Japan, as you know, is part of that volcanic “ring of fire” that surrounds the Pacific Ocean. As a result, it has not only beautiful volcanoes (see Mt Fuji) but also about a million hot springs. These hot springs — or onsen — have been put to good use by the Japanese as an excuse to get naked together. True, the ostensible purpose of the onsen is to bathe oneself in the mineral-rich water. But they also play an important social function. We learned from Mari (our cooking instructor) that the Japanese use the onsen as a way to overcome their typically reserved interpersonal relationships. For example, a company looking for a team-building activity might take a group of employees to an onsen. After all, nothing breaks down hierarchies and social awkwardness like running around with your boss in your birthday suit! They even have a term for the type of relationship that can emerge between colleagues from such an outing: they call it a “naked relationship.”
To experience an onsen, Amanda and I left early this morning for a day trip to Hakone, a resort town famous for its onsen about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. We began the trip by procuring our JR Rail Passes — these seven-day passes are available only to foreigners and give unlimited train travel on the Japan Rail network of trains. With the amount of traveling we plan to do over the next week, it’s a great deal.
For the principal leg of the trip, we rode in the shinkansen train, Japan’s version of the high-speed bullet train. It was gorgeous and very fast. (Why, oh why, can we not get our act together and start building these things in the US?)
We were soon speeding through the first open countryside I’d seen since coming to Japan.
When we got to the town of Odawa, we had to switch from the bullet-train to the slower local train to Hakone. We quickly found the line we needed . . .
. . . but since this train was not part of the Japan Rail system, we needed to buy a new ticket. Not exactly an easy task when pretty much everything is in Japanese characters only.
Eventually a helpful railroad person took pity on our befuddled selves and helped us out. After that we just needed to find the right quay.
|What the heck is a romancecar?|
As intriguing as the “Romancecar” sounded, our train was on the other side of the platform. A cheery red thing that promised a slow ride to Hakone.
The onsen we were looking for was part of a large hotel called Tensei-en. We found a local bus driver that knew the way and had him drop us at the entrance.
Immediately inside the door we were instructed to remove our shoes and stow them in these tiny cubbies.
Once properly barefoot, we entered the lobby and were greeted by mounds of purple hydrangeas and a swarm of enormous koi. (I resolved once again that one day I will have a koi pond of my own!)
We checked in at the desk and were issued a wristband, two towels and a kimono. The attendant, who spoke basically no English, then gestured for us to go upstairs. Amanda got off on the 6th floor; I went to the 7th. After that, it was pretty much business as usual: Clothes off, rinse in the shower, soak in pools of varying temperatures, sweat in the sauna, cool off on the ledge, go back and do whatever felt good again.
Photography was prohibited, of course, but I found a billboard that showed the men’s outdoor bath area. This was my first outdoor bathing experience, and I really liked it. Felt free, you know? Also a tad exhibitionist — while the management had thought to raise a privacy screen around the perimeter to ward off roving eyes of neighboring hotels, they didn’t account for the fact that said neighboring hotels are several stories higher than the one we were in . . . .
|I spent quite a bit of time in the pool in the foreground here. The jets were on and it was divine.|
The vigorous scrubbing that we had in the Korean baths aren’t part of the traditional onsen experience. Korean body scrubs were available, though, for an additional fee, as were a variety of massages and other treatments. After soaking for a while in the baths upstairs, I went down and met Amanda on the massage level — we decided to splurge and each take a sixty-minute massage. Amanda opted for the oil massage; I went with the traditional Japanese shiatsu massage.
|And don’t worry, I’m not naked in this picture either.
You just can’t see my shorts.
Once again clean and sweet-smelling, and deeply relaxed, I went down and met Amanda. From the peaceful glow on her face, I could tell her massage had been similarly restorative!
A woman in the sidewalk stand was hawking small round delicacies that appeared to be sweets.
We each bought one. They were cutely wrapped (everything here is cutely wrapped), but the taste wasn’t quite as satisfying. We couldn’t tell what the outer substance was, nor the inner core, but we knew enough to identify red bean paste in the middle layer.
One sweet does not a tummy fill, so we resumed our search for something more substantial. Soon we came across a little restaurant with dishes full of soba noodles displayed in the windows.
Soba noodles! This rang a bell: During our cooking class Mari had encouraged us to try the soba noodles if we went to Hakone. Apparently the water in Hakone has peculiar qualities that make for particularly good soba noodles. We both got a bowl of soba noodle soup with tempura fried giant prawn.
I’m not enough of a noodle connoisseur to say whether the noodles were unusually good, but they were very tasty and filling. And I think I’m making moderate progress at eating soup with chopsticks without coming away looking a mess. Needless to say, with a full belly and massage-relaxed limbs, I slept soundly on the train ride back to Tokyo!