Golden week in Misasa

Golden Week is one of the longest holiday periods for workers in Japan. It is a collection of four national holidays within seven days, so many people take the time to holiday. Tourist spots become even busier than before and prices hike. While it's a great time to enjoy festival days like Emperor Showa's birthday (April 29th), Nature Day (May 4th) or Children's Day (May 5th), travelling to popular destinations is impeded by tourists from within Japan as well as abroad. That's why I decided the best way to spend my long weekend would be to visit a smaller place, off the main tourist drag. While Misasa Onsen town in Tottori sees a great increase in visitors due to Golden Week, it still had a small town feel which gave me the opportunity to interact with locals in between soaking in the world famous radon hot springs. There's truly nothing more wonderful after a very low period than a weekend of excitement, adventure and wonderment to really turn a mood around! This weekend has been one of my favourite in Japan so far and I can happily say a weekend in the countryside is the best remedy. By the look of the locals - including a tea ceremony teacher who was 70 and looked about 45 - the slower lifestyle, healthy food, nature and regular visits to the onsens contribute to a very happy population. So without further ado, here's what I've been up to for the last few days, buried in the mountains of Tottori!

The Okayama University red team post victory!


As a special opportunity class offered at Okayama University, I was one of 20 students who spent the weekend in Misasa Onsen town helping the local people with their famous - and very unique - Hanayu Tug-of-war festival. We started the 3 hour drive to Misasa, which is in Tottori prefecture at 8.30 and enjoyed picturesque views of the lush green hills and beautiful hamlets all the way there, stopping for roadside ramen at lunchtime. When we finally arrived to our guest house - which is owned by Okayama University - we found our rooms and made the short walk to the riverside to see what we would be helping with. Not knowing a great deal about what we were getting ourselves in for, we were suprised but amazed to see two groups of old men cutting wood, bending and shaping it, and creating a huge rope. We learned that the two teams, the businessmen and the farmers, had a tug of war each year in the thin cobbled streets, with Japanese tourists and locals alike spilling out of their Ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels) and hanging out the windows to see which team would win. In typical Japanese style, nothing about this tug-of-war was anything I had seen before. The rope is handmade by the two teams all day, and then carried into the streets as part of a procession. When we arrived there was just the first few meters of rope woven, starting with a needle-eye hole the size of my whole body. After being instructed on how to bend and weave the vines, then tie them with strands of wood that had been beaten, soaked and flattened, we all got hands on, following directions which largely consisted of gestures and demonstrations. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed communicating with the local people in whatever form it took, and there was much to be learned from these old men who hauled great hunks of wood around in between swigs of beer. 

The business team's rope 

In fact, we likely had as much rest as we did work. Every 20 minutes or so, an elder would yell "kyuukei!" which means 'rest time', and both teams converged at the riverside for coffee, beer and juice that were brought over in the box-load. After 15 or so minutes, we'd be hurried back to our work stations to continue tying, moving, bending and weaving. After four or so hours like this, both teams had created a work of woven art that squiggled down the side of the river for 80 meters, and weighed around 2000kg. It gradually thinned out to the width of my thigh, after a group effort of plaiting the six individual strings with military precision. Once the rope was finished, there was more beer and we wandered over to the bridge to visit the food stands as the sun set over the river. 

Visiting the food stands before the fireworks

Using the last of our energy, each team moved their rope to opposite ends of the street and laid them out, in preparation for tomorrow's battle. Once that was done, both teams came together for dinner at 9.30. As we'd eaten lunch at 12pm everyone was starving, but high on excitement and wobbly from the beer. We feasted on lunchbox style rice balls and a popular food called oden, as more beer was passed around. Then, the windows were opened and we enjoyed a stunning fireworks display over the river. All together: young, old, male, female, foreign, Japanese, we came together and laughed the evening away. Before rolling into bed after a long but incredibly enjoyable day, the girls all bundled into the tiny onsen at the guest house. Naked baths with a group of people (including my teacher) is a completely alien concept for foreigners, but once you get over the embarrassment, nothing beats a long soak in a 40 degree natural hot spring with your friends.  


On the morning of day 2, we headed to Misasakan, one of the biggest and most famous ryokans in the village. Our job was to help clean the outdoor onsen, which are known as rotenburo. If you think a natural spring inside sounds wonderful, outside baths will simply take your breath away. Surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens and the cool outside air, the baths at Misasakan were absolutely incredible. While the male students worked on one bath, we sat with our feet in the water and pulled little weeds from between the rocks. Working hard or hardly working? It was the perfect balance, and the hotel were very grateful for our help; so much so that they allowed us private time the next morning to come and actually bathe. 

