On Sunday, friends and I went out to Gunma-ken to go “Canyoning,” which is an outdoor sport involving rappelling down or sliding down 20-100 ft. canyon waterfalls and being sucked into the turbulent waters for just enough time to really understand the sensation of drowning. Because of a huge downpour the day before, we were not able to take a crack at the 40m monster pictured on the left, but just as well: Rappelling looks easy, but getting your body to lean back into nothingness requires a triumph of will greater than I could currently hope for. Our Japanese-Brazilian guides — on their easily-obtained three-year visas — were refreshingly jovial and reckless, and sitting in an virgin Japanese river bed without concrete “anti-erosion” measures is a treat onto itself.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we drove over to the famous onsen resort Ikaho, which to put it nicely, has seen better days. I have not traveled extensively around Japan’s more remote regions, but one of the things that always surprises me upon leaving Tokyo is how much the countryside wears the scars of economic downturn. Chiba, Shizuoka, Gunma, Nagano etc. are full of decaying cities with rusty, abandoned buildings. But this may not just be a problem specific to Japan; in fact, they greatly remind me of driving around the Appalachian Mountains in Western North Carolina. Now that both the farming and manufacturing economies have ceased to exist in post-Industrial nations, there’s a real question of what is going to happen with the rural areas — especially since voters from these regions currently control politics in both the U.S. and Japan.
Despite the rust and rot, Ikaho is a really beautiful town, with small stores radiating from a stone staircase built up the mountainside. Nothing, however, seemed to have been updated in the last twenty or thirty years.
We went inside a ¥500 onsen> hotel that had one operating bath and one broken one, a beer machine with only happoushu, and a rack of ancient video games and pachinko machines that have been permanently left unplugged.
I tend to like these aging towns and ancient ruins, but I can’t help but think it would be a pretty depressing spot for a planned vacation. As young families rush off towards various Disneylands, corporate theme parks, and massive onsen/shopping mall complexes, these mom-and-pop towns become only a playspot for patrons as old as the shop owners. It’s not just that the recession has hit these towns indiscriminately; the economies are based on a totally outmoded leisure culture. Kids now prefer extreme sports — like canyoning — or go abroad to exotic locations, which we all know, can often be cheaper than traveling within Japan. And these old cities based solely on the tourist money of Tokyo big-spenders are in danger of extinction. Much like Ikaho, the famous “honeymoon” spot of Atami in Shizuoka is full of empty, rusty hotels since young couples can now jet away across the globe for a similar price.
My fear is that these small resort towns have only one generation left. Once the seventy year-olds manning the shops die off in the next couple of decades, I doubt that their kids — most likely living in Tokyo — would come back to their hometowns to protect an unprofitable tradition. Maybe the return of the urbanized children would bring an influx of capital or better sensibility towards contemporary tastes and could reinvigorate these towns, but if left in their current state, I can’t imagine a bright future. I recommend dropping in and popping open a ramune while you still can.