Chapter Twenty-One: The Lakes

Having undergone an endoscopy the day before, I was keen to spend my time doing something enjoyable. Once Richard and Jared were finally awake, I drove us to Oguni Lake (雄国沼), a designated national natural monument at the base of Mount Nekomadake.

The route to the lake involved a steep and serpentine mountain road. At the beginning of the ascent I was elated by the magnificent beauty of nature, but felt increasingly unnerved by the single-lane track, which had foot-wide open drains bordering both sides, and frequent sheer drops to the right. I drove cautiously and sounded the horn on hairpin bends to alert any oncoming drivers. We had not actually passed any motorists for a long time, until a car abruptly appeared, descending the mountain at speed. The driver avoided us by swerving away, which resulted in his front left wheel becoming squarely lodged in the trench-line drain. I stopped, and we all went to offer assistance. Unfortunately, in years of studying Japanese, I had never learned the suite of vocabulary required for this situation. Not one lesson had covered “Your tyre is stuck in a drain, do you have a jack in your car so we can leverage it out?” None of us, in fact, had any idea what to say, and so we stood around awkwardly while the flustered driver eventually placed a jack under the tyre and attempted to reverse out. I went to the bonnet to start what would probably be a futile effort at pushing, when he decided, without warning, to drive forward instead. The wheel was extricated, and miraculously I leapt aside in time. Embarrassed, the man packed up and drove on. He seemed like a bit of an idiot.

When we reached the lake, it was glorious; the horizon was lined with mountains and a pale wooden walkway meandered around the swampy periphery of the water. We climbed a short hill by the side of a car park and discovered amazing panoramic views of Kitakata and a stone shrine of sorts. A couple of Japanese men in their twenties who had been speaking to Jared approached me and asked something about a photograph. I thought they were kindly offering to take a photo of the three of us, so I handed over my camera. I had misinterpreted, and the two insisted on having a photo with us. A few years ago, I had spent five weeks travelling through India and had grown familiar with (although not accustomed to) strange men asking to have random photos together. An Indian travel guide had explained that men often used these to deceive their families about having foreign girlfriends, or to try and claim that the images were evidence of sexual conquest. Richard’s hypothesis was that, to domestic tourists, foreigners were a part of the novelty and therefore worthy of documentation. In the photo with the Japanese man at Oguni Lake, Richard is decidedly not smiling.

We then headed to the Five Colour Lakes (五色沼), which was a much more pleasant walk without my bike in tow. The sun was not as bright as it had been on my last visit, and so the colours of the lakes did not appear as vivid. Following a vein off the main path, we arrived at an area which seemed to translate to “Actual Dream Grave.” It was a clearing in the forest with antiquated gravestones and was stride-stoppingly beautiful; I felt as though I had stumbled into a magical world, removed from reality and growing mossy in its tranquillity.

Rejoining the chief track, we reached the end, where a boat hire wharf, gift shop and fast food stand concluded the trail. Desperately hungry, I was unfortunately too late to buy any real food, and so settled for a packet of crisps from the gift shop. That evening we ate at the cheap chain restaurant Sukiya, where I unintentionally ordered natto; slimy and pungent fermented soybeans. Natto seems to be the marmite of Japan, and Japanese people are always incredulous when foreigners claim to like the adhesive and mucus-like dish. Although I enjoyed the meal, it was awkward to eat, and to compound matters there was a young girl in my field of vision watching me, perhaps astonished that a white lady could stomach the stuff or just mesmerised by my clumsy attempt at consuming it.