One of Misasakan's outdoor baths

After cleaning for an hour or so, we were ushered upstairs to an immaculate tatami room, which is a room with traditional straw mat floors and sliding paper screens. We were treated to a tea ceremony class, under the careful instruction of a 70 year old lady who told us she had been practising the art of tea for 60 years. We were taken through the proper way to receive the wagashi (Japanese sweets) to line the mouth with a sweet taste, before drinking freshly whisked bitter green tea. As much as I try, I cannot sit in the traditional way with my thighs folded back on my heels for very long, and all of us had to help each other up when it finished, but it was such a wonderful experience to learn from a master. After that we were taken to the lunch room where we had sushi and cold buckwheat noodles. Then, we were met by the mayor of Misasa, who spoke to us about the strong links between Okayama University and Misasa town. While bathing in radioactive water sounds like a bad idea, Okayama University has done extensive research into the health benefits and as such, is closely tied to Misasa's continued popularity. Equally, there is a statue of Marie Curie in the town as homage to her extensive work with Radon. I was asked to present the mayor with some souveniers from Okayama, and then was dressed in a beautiful yukata along with another of the exchange students. 

Emily and I wearing yukata

After a packed morning, we had free time to explore the town and spent a large part of it at a foot bath in the middle of the river enjoying the sunshine. After a much needed nap back at the guest house, the group came together again and we made our way to where we had left the ropes the night before. Split into our two teams, we donned either red or blue festival clothing and were given huge platters of food to enjoy before the main event. Just as we were finishing, the fireworks started again, so we ran down to the river to watch one of the most magical displays I've ever seen.

Riverside fireworks

Chelsea and I wearing the festival clothing

I actually have very few photos of the tug-of-war, the result of being terrified the second I took out my phone the pulling would start or I would drop it in the mayhem. Rest assured however, it was absolutely bonkers. With people pulling on each side of a rope the width of a person, plus onlookers teetering dangerously close, the whole thing was perilous and wonderful and filled with excitement. Every time we took a break from tugging to catch our breath, a local would look at me with amazement and ask me where I was from or welcome me to the town. It was magical. After around 30 minutes of pulling, the business team (including me) came out on top and we sang and danced in the streets as the onlookers slowly slid back to their hotels. All the work of the day before was quickly reduced to a pile of  sticks by a few members with chainsaws up and down the rope. As if it was a last battle, winners, losers and onlookers alike scrambled to get a piece of rope to takeaway as a good luck charm. I saw men hauling enormous bits of woven wood, and children with small twigs clustered in the streets all together. After the clear-up there was of course, more beer, more laughter and a good deal of bruises and cuts. It was clear after the whole process that it was far less about which team won, than about bringing the community together and keeping local traditions alive - however bizarre or time consuming. Late into the night we hobbled home with injuries, smiles and sake. After a much needed soak in the onsen, our group sat up laughing and talking in a jumble of Japanese an English until around 2.


Getting up early was certainly a struggle after two days of work, late nights and too much alcohol. Yet we forced ourselves to make the short walk back to Misasakan to enjoy the promised soak in their famous outdoor baths. We went to a different one than the one we had cleaned the day before, but of course I have no pictures of the new bath as you can't take anything in with you. All the girls showered sat on little stools and once clean, walked through the indoor bath and down steep stone steps to the outside bath, of which there were three and a waterfall. A warm waterfall is something totally peculiar to me, but it was wonderful to sit underneath. We soaked until the water became too warm to handle and made use of the dressing and makeup room before making our way home. There's no better way to relieve tired tug-of-war muscles than an early morning soak in a natural spring set in a beautiful garden. The whole experience was wonderful, and as an added bonus, the more naked group baths I take the easier it gets! 

After more free time and a group meeting about the whole trip, we split back into small groups and jumped into cars to make the long journey home. Our car stopped every 30 minutes or so which was excessive but also a lovely chance to enjoy the local scenery (and food in every place). We arrived home well rested but exhausted from all the adventures. 

If you ever find yourself feeling down, a Japanese festival  will make you forget all your worries. Set in beautiful countryside and keeping much of the traditions alive, along with incredible hot springs throughout the town, Misasa was the perfect place to rest, explore, and have a once in a lifetime experience with the kindest local people. If you have a chance to visit - or get involved with - Misasa's hanayu matsuri, you will have laughter and stories to tell for weeks or years to come.

If you'd like to see more, here's a really great video of the rope making, so you can get a better idea of the scale of the tug-of-war!

Nothing beats a countryside sunset


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