Underwater hot springs.

Akiko and her mother and I went to a hot-spring spa (onsen) today. The two of them did all the planning. I knew we were going to a village called Ogata but that was about it. As we got closer we were suddenly driving across a huge plain with what looked like wheat fields (covered in snow). When I asked about these unusually large fields, Akiko’s mother said that they were rice paddies. And then she dropped the bomb. We were driving across the bed of a lake that had been drained.

The largest lake in Japan is lake Biwa. Lake Biwa is relatively near where I grew up and was the object of several school trips as well as the half-way point of an epic bicycle trip that a group of us made to the Japan Sea. What I did not know until today was the fate of Lake Hachirogata, the second largest lake in Japan.

Located just south of where I am in Noshiro (Akita Prefecture). In the early 1960s the federal government implemented a project where the lake was drained to create farmland. A program was put into place where people from all over the country applied for 3000 slots to become farmers on the new land. Many of them had never farmed and they were all brought together and put through a training program. The program “planted” the farms in 5 waves over the next few years. During the 4th wave rice production in Japan was producing surpluses and the 5th wave was delayed but eventually implemented. The village of Ogata where we were going is a completely “artificial” village, built on the firmest high ground on the lake bed. About a decade ago, Japan was trying to revitalize rural life and gave every village government in the country a hundred million yen grant to do whatever they wanted with. Ogata, used it to dig a couple of wells, tapping into a mineral spring, and created two hot-spring spas. It was one of these that the three of us visited.

If you have ever been to an onsen you know what kind of time we had. If you’ve never experienced it, I wish for you to have an opportunity. This was not the best onsen experience of my life. Through a really bizzare set of circumstances, there was a period when I was with the Suzuki Company when I was frequently a guest at the legendary Asaba Ryokan in Shizuoka. There is little that compares with that. Today’s onsen was more along the lines of the Hotel onsen. In typical Japanese nomenclatural whimsy it was called the Sun Rural Hotel, and looked for all the world like any hotel anywhere in the world. Although we weren’t staying the night we had gotten a “room”, which was a tatami mat room with a low table and various accouterments. After spending a little bit of time in the room we went up to the feature that makes this distinct from any non-onsen hotel in the world. Half of the top floor is given over to two (guys and gals) massive bathing areas, with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. After washing one’s self outside the tub/pools, you get into the hot water and just sit and soak. There are few things like it. Once you get a bit hot, you get out and rinse off with cool water and then get back in. Minerals in this particular water gave it a tint that was like dark tea but there was no smell. There’s something about sitting in hot water, watching the snow come down that makes me deeply happy. I don’t think this is an original thought at all. It is a thought with an entire industry behind it, here in Japan. There’s something about knowing that I was eight floors up over what used to be a lake that made this even more intense. After about an hour of this, we went back down to our room where a spread of food was waiting for us. A meal like this is like a carefully constructed meal of Japanese tapas, consisting of little plates of perfect morsels of various foods. Most of it seasonal, and regional. Good Japanese food has always been local, not because of carbon footprint, but because it TASTES BETTER!!

We left and went to Akiko’s aunt’s place in the village. She married the grandson of one of the farmers that came in who is now farming there himself. He was very patient with an almost constant stream of questions from me about how all this worked, how the draining was done, the Dutch engineer that they hired to design the pump system that still keeps the area from flooding. He said that although there has never been a flood, the ground in most of the fields is “like tofu” and you can’t drive on it. The little block of houses that constitutes the village is made up of people from all parts of Japan, and we were served a succession of delicacies that they had received from almost every prefecture (including mikans from Mikabi).

The thing that gets me about this is that I had no idea. I’d never heard of this whole thing. The lake. It’s draining. The farms. It’s all ripe for a documentary. Maybe I just missed it. Wouldn’t be the first time.

One other thing: The kind of close-knit hospitality one finds around here is almost scary. Yesterday, we literally dropped in on another of Akiko’s Uncle and Aunts, and spent a few minutes introducing the big American guy, and talking about this and that. We were served the der-rigor tea and nibbles. A matter of minutes after we got home, a bottle of very rare sake was delivered from said Uncle. I mean, there’s a side of this kind of behavior that leads to a level of stress that’s horrible, but there’s a side to it that is warm and human and kind of wonderful.

Still the good of Japan is outweighing the bad. I better leave soon before it has a chance to catch up…

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