My buddy John and I didn’t make it very far on our most recent bike ride. We’d been rolling for barely ten minutes when we pulled up to the Alps bakery in Asama Onsen where I sampled my first ever bamboo ash sweet bread – and met my latest source of time-sucking intrigue.
This bakery occupies the first floor of the Hotel Koyanagi, one part of a multi-faceted endeavor called Matsumoto Jujo. Modern-looking by Japanese standards, the Koyanagi seems an almost incongruous addition to a town still wallowing in the ruinous wake of the pandemic.
The building, perhaps right along with the bakery, may be new. But take a look at the inconspicuous lettering on the wall outside the entrance.
Yet this place is a relative youngster. The most storied of the hot springs of Asama, Biwa-no-yu, was built right around the year 1600 as a retreat for the Ishikawa clan, first family to rule the area from Matsumoto Castle.
Its historical significance notwithstanding, Biwa-no-yu was a mere addition to an already-existing town. Across from Biwa-no-yu is the Iidaya Ryokan (kind of an annex, actually). From the Biwa-no-yu entrance it looks about ready to crumble to the ground – no surprise considering its age because this buidling stands on the corner of what was at one time the north end of a 14th Century town. (Incidentally the Koyanagi Hotel stands at the former south end of town.)
Walk along the road and you’ll find a noticeably aging clay-tile-topped wooden wall with a wide sloping clay-tiled roof behind it. The sign to one side tells us that the of the town of Asama has been known at least as far back as 1335. For a while Asama was actually the political and administrative center of the area – which was convenient when the elites wanted to have their annual end-of-year party at an onsen.
Things were happening around here long before that though. Cruise downhill from Biwa-no-yu and up a side street and you’ll come to Misha Shrine which, according to the historical chronicle called the Azuma Kagami, was established in 1186.
This shrine is the focal point of the annual Asama Onsen Taimatsu Matsuri, wherein the people of the town create stout two-meter-tall pillars of straw, light the tops on fire and drag them through the streets, uphill to Misha Shrine where firemen are standing by to make sure the shrine doesn’t burn down while the people who created this fantastic fire hazard head back downhill for an onsen and more sake.
Still, this is all recent history. Down on the south side of town, among the trees that cover the foothills, are the remnants of the Sakura-ga-oka burial mounds. Called kofun, these burial mounds were an integral aspect of the spiritual rituals of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion. The practice of building kofun died out with the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th Century, meaning there burial sites predate Buddhism’s arrival.
At a glance Asama Onsen may seem like so many other towns in Japan; elements of newness springing up among the relics of past times. But in Asama, as in so much of Japan, there’s much more than meets the eye.
You just have to read the signs.
By the way, despite its signature ingredient I highly recommend the bamboo ash sweet bread.