The sign said it would take 3.5 kilometers to reach the lip of the crater overlooking Tamagawa Onsen, a hot spring resort in northern Honshu that is believed to host the most acidic waters in all of Japan. This — paired with the presence of a radioactive stone thought to aid health and even combat cancer — has drawn the health-afflicted from all over the country, to lie near the fissures that hiss a thick, hot sulphuric steam.
Now, I’m not one to say what does or doesn’t work, healthwise or any-which-way-wise, really. But I am hesitant to lie on steaming hot rock smelling egg salad farts all day if there’s not a great reward guaranteed at the end of it — something like David Chang hand-feeding me Korean tacos maybe, or the Steelers winning a single game. Neither of those things looked likely. We were going to go for a walk.
A rock-strewn path winding through the “onsen” — a collection of steaming vents around which people were lying or sitting — turned into several stories’ worth of stairs, and then a muddy incline riddled with rocks and tree roots. Treachery lurked everywhere, in every slippery stone, slick of mud, thorny branch. Whenever one stretch was finished, another would peer out from around the corner. I consoled myself with thoughts of recent meals: mashed mountain yam topped with a wasabi-flecked seaweed; peanut tofu daubed with more wasabi; a virtual downpour of awamori, an Okinawan liquor brewed from Thai rice and kept in urn-like earthenware vessels for decades. In Okinawa, despite the occasional monsoon-like shower, the sky was always blue, people were always smiling, and taco stands, inexpensive fresh fruit and ice cream cones (with seasoned salt!) were everywhere to be found.
But Akita was something different. Proud of its rice and udon noodles, and abundance of apples, and mountainous terrain: Akita held little to fall in love with for a Glutton like me. And now stranded on a thickly wooded hillside — did that sign say I’ve only walked 1.8 kilometers?! — I was running out of steam.
Singing along to what appeared to be a Discman, an old lady — maybe 70, although it is hard to tell here in Japan — emerged on the trail, laughing when she saw my husband and me. A quickfire barrage of questions in Japanese ensued, to which we could only smile and nod. That made her love us more. Declaring us wonderful, she took our picture, and then when we made motions like we would, against our better judgment, continue on the path, she followed, chirping happily all the way.
Now I feel that, despite much evidence to the contrary, I am actually a pretty fit person. I work out with a trainer 2-3 days a week, do a day of TRX training a week, and run an hour on the treadmill on my off days. Just this past April, I walked 200 km on the Camino de Santiago. But this septuagenarian lady wearing what looked like orthopedic shoes smoked me on the trail. Huffing and red, with sweat stinging my eyes, I could only watch as her trim figure clambered up the rocks and jutting tree trunks ahead of me. She turned around to offer encouragement. “All this walking will make you slim!” she said, effectively sealing my humiliation.
Powered by the knowledge that turning around and walking back would be just as hard as forging ahead, the hope that our walk was nearly done, and our lady friend’s occasional interjections of “GO GO GO DE GOZAIMASU”, we finally reached a ridge where we could see the white barren crater that marked the top of our hill, and the onsen stretching below. Our friend said we had 300 meters to go, which is, in the normal world, nothing, a mere walk to the grocery store.
But this 300 meters yielded an exercise in sheer WTF-ery: a steep ascent carpeted with cut bamboo stalks that ensured a slip with nearly every step. As if to mock us, ropes hung from some sections that were particularly steep — up to 80 degrees. After a few minutes, that was it: I was okay with curling up and dying, and with the thought of my body eventually washing away on the rotting bamboo into the waiting valley below. We had been walking for more than two hours. Above us, our friend scrambled from point to point like a mountain goat, exclaiming things in Japanese to either us or to herself. “You can do it!” my husband said, trying to boost me, but since it was not in Japanese or from the mouth of a friendly old lady, I wanted to punch him in the face.
Yet it was easier to pull oneself up, each step by agonizing step, than to turn around to face Lord knows what. Better to deal with it later. Eventually, in spite of myself, we made it to the top. The Japanese lady, of course, was nowhere to be found.