Canyoning vs. Ikaho

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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.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
August 2, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

20 Responses

  1. Roy Says:

    I also like visiting these somewhat run-down resort towns. I have cycled extensively around the Kanto area and seen my share. Personally, I think part of the problem is that many of the owners of these onsens are really old-fashioned and unwilling or lack the know-how to modernize or market themselves better.

    If you look at a city like Karuizawa though, it seems to be quite the opposite. They’ve managed to maintain the spirit of the city while at the same time modernizing it enough to attract tourists.

  2. marxy Says:

    I think part of the problem is that many of the owners of these onsens are really old-fashioned and unwilling or lack the know-how to modernize or market themselves better.

    I agree.

    If you look at a city like Karuizawa though, it seems to be quite the opposite.

    Actually, I disliked how touristy and gaudy Karuizawa was, so there’s the rub: updating too much means getting rid of the old charm. There’s got to be a compromise somewhere.

    I stayed up in Kita-Karuizawa for a week last summer, which was beautiful, but the town itself is also in visible decay.

  3. alin Says:

    This is a genuinely tough one. Where do we start the reform general? We’re all awaiting orders.

    May I humbly suggest we keep 6 – 7 of them, or maybe just one in every ken, and stuff the rest so we can proceed with the larger plan. There’s more important work to be done in the cities.

  4. Roy Says:

    Actually, I disliked how touristy and gaudy Karuizawa was, so there’s the rub: updating too much means getting rid of the old charm. There’s got to be a compromise somewhere.

    It’s been awhile since I was in Karuizawa. That bad huh?

  5. Jrim Says:

    Yeah, I passed through Atami on my 6 1/2 hour Nagoya-Tokyo futsuu densha marathon last week, and it looked like a pretty cruddy place to spend the weekend. I think part of the problem is that, in the initial, ill-conceived rush of development, a lot of the area’s charm got lost amidst clunky hotels and assorted tourist clutter. I’m from England originally, and the same thing happened to a lot of the south coast tourist towns – with the exception of Brighton, most of them are now in terminal decline, rusting away and populated almost exclusively by pensioners. To be honest, though… is it really such a great loss?

  6. johnty Says:

    Sounds like a great place to visit, if only to search out the two-seater space invaders video games. Alot have been converted into sideboards or place tables, but it’s great to find a working model.

    Also, where’s the tale of your night out? How many bottles of Triangle did it take before Mitsuko got you drunk?!

  7. Chris_B Says:

    Nice little travelogue marxy!

  8. Momus Says:

    I’ve been to Ikaho, Gunma, and although it was off season and deserted, I liked it a lot. It’s a bit like the ghost town in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”. I would certainly go there for a holiday when it was crowded, and steep in the hot spring baths with great pleasure. I’d leave instantly if it filled up with kayak-krews or extreme sports fanatics jumping out of helicopters with MTV crews in tow, though.

    I think most people like their resorts a bit peely-wally, don’t they? Isn’t patina charming? Does everything have to look like Disney Sea?

  9. Momus Says:

    I can’t imagine a bright future

    That would be a much better title for this blog than “Neomarxisme”.

  10. Dave Says:

    Personally, I prefer the cafes with old cracked leather couches, old records and chilled out staff. It shows the place has a quality that’s not going to expire with the last-minute design trends in the fitout.

    Development is a mixed bag. It’s a tricky business retaining what made the place nice in the first place.

  11. alin Says:

    the cost for land with or without house in onsen country is relatively cheap, Anybody can buy real-estate in japan. Why don’t some Japan-loving , tradition-loving foreigners sympathetically and sensitively buy into that and try to fuse some funk into it all without actually ruining it. ?

  12. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Odd. The only person I’ve met who was into this “canyoning” as you describe it was Brazilian. He was one weird dude – apparently raking it in as an Agonshu priest. I also heard that this near-drowning practice is part of their training.

    I’ve heard about sawanobori which sounds like a less insane but equally ecologically destructive sport.

    Get enough fanatics “canyoning” and we’ll really need some of that erosion protection.

  13. Momus Says:

    By the way, two things disturb me about this entry. One, you say “we” but don’t say who “we” is. Two, this:

    a triumph of will greater than I could currently hope for.

    Isn’t “triumph of will” a rather unfortunate choice of phrase, so soon after a discussion of swastikas?

    Also, the Shobus blog reports that you were present recently at one of their performances. So are you going to blog about it? I mean, it’s not compulsory, but you seem to be the only one who hasn’t blogged their interesting doings.

  14. marxy Says:

    two things disturb me about this entry. One, you say “we” but don’t say who “we” is

    Disturb?! Is it allright with you that I have friends?

    Isn’t “triumph of will” a rather unfortunate choice of phrase, so soon after a discussion of swastikas?

    Right, but I wish you would just give me some Lebensraum to write how I want to write…

    Also, the Shobus blog reports that you were present recently at one of their performances.

    I was kindly invited to play with them on a roof in the hot summer sun. Way too short…! I am jealous of their coming adventures in Japan’s hidden cities.

    Get enough fanatics “canyoning” and we’ll really need some of that erosion protection.

    Canyoning did not strike me as very ecologically-destructive, but I’m not an expert on these matters.

    Development is a mixed bag. It’s a tricky business retaining what made the place nice in the first place.

    Yes, I only want Atami or Ikaho to be 25% less run-down. I don’t need polish, I just need stability.

    Isn’t patina charming?

    Patina is charming, rust is not.

    I’d leave instantly if it filled up with kayak-krews or extreme sports fanatics jumping out of helicopters with MTV crews in tow, though.

    Shit, I was thinking that a Mountain Dew sponsorship would be the solution to Ikaho’s financial woes.

    To be honest, though… is it really such a great loss?

    How is Portmeirion?

  15. ヅィマ Says:

    >I can’t imagine a bright future
    >
    >That would be a much better title for this blog than “Neomarxisme”.

    Or maybe “1998: The year Japan broke”

  16. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Canyoning did not strike me as very ecologically-destructive, but I’m not an expert on these matters.

    I’m thinking of the erosion to the face of the cliff and stream beds. I’d guess there are organisms living there that don’t live in other types of environment.

    I’m not an expert on this, however the destructiveness of the sawanobori sport was pointed out to me by a prominent ecologist who had done PhD with EO Wilson, if that means anything to you.

  17. marxy Says:

    Back home, we call him “Captain Eo” Wilson.

  18. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    we call him “Captain Eo” Wilson

    I’m afraid that’s a bit over my head. Is it based on physical appearance or some other idiosyncratic personal characteristic? Or is he still anathema in the social “sciences”?

  19. r. Says:

    the tender perv be sayin’: Also, the Shobus blog reports that you were present recently at one of their performances. So are you going to blog about it? I mean, it’s not compulsory, but you seem to be the only one who hasn’t blogged their interesting doings.

    and i say: this is like the 2nd or 3rd time we’ve seen nick asking for david to blog more “personally” isn’t it? i for one kind of like the faux-objective voice that david assumes here on this blog. DON’T be tempted, dave! i’m sure you ‘will’ will triumph, dude!

    r.

  20. Virginie Lebeau Says:

    What about the patina of wisdom that comes with being the title ‘artiste plasticien contemporain’?

    – Virginie Lebeau