I spent quite a bit of time this trip with my relatives, including a long stretch in Ogawamachi, Saitama-ken. It takes about 90 minutes from Tokyo by train to get there, and is considered inaka (country).
I initially felt a little apprehension going into this part of the trip. My uncle had extended an open-ended invitation to stay there, and I tried to parse that the best I knew how. Because he's Japanese, I couldn't tell what exactly "however long you want" meant. If I stayed too long, I would become an inconvenience. If I left too soon, I would be ungrateful. Finally, I called my mom.
"Stay as long as you can," she said. She was at work, and I could hear the slot machines in the background. "If you leave, they'll think they aren't good enough." I love my Americanized Japanese mother.
It turns out that it was a good thing I stayed for most of the week; my experience in Saitama transitioned from "let's do lots of day trips and activities!" to "let's just live our daily lives" over the course of six days. At the end of the trip, I was allowed to help with meal prep (which guests are not permitted to do but close friends and family are). My uncle and aunt cried when I left, which was touching and surprising. I wasn't as close with my older uncle and his family, so I was really blessed to have this chance to get to know them.
1. Karuizawa is a small mountain resort in Nagano, which had the most beautiful homes that I've ever seen in Japan. It's also home to the Mampei Hotel, which (as the hotel rarely ceases to remind you) is where John Lennon spent four straight summers. I was more excited by the hotel's guest registry in the museum:
(Next to "5/23" date is the sign-in by Mishima Yukio. My modern Japanese literature nerdface grinned).
We took a long walk around the town, and then went to the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, which is supposed to be an outlet mall, but is actually Mount Olympus.
2. Washi-no-sato. Ogawamachi considers itself one of the birthplaces of washi, or traditional Japanese papermaking. My aunt took me to the paper making museum. The workspace was pretty empty on a Thursday morning, which meant I could wander around and take photos.
The grounds are beautiful and peaceful, and being Japan, of course boasts an on-site udon noodle shop.