuta, a card snatching game wherein cards are called out, and the first person to grab it wins the round. This time, however, the game was super-sized. The cards were laid out on the stage; giant wooden panels painstakingly painted with pictures and hiragana characters (did I mention the stage was made of packed-down snow?), and the kids had to rush the stage and grab the “card” when it was called. The little girl I was paired with gave it her all, but in the end we only had one card. Ah well. Time to go drown our sorrows with joyous screams on the snow slide!
Yes, the snow slide. A nearly 200-foot long trail of packed snow on which we all took turns tubing. There were two courses: a nice, steady slope, and a Steep Slope of Certain Doom. Naturally, we took the SSoCD! I sat down in the tube and Kristin laid down on top of me while two volunteers pushed us down the slope. I had a hard time keeping my bum elevated, and it bounced off the packed snow a couple of times, but we didn’t crash! Much as we wanted to go again, we decided it was time to leave that to the kids and go warm ourselves up in the onsen.
The onsen itself was small, and had two baths of varying temperature: hot and hotter. The baths are both situated such that you can look out over the snow-covered mountains and contemplate life. Unfortunately, our time on the slide had eaten into our life-contemplation time, and before I knew it I had to wash up and head back to the group, because our day in the snow was coming to a close.
As we boarded the bus, we noticed that a snow drift behind the bus had been fashioned into a giant dragon head! Remember what I said about this place and dragons? Yeah. Awesome. Ren Takahashi, our fearless leader on this expedition, thanked us for coming out, and we dozed off on the bus ride back to town.
Okay, real talk: I fricking LOVE this area. If you’re not crazy about snow, go check out the Shonai Visitors’ Association’s Facebook page and check out the posts from previous expeditions. This area appears quite sleepy–and often it is–but if you do a little digging (or let us do some digging for you), you’ll find a wealth of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and warm hearts ready to share a little piece of paradise with you.
If you find yourself in the area in the next few weeks (unlikely for most, I know) and your Japanese is handy, you can check out the lodge’s website and even book a room if you want! This is really short notice, but the next guided snowshoeing trek is March 8th–you might just see us there!