RTW2007: Noto Peninsula and Wakura Onsen, wherein our sybaritic sojourner examines earthquake damage and repeatedly plunges into nearly boiling water.

After two days of Kanazawa, I took the Noto line local clunker up into Nanao, the end of the JR line. You can always tell you’re in the Japanese countryside when little “Jesus loves you” signs start appearing on houses, local banks adopt vegetables as their logos (for example, Notoshu Bank’s is a carrot) and the biggest building around is the local JA, a mysterious institution whose primary function seems to be converting taxpayer dollars into the world’s most expensive rice.

My destination for the day, Wakura Onsen, has a good claim to being among the oldest hot spring towns in Japan, with 1200 years of recorded history. It’s hence home to some of Japan’s most illustrious ryokan including Kagaya, which now occupies a high-rise complex larger than most major hotels and still charges up to 50,000 yen per person for a stay. However, one week previous to my arrival there had been a major earthquake in the northern part of the peninsula, which had flattened the better part of 1000 houses. Down south, aside from the occasional cracked pavement, Nanao and Wakura weren’t significantly affected, but it was clear that tourists were staying away in droves — there were few guests in hotels, most restaurants and gift shops were closed, Wakura’s solitary museum (dedicated to an intriguing combination of lacquerware and confectionery) was closed for damage checks, and the only industry that appeared to be booming was construction. I found a solitary sushi restaurant open, where I was the only guest, and had a mediocre nigiri set coupled with some really great tuna. (I asked for maguro, the cheapest, but the chef gave me chu-toro, a cut above, for the same price. No complaints.)

It was a balmy 20 C in Fukuoka when I arrived, but the weather had been getting colder and colder, and soon after I’d checked into my ryokan there was a sudden hail of snow that left an inch of slush on the roof. While most of Wakura Onsen is aggressively ugly, all charmless concrete and rusty rebar, Togetsuan, the “Hermitage of the Passing Moon”, was designed as a faithful replica of a 1920s Taisho-era inn complete with cedar shipped in from Yakushima, and I dedicated the afternoon to sampling all the baths in it and its sister operation Hosenkaku. In every single one I was alone, and I contemplated that there are far worse ways to spend a bitterly cold weekday on the roaring Japan Sea coast.

I booked a shared taxi the next morning to take me out to the airport, and the garrulous minibus driver (a very rare species in Japan) quizzed both me and my four fellow passengers. In addition to me and a local lady on her way to Tokyo for reasons undisclosed, the only others on board were three insurance agent salarymen dressed in appropriately drab dark suits, assessing the damage caused by the quake. Indeed, the driver confirmed, business had been completely dead ever since the quake: the day after it struck, the news agencies chartered out 20 cabs for the full day, but that was that. The drive up the twisty road from Wakura through Anamizu was rather charming, although (as I’d correctly guessed) Anamizu turned out to be a thoroughly mundane fishing town of more concrete and rusty corrugated iron that not even the fetchingly named “Iwashi-no-Yu” (Sardine Baths) could rescue.