On communal nude bathing

For those of you who are waiting for Tamago’s life and death update I can put you out of your misery. He did in fact survive and came back in one piece. As to the details of the trip, I feel that it would be wrong of me to describe it second hand. You’ll have to wait til he gets around to his own blog post.

I, however, am here on an entirely different mission. To share with you all the communal nude bathing experience.

Tamago and I recently took a lovely trip up to Kusatsu Onsen which is about a four hour bus trip away from Tokyo (see here for travel guide). It’s a village in the mountains that we had heard from various sources, mainly students, is a nice place to go if you want to experience onsen (hot springs).

Once we arrived in Kusatsu and located our ryokan – Tamago and I set out to get naked with some Japanese people in extremely hot water. But first we had to check this out:Also known as Yubatake, it’s a hot water field where water from the hot springs bubbles up and is diverted down these wooden channels in order to cool it. Then it’s distributed to the numerous public baths and onsens in Kusatsu. It’s smack dab in the middle of town, only a five minute walk from the bus station. There’s a free foot bath nearby which is a plus. Oh and it REAKS of sulphur but you get used to the smell quickly!

Not to be distracted, Tamago and I continued on to the Sainokawara National Park where the most famous outdoor onsen in Kusatsu is located. For obvious reasons we couldn’t take photos in the actual onsen (if you want to see what it looks like click here) but this is what the walk looked like:

Most onsen have seperate bathing for men and women so when we got to the bath, Tamago and I nervously said goodbye and went into our separate change rooms.

In retrospect, you really only need to bring a towel with you. Or you could buy one at the onsen. Many Japanese people make do with a very small towel which they fold and put on their heads while they bathe.

Of course, it being Japan, there is etiquette that goes with onsen bathing. If you’re really interested this is a very cute guide. The overall rule is: never do anything that might remotely get the water dirty. This means that you can’t wear bathers in the bath, if you have long hair you should tie it up, and you should always always wash before you get in. Usually there is a shower or in the case of Sainokawara there is a basin with bowls for you to splash yourself. Basically just copy what everyone else does! If you do it wrong, the Japanese will very gently help guide you back to the correct way of doing things.

The bath itself was large and the water is about thigh height on a tall gaijin. You have to get in VERY slowly as the water is VERY hot. Once you’re in you can walk to a submerged bench and ease in up to bellybutton height. When you’re feeling ok with that, you can sit on the bottom of the bath up to your neck!

Needless to say, it is super hot and you can’t help but feel a bit like you’re a frog being slowly cooked. I had to dip in and out a couple of times becuase it’s soo hot. It did feel great though. The water is silky smooth and there’s probably nothing more peaceful than a hot bath amongst the trees. Surprisingly it’s very social and there were several groups of young women chatting and laughing but also plenty of others just sitting back and enjoying the serenity.

I know what you’re all thinking. Seriously? You bathed nude with a whole bunch of strangers? Yes. And yes it was confronting for my upper middle class Aussie/British upbringing. I’m really not comfortable with public nudity but the cliche is true. It’s very liberating and if everyone else is doing it, it’s not so weird. Once you’ve undressed there’s no turning back! And the plus side is that even in Japan, land of the size 6 woman, there is always someone who has more wobbly bits than you, and who cares less about them than you do. Excellent.

One of the best experiences I’ve had so far in Japan. Hands down.

Onsen: highly recommended

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

[Part II of our Golden Week travel blog extravaganza…]

Following our trip to Miura, we came back through Tokyo and continued North to Nikko. It was a glorious day in the mountains. We explored the temple area having obtained some amazing walking tour instructions from one of the friendly staff at the Nikko Park Lodge where we were staying (highly recommended, though one of the other dudes there is quite grumpy).

At dusk, we arrived at the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a gorge that runs down behind the Imperial Villa. We had the place almost to ourselves, and it was breathtakingly beautiful.

 

These are the bakejizo (ghost statues). It’s said that if you count them as you walk along to the gorge, and then count them as you return, you’ll never get the same count — one of them will have ‘disappeared’ for the return journey. We counted 76 on the way in, then realised that we hadn’t actually taken in any of the amazing scenery because we were too busy counting. We didn’t bother checking on the way back, so we can neither confirm nor deny this myth. Our Mythbusters assessment: “Plausible”. (It’s a pretty spooky place, and a lot of monks are buried there).

 

The Kanmangafuchi Abyss: highly recommended to get away from the Nikko crowds, and spectacular at dusk.

Yokohama

A several weeks ago, Tamago and I decided to venture forth from the heaving metropolis that is Tokyo and explore a slightly smaller metropolis: Yokohama!

Yokohama is a harbour city that is less than half an hour train ride from Tokyo’s Shibuya station if you catch the limited express (if you take the local train it will take FOREVER!) You can get there really cheaply if you take the time to do some research (for example: here) into which train line is best. If you take the Tokyu Toyoku Line it only costs 260 yen one way.

We had heard mixed reports about Yokohama, some people say there’s nothing there, and others told us it is a fantastic day out. We had to see for ourselves.

As we disembarked from our train and emerged from the main Yokohama train station, the smell of salt water hit us (well me, Tamago has a spectacularly bad sense of smell). Ahh. Smells sorta like home. I was really keen to try and hire bikes in from somewhere near the station so we could cycle along the harbour front but predictably this turned out to require forward planning as does most things in Japan. If I was doing it again, I would be tempted to look into this (eg here) because the harbor front of Yokohama is well suited to cycling. There’s a nice flat bike path pretty much from the station all the way to China Town!

