Hot spring steam cooking
There is an old folk tale that visitors to a hot spring resort here come leaning on canes and walk home forgetting they ever had them.
That is exactly how the Tsuetate Onsen hot spring in Japan got its name - "Tsue" means cane, while "tate" means standing.
Tsuetate Onsen is located in a mountain town with a population of about 300. It is a common sight to see steam rising from the hot spring, and there are even public areas where you can steam vegetables and other foods using hot spring vapors.
"There's no particular charm to this hot spring, but recently, tourists have been enjoying various kinds of purin (custard pudding)," said Sawako Takasaki, the proprietor of the inn where I stayed.
But for some reason, I couldn't imagine a hot spring associated with purin.
"You can see places where you can use hot spring steam. Locals steam vegetables and eggs there every day. For that reason, when we were discussing what we should make to attract tourists, we naturally came up with purin," Takasaki explained.
Using the steam and thick, locally produced Jersey cattle milk, a group of okami, women who run local inns, were quickly able to create 20 kinds of purin.
Curious, I visited another inn after seeing a signboard advertising its "Tsuetate purin."
"I want to try the purin on the signboard," I said.
"Coming right up," the okami replied. "We also offer a single-day course in which you can bathe in a hot spring and eat an original purin."
Each inn takes pride in its original purin, saying theirs is the best in the resort town.
Visiting a number of inns in the area, I gobbled up a variety of purin in rapid succession - bittersweet purin, hojicha (roasted green tea) purin and even a fried purin.
While out on my "purin tour," I came across a group on a Michikusa Annai tour of back alleys that locals call "Sedoya."
The tour guide, Takahisa Kawatsu, 47, is part of an eight-member volunteer group called Team Sedoya.
"It's not interesting to only walk through the main streets in a hot spring resort town. The past and present are mixed together in the back alleys," Kawatsu said.
Just by stepping off the main street and into the back alleys, the scenery totally changes. Small streets spread out like a maze in every direction, with some so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time.
In the back alleys, there is a rarely used recreation hall, as well as various izakaya pubs that show they took down the curtains at the front gates and closed down.
Ahead of the stairs, you can see the Yakushido hall, in which a statue of Yakushi Nyorai (the Buddha of healing) is enshrined, as well as a hot spring that is only used by locals.
I could also see many carp-shaped wooden plaques swaying in the breeze over the Momijibashi bridge at the exits of the Sedoya back alleys. Tourists had written down their wishes on the backs of the plaques.
"Time stands still as if we're still in the Showa era (1926-1989). But strangely, there isn't a sense of loneliness or bleakness. Instead, tourists can feel nostalgic about the good memories of that time," Kawatsu said.
Some back alleys are sometimes used as an outdoor gallery for old photos, and landscape paintings of the hot spring hang on bare cement walls. A cafe capturing the atmosphere of the time, which seems to act as a hideaway, is also open for business.
The increasing number of tourists to the back alleys has led to the revitalisation of the Sedoya area.
After grabbing dinner at the inn, I rode a free shuttle bus to a firefly viewing site. The bus driver asked that the destination be kept secret to preserve the environment of the area.
At the viewing area, countless fireflies surrounded us under the starry night. If it weren't for the blinking lights of the fireflies, I wouldn't have been able to distinguish them from the stars overhead.
"How did you feel about Tsuetate?" asked a person involved in the local tourist industry whom I became friendly with while on the tour.
"Compared with Tokyo, time flows slowly," I answered.
"That's right. Time always seems to stretch until I can leave work at 5:30 p.m.," he said.
Although that wasn't what I meant, I enjoyed eating purin, wandering the Sedoya back alleys and watching fireflies. And after taking a bath at the inn, I'll be able to walk tomorrow "without a cane."