So I’d seen the pictures before I got here of the monkeys snoozing in hot springs but I dont think I realised that onsen, as they’re called here, are everywhere. And they seem to be quite a big part of community life.
Japanese inns and guesthouses often don’t provide en suite bathrooms. Instead you go to the public bath, which often as not gets its water from some spring bubbling up below. The locals all go there too.
It costs between 1 and 4 quid, depending on how fancy they are, but an average one has hot, warm and cold pools, washing facilities, a dressing room and once you’re done, a room where you can just sit and chill, read, watch tv or whatever for as long as you like. Many have a sauna too, and those outside the cities often have an outdoor pool too.
The one I went to this morning was surrounded by trees – japanese maples just coming into leaf and blossoming cherry trees hanging low over the pool. It was raining, but that doesn’t matter if you are wet already and in a toasty warm bath. It was really quite magical.
This is all done completely in the nude of course, but there are separate sections for men and women, tastefully screened off, and since everyone goes there, from the oldest to the youngest, it is hard to feel self conscious.
You wash before going in, sitting on a teeny stool facing a shower hose, tap and soap etc, and then you spend as long as you like going from pool to pool until, in my case anyway, you become extremely red in the face from the heat.
I’ve been onsen-ing as much as I can and will soon be heading for some hills where there are historic onsen. One is 1800 years old apparently.
Travels-wise, I spent a day in kumamoto last week, where I learned an important thing, for me anyway. This is to avoid the designated tourist places as much as possible. Whatever meaning they once had is long gone, replaced by ersatz meaning channelled through the medium of the gift shop.i went to look at a famous garden and was really disappointed. I know it’s only March but it was dry and dead and still. I wandered around humming ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ (Dolly Parton does a great version). I decided to walk back to the hotel rather than take the tram, and found a beautiful river with public gardens down one side that were much lovelier than the one I’d been in. Flowers everywhere, people out enjoying themselves and birds all over the place. I even saw a kingfisher.
Still, the next stop was Hiroshima, where you pretty much have to do the designated places. Interesting, sobering. The waiters in the restaurant I went to that evening introduced me to sake, which counteracted the effect a little. I am won over to sake now, it’s nice. I don’t have to comment on the serious stuff do I? “Dropping atom bombs on people is so wrong!” (cf Band Candy, Buffy season 2)
I didn’t have much time in kyoto. I can be quite slow to catch on sometimes, as you may know, and it took me a while to realise that accommodation needs to be booked well in advance here. I thought the spring equinox holiday was a one off, but it seems spring is just generally busy.
I put some hours in, though, and am now sorted for places for the rest of my time in japan. And not much time in kyoto fits with my new tourism avoidance philosophy. It is very pretty tho.
After that I went to a very touristy resort on the coast, but as every single other person was japanese it doesn’t count. I enjoyed being the only gaijin in the village!
People I chatted to there included a 6 year old girl, a retired primary school teacher and a student who managed a Japanese rock band. He still loved Paul McCartney tho. Everyone does. Luckily no one has asked me what British people think of him.
Ithink they love him almost as much as they love cherry blossom. It’s just coming out and there is great excitement. There are cherry blossom forecasts on the news, stories in the papers and it’s the first thing anyone mentions. A woman who I chatted to over dinner this evening, who was on holiday from tokyo, was on her way to kyoto to see a particular type of small cherry blossom tree with pink flowers that only grows in a certain area. There are over 100 kinds apparently. Who knew?
Incidentally this woman was wearing a shirt with a William Morris print on it, so we had a great chat about that.
Only one more week in japan!