When pulling into our hostel in Hakuba, skeptical doesn’t even begin to describe what I’m feeling. Imagine a little wooden house with signs advertising a bar/restaurant combo in flickering neon lights. No mention of there being a guesthouse. To make matters more interesting, there doesn’t seem to be anyone home. Kris and I take one look at each other and pull out our phones in search of another hostel to stay at. Just as we agree on a new place to check, the “open” sign flicks on.
After a few brief words, we decide to give it a go. We step inside and notice it is indeed a bar/restaurant set-up. Still no mention of a guesthouse on the premises. We ask in Japanese if an English speaker is present. Kris decides to play the “I don’t understand Japanese” card. We’re told that it will be about 30 minutes before the English speaker returns. After an awkward wait, a small, quiet lady bustles in and promptly tells us in Japanese that she doesn’t speak English. We explain that we are the guests that will be staying for the next 3 days. She looks surprised and asks for thirty minutes to prepare the room. Another glance with Kris, and he tells her “OK.”
During our wait, we are offered a bowl of Hakuba’s summer fruit: blueberries. Despite the lingering awkwardness, we gladly accept as she continues to nervously flutter about in preparation. This will turn out to be the first of many gestures from Momma Hakuba.
The first morning, Kris and I find a plate of blueberry bread, two slices each. Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be anyone home. We leave a note saying how delicious the bread was and thank you, then we head out for our usual shinanegans.
On our return that night, the bar has visitors, but Momma Hakuba comes to chat with us in the small kitchen, regardless. After about forty minutes of polite conversation about our adventures in Hakuba, we excuse ourselves and go upstairs.
The next morning, there are two banans and a note saying to check the fridge for blueberry yogurt and to enjoy ourselves in Hakuba. After returning in the evening, Momma Hakuba is again waiting for us with bowls of blueberry ice cream. As both of us are sweets-addicts, we can’t say no. This time, we exchange histories and stories about Hakuba and Japan. Momma is originally from Tokyo, and even focused on English in college (her English is excellent, I’d should add). However, 20 years ago, in search of a quieter life, she moved to one of the most scenic places in Japan with her husband to farm seasonal fruits and set up a small, quaint business. We then excitedly tell her all about why we came to Japan and Hakuba, flipping between Japanese and English the entire time.
The next morning, we find bananas, blueberry bread, and a fruit medley yogurt waiting for us, along with another kind note. Kris and I agree to pick up a gift for her in Nagano that day and to eat at the guesthouse restaurant that night.
That evening, we order a spread of food in a cooking style that is a mix between Japanese and Hispanic food. I get a ginger chicken wrap, Kris gets a plate of shrimp tacos. It turns out that Momma had traveled quite a lot in her youth, spending a chunk of time in Mexico. Hence her epic avocado dip with homemade tortilla crisps. We chat with Momma nearly the entire dinner, and she brings me a homemade blueberry sour and another bowl of ice cream for Kris. After dinner, she asks what time we plan to leave. We say 10am and she promises to return by then.
The next morning, there are full tuna sandwiches waiting for us. Momma arrives just on time to see us off, but not before making us raspberry milk drinks, of course. We talk one last time and present Momma with her Nagano gift.
She takes a moment, looking at the gift. Her dainty frame seems smaller and more delicate as she looks up at us and smiles. She uses very casual Japanese to explain that we are the right age to be her children (if she had any). The whole weekend, she used formal Japanese with us, but when confessing that we were like her kids, she switched into casual. That in itself had a lot of meaning behind it.
She then explains that this is the first time she’s ever received a gift from a guest and that she hopes we return soon. We thank her one last time for showing us an amazing time in Hakuba, say our goodbyes, and load our stuff into the car. As we drive away, Momma stands on the porch to wave at us, and stays there until the guesthouse is too far away in my rearview mirror to see anymore.
We didn’t get a picture of Momma, and we decided it might be better that way. Sometimes, memories are better than pictures. They take more work to hold on to, and they require that you revisit them to keep them fresh.
See you soon, Momma.