Thwarted by the tangled web of complicated administration required to hire bicycles Tamago and I hoofed it from the station. With no real plan and a vague map we walked towards Yamashita Park, passing the Red Brick Warehouse and the Cup Noodles Museum on the way. Unfortunately both of these places were closed the day we went but I think they would be well worth a look if we visit again.

As we strolled along in the unseasonably warm sunshine we spotted an amusement park. Yokohama Cosmo World is pretty much impossible to miss if you walk along the front as it has a pretty massive Ferris Wheel! Naturally, we had to check it out and luckily it was completely deserted the day we went. Maybe because it was Tuesday at 11am in February. We went for a ride on the Ferris Wheel. The dodgy Engrish voiceover at one point told us it was the biggest Ferris Wheel in the world, but later then said “one of the biggest Ferris Wheels in the world”. All I’d be willing to say is that it probably was, at some point in time, the biggest Ferris Wheel in the world. It might now be in the top ten. We also went on the ‘Disappearing’ rollercoaster which was reportedly a pretty tame experience for Tamago but I’m terrified of rollercoasters I kept my eyes closed the entire time.

The other big drawcard for Cosmo World was the massive video game arcade. Heaps of skilltesters but lots of classics such as Dance Dance Revolution, MarioKart and table hockey.

After prying Tamago’s fingers loose from the controllers of a Hello Kitty skilltester we continued our walk. We made it to Yokohama’s famous Yamashita Park and saw the NYK Hikawamura – once called the Queen of the Pacific, anchored in Yokohama Bay.

After discovering a very strange fountain…

we pressed on…

we finally found Chinatown! Yokohama was once the centre of immigration to Japan (seeing as it’s the harbour) so many immigrants stepped off the boats and settled right there – many of them Chinese. The Chinatown was amazing. The main roads in and out are guarded by huge gates. Inside you will find wall to wall dumpling shops, restaurants and panda themed souvenir stores. Tragically by the time we got there we were running out of time so we didn’t get a chance to truly experience everything Chinatown had to offer. But apparently Yokohama is beautiful at night so we have big plans to return for feasting and merriment in the near future!

Yokohama day trip – recommended!

Mt Takao

Tamago had a day off the other day and since I’m not working yet we both had a day completely free. Those of you who know us know that we are extremely outdoorsy, we spend our weekends camping and downhill mountain biking. My preferred sleeping arrangement is a swag [great — I’ll set one up on the floor for you, and I’ll take the 1.5 bed! – Tamago]. Naturally, therefore, on our precious day together we elected to go and climb a mountain. Thankfully it is only about 599 metres tall.

Mt Takao is an hour away by train from Shinkuku train station, the main train station nearest to us. That is if you manage to catch an express train. If, on the other hand, you mistakenly catch the local train because you are a silly gaijin and you’re forced to stop at every single station on the way to Takaosanguchi Station (the train station nearest to Mt Takao) it takes about an hour and forty minutes. Give or take.

When we got to the station, it was really easy to figure out which way the walks were, we just followed the elderly Japanese hikers in their gigantic visors and walking shoes. There are English language as well as Japanese maps in the train station. So, ignoring the temptation of the Takao Trick Art Museum (with an Egyptian theme!) that was beckoning in the distance, we two intrepid walkers set off up Mt Takao.

There are several options available to you when you elect to walk up the mountain. If you have your elderly grandmother with you, you can catch the cable car halfway up and trundle along the gently sloping paths to the summit, if you’re hardcore like Tamago and Moon Tan, you can walk up the practically vertical pathway until it converges with the cable car crowd and becomes civilised. Otherwise,  if you’re suicidal you can take the chair lift halfway up.

Mt Takao is considered a sacred mountain and is associated with tengu, Japanese Shinto spirits. There are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines at the summit of the mountain and smaller shrines along the way. I was particularly intrigued by the tiny statues of little sitting men (perhaps Buddha? But they didn’t seem chubby enough. I’m such a heathen). These statues were everywhere up and down the mountain, even on the tracks that weren’t main tracks. And every single one of them on the day we went was wearing a red or orange knitted beanie and a red or white bib. I love that someone has gone and dressed every single one of those guys. In Australia, someone would have lost the map of all the statues for sure.

One more thing I should mention, Mt Takao is such an unashamed tourist mecca that there are little food stalls, bars (yes bars!) and souvenir shops all the way up the main path. There is also a ‘Monkey Park’ where tourists can see monkeys. We gave the Monkey Park a miss but we did sample a ‘dango’, Japanese dumplings on a stick made from a chewy, slightly sweet paste and toasted so they had a crunchy, salty exterior. Very strange. We weren’t fans but lots of Japanese people were eating them with gusto so maybe our palates aren’t refined enough.

We had an excellent walk, the scenery was stunning, the temples were fascinating and it is unbelievable that such a lush and beautiful environment is only an hour outside of the biggest city in the world. Tamago and I ate our lunch at a rest stop halfway up the mountain and we had incredible views over Tokyo. There are several walks available that are all outlined in the brochure you can pick up at the train station. There are also a lot of maps along the pathways. There does seem, however, to only be one main path and the rest are all a little off the beaten track but still perfectly walkable for the able bodied individual. Tamago and I took an alternate route down the mountain and stumbled across a waterfall and a little shrine to some cave gods. We went at the end of one of the latest autumns Tokyo has ever experienced, at the beginning of December. To see the autumn colours in the future I would recommend playing it safe and visiting a little earlier in the season.

A highly recommended day trip.