Break time

Mount Fuji, magnificent though she is, is an active volcano and will one day KILL US ALL. Until such a time she provides us with volcanically heated spring water, which is absolutely great to bathe in. These baths go by the term “onsen”. A great aspect of Tokyo life is that within a couple of hours you can be in a lush green environment, away from the hustle and bustle with a choice of onsen to stay at. Which is exactly what I’ve been up to this weekend. As I have already stayed at hotels (western style), hotels with tatami sections and ryoukan (Japanese style hotel) this time we decided to stay at a minshuku, the Japanese version of a B&B. Price may also have been a factor, as a game artist’s salary doesn’t really provide for five-star hotel stays. In the same vein we saved a few pennies on the bullet train and took a local line in stead, which only took about three times as long. The destination this time was a small station just past Atami on the southern peninsula of Shizuoka.
It’s surprising how little the scenery changes for the first two thirds of the trip but then the densely packed urban sprawl makes way for smaller pockets of densely packed suburban sprawl interposed with the occasional green hill. Once you get to the peninsula the scenery alternates between dark tunnel and small bay village all the way south. Atami and the surrounding areas were once the destination for honeymooners and people wishing to holiday, but it has seen better days. There is a strange atmosphere in this one-time Riviera in the off-season, a strange dilapidation with hints of a former glory; palm lined avenues, old Japanese hotels with facades turned green with growth. The villagers, traditionally reliant on the fishing industry, have taken back their land and hang fresh seaweed to dry on a beach front where once young couples bathed in trendy 60s bathing suits.

The minshuku, once we found it, was exactly what you’d expect from a B&B: a large house with several tatami rooms on the top floor and a bathroom housing the purpose of our visit: a private onsen. The room was a single 6 tatami affair with hardboard walls shielding us, if in sight only, from the neighbours who could easily be heard. The onsen was shared between the occupants, which numbered quite a few on the Saturday night but only us on the Sunday. Apart from the world’s smallest television, a kettle and a fridge the room, as all hotel rooms in Japan, also contained a green tea set to make your own ocha with whenever you please. The futon, hidden in the cupboard, had to be laid out yourself, but that is hardly an issue.

There is a whole tradition of etiquette when it comes to bathing. Once you enter you are greeted with a Japanese shower; the same as a western shower but lower, you’re meant to squat on the stool provided. Soap and shampoo are usually free. You wash yourself rigorously, wash your hair and your body, then rinse off to make sure there is no dirt or errand suds. Only then do you lower yourself in the piping hot natural spring water, where you sit quietly until your body and mind give up. After a quick rinse you get dressed, in your yukata probably, go back to your room and collapse on the tatami, your head dizzy and pounding from the heat. At these times beer becomes as easily drinkable as water, and a few snacks disappear with relish until you fall asleep in a hot stupor, your skin smooth and clean from all the minerals in the water, the room slightly farty from the sulphur. I, personally, love it.

The Sunday we followed up on various recommendations by going down to Kawazu. As the weather was exceptionally fine and the area is itself a few degrees warmer than Tokyo the cherry blossom were already in full bloom; everybody was going down to see it. And by “everybody” I mean every aggressive little old lady you can image piled into the “sight-seeing train”. This train has one slightly undulating row of seats facing outwards towards big windows so the passengers can see the ocean, the villages and the mountains. The battle for a seat was bloody and exhausting. At one point one old lady walked towards a recently vacated seat and was about to sit down when another almost threw her handbag there and said “sorry, taken!” In stead of picking up the bag and throwing it away the first lady merely admitted defeat. Hell hath no fury as an old Japanese lady. Not scorned, just as is.

Kawazu was busy but beautiful. The sakura was not only in full bloom, but some trees had already greened, which even for the south is unseasonably fast. Back in Tokyo we have yet to wait a few weeks. The glory of a sakura-lined street in full bloom is not something you can appreciate until you’ve seen it up close and personal. The pink flowers snow down upon you as you sit there in the sun getting drunk and stuffed with food. Kawazu was one endless row of stalls selling fruits, roasted shellfish on a stick, sliced and fried sweet potato, Japanese sweets, dried fish and squid and oranges. Shizuoaka is famous for its oranges, apparently, so we had no choice but to buy some, though there were many private trees in full bloom which could have provided had the wife not been so keenly aware of scrumping laws in Japan.

Kawazu also boasted a 1300 year old temple next to a 1000 year old tree, which to me looked impressively gnarled and majestic; a real “tonari no Totoro” affair. Atami, however, boasts a 2000 year old tree, which we didn’t get to see this time. The temple looked deceptively new though. The Japanese have an “old broom” approach to history. Sometimes you replace the head, sometimes the handle, but it always remains the same old broom. Likewise this temple obviously did not contain any original materials and had seen numerous renovations but was still the 1300 year old temple.

For lunch we had to whip our way through a sea of old ladies to a soba restaurant where, after a badly chosen but delicious curry soba I was forced to experience the Japanese squat toilet; usually not an adventure I seek out. Luckily the minshuku provided both a squat and a flush toilet, the latter flushing so fantastically rigorous the first time I used it I jumped back in surprise and hit my head on the doorframe.

For a two-night weekend I managed to have a dip in the onsen 4 times, which was exactly the aim of this little break. I highly recommend any foreigners moving to Tokyo to organize periodic trips to one of the many onsen resort areas around the metropolis. It’s a great way to unwind and relax, even if the sightseeing eventually sees you back home tired and exhausted; but at least you’re exhausted by good, fun things rather than work, which makes all the difference.

The way back was a race against the weather, with the forecasts predicting a heavy storm. We didn’t want to get caught out in the middle of nowhere; I know what Japanese storms can be like. Indeed, when we arrived back home the wind was licking at our clothes and the clouds were swirling dangerously. Now it has started raining too. It will be a dark and stormy night.


  1. Nice post, really enjoyed reading it - next time I come to Japan, I need to do the onsen thing.

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