Thursday, May 03, 2012

Blossoms and bathtubs

Hanami is an important Japanese custom and is held all over Japan in spring. Hanami literally means ‘viewing flowers,’ but it generally indicates looking at and enjoying the cherry blossom.

Beloved Wife dictated the time for the recent trip to Japan around the requirements of academia, and was hugely delighted to learn that the hanami festival would probably occur when she and the Goat were present. As it turned out the first brave blossoms were blown away by some foul weather, but later in the week more appeared and it was possible to enjoy the very Japanese pastime of walking in the park, eating and drinking outdoors under the trees, and taking far too many photographs of small, pink flowers. The picnicking and photographs continued all week, and all over that little bit of Japan that Goat and his Beloved Wife had time to visit.

Picnics under the blossoms
Yoyogi Park was extremely well attended on the first Sunday. All the Tokyo locals plus many visitors seemed to have descended en masse and pitched their picnic spots beneath the largely blossomless trees. Eating and drinking aside, there were tightrope walkers, drummers, and even a Japanese bagpiper. He’d not worn appropriate unbifurcated garb, however, unlike the Goat.

Port and Starboard
And speaking of garb, some cosplayers came out to dance under the trees in their outlandish outfits, and the rockabilly rebels entertained themselves and the onlookers to loud 1950s style music.

Cosplay and choreography

 D'ya wanna be in my gang?
Whilst denim, leather, and winkle-pickers might have been OK, the tattoos would almost certainly keep the rockers out of the public baths. There seems to be a blanket ‘no tats’ rule.

The rocker with the rather splendid dragon tattoo

Beloved Wife had arranged a couple of days in Kinosaki Onsen, a spa town on the north coast, but had found an entry in the Lonely Planet guide indicating a mixed-bathing facility in Tokyo, and within reasonable range of the metro. Figuring that her Goat had never done the hot public bath thing before, at least not in Japan, she opined that this would perhaps offer an opportunity to show him the ropes.

The place turned out to be up a long, steep hill. As the directions in the guide book weren’t very helpful, a series of “Sumimasen…Gomen nasai…erm…Onsen? Sento?” followed. By the time BW and Goat had found the place it was almost chucking-out time and they decided to return the following evening.

Having deposited shoes in lockers and been issued with towels and minuscule pyjamas to wear whilst not actually bathing, they headed upstairs to separate changing rooms. Japanese custom and practice is that the communal bathing is done naked. Also, the bather soaps up and rinses off in a sitting position before entering the bath. Dirt and soap are not allowed in a Japanese bath, which is maintained at around 42C or 108F. This is monkey temperature: you lower yourself into the hot water and fail to suppress shouts of “Oooh! Oooh! Aaah! Aaah! Aaah!” The whole environment is hot, steamy, and echoey.

The Goat headed to the outdoor male-only bath, and noted the sign that said to put on some Speedos before heading down the steps to the outdoor mixed bath. There he met Beloved Wife, and they spent an hour getting dishpan hands and looking up at the celestial canopy. Unfortunately the poolside bar was closed, but there was one of the ubiquitous vending machines available for anyone who’d brought some cash and not left it in his locker.

After turning into lobsters, BW and Goat headed back to their respective changing rooms, became dry as well as very clean, and were delighted to discover the complimentary minibus back to the metro station.

Kinosaki Onsen is a town several hours’ train ride away from Tokyo. As onsen refers to natural hot springs, as opposed to sento, which are simply public baths, it may be inferred that Kinosaki is devoted to bathing in volcanically-heated spring water. In a fit of good taste, Beloved Wife had booked a night in a traditional hotel: tatami mats; paper screen doors; sleeping on futons

The sitting room. And bedroom.
The hotel provided ID cards to prove that BW and Goat were bona fide customers, and these would allow free access to any of the onsen in town. It’s encouraged to walk the streets in yukata (dressing gown) and geta (wooden flipflops) on an onsen crawl. In addition to the bath houses, hot foot spas are dotted all around, wherein the water is sulphurous and unbelievably hot. A small café was selling eggs cooked in one of them. The Goat managed to scald himself to above his hocks. Owch, owch, owch!

Kinosaki by day
Several baths and lots of photographs of trees and lanterns later, it was time for food and booze. 

For goodness sake
Sitting inside a little bar with sake (rice wine, served hot) and edemame (peas, served salty), the sound outside was reminiscent perhaps of Victorian London. The constant clip-clopping of hooves on asphalt was of course geta, the wearers of which were heading between baths.

Between baths
As a private hour had been booked at the hotel’s own onsen for later that evening, Beloved Wife and Goat didn’t have to bathe separately all the time. But the combination of travel, hot baths, food and drink ensured a very deep night’s sleep.

Kinosaki by night
The Goat is convinced: a Japanese bath in the Cyprus dream home is now on the ‘must have’ list.



Mich said...

Thank you for sharing the trip and photos. Thank God for "the wife's" planning! It has always been a dream to be in Japan during cherry blossom season, but I've always been in the wrong season :-))

Paraglider said...

That sounds like a great trip. Enjoyed the read :)


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