"Twas like where you're from weren't never there. Where you're going doesn't matter. And where you are ain't no good unless you can get away from it! " – Hazel, Wise Blood
I consider myself a city boy, but that doesn't mean I don't need to escape it once in a while to avoid turning into a raving, homicidal maniac under the pressures of work, life and my commute. I did this when I was a Londoner too; escape the hustle and bustle, even if only for a couple of days, and drink in some green nature and relatively fresh air. This weekend I took a whirlwind trip down south again for a dip in the onsen, in a small hotel in Ito in the Shizuoka prefecture.
The weekend didn’t start well, with, thanks to the schizophrenic weather conditions this spring and my lovely colleagues, I developed a stonking bad cold on Friday. But come Saturday morning, I dragged myself out of bed with a fever, headache, clogged nose, bad cough and aching eyeballs to make the three hour trip by local trains, passing through Tsurumaki Onsen station, apparently the inspiration for the locale in Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Part of the way we had the pleasure of sharing a carriage with a gang of rowdy, drunk octogenarians. It’s heartening to know that at that age, in Japan, one is still expected to misbehave and be a loud drunk. I could easily grow old in this country.
The stretch from Atami to Ito and beyond is always a little sad. With boulevards and palm trees as well as the occasional seafront hotel it’s easy to imagine it was once the Japanese Riviera, where young couple in 1950s clothes and cars came to holiday. These days it all looks a little run down and, especially off-season, empty. And because these areas are basically regular Japanese villages with the occasional hotel, you can’t much get the “holiday” vibe. But the important things are the volcanic springs; this is the reason to go!
As it’s the off-season right now, just weeks before Golden Week, the national springtime holiday time, we had no problems booking the hotel, though there were several other couples and families there. What I enjoy most about these things is the tatami. As we opted to rip the tatami out of our apartment when we moved in, as they can be a bitch to keep clean and in good nick, I do enjoy occasionally loafing about in a yukata and lying around on the floor in traditional Japanese settings. The view from our surprisingly large room consisted of the mountains, the village below and the bay off to the east. We had chosen the room specifically because it had an onsen bath in the room, but as this turned out to be a regular plastic bathtub with lukewarm onsen water on tap, even though the large window did overlook a very nice view, we decided to go to the hotel’s larger, public onsen instead.
I fully expect to be contacted by the British Embassy soon to return my passport and forcibly denounce my citizenship as I have become far too adept at suppressing the feeling of shame and embarrassment of exposing myself in public. On my first dip the onsen was positively crowded with three other, Japanese patrons. Disrobing and walking to the showers as nature intended before slipping into a shared bathing experience went a lot smoother than before, I’m afraid to say. Don’t ask me if it’s true what they say about the Japanese, because I didn’t stare. At the end of my second dip I had a brief moment of solitude as one guy was just leaving and another was apparently shocked by my foreignness, though that did little to soothe the natural disgust I have of seeing my own flabby body in the altogether. Nevertheless, a piping hot spring water bath acts as a steam bath for my nostrils and for brief moments I could forget I had a crippling cold.
Dinner was served in the room, as is the custom, and consisted of the usual platter of Japanese dishes, beautiful and tasty. Ill or not, a dip in the onsen dictates a booze session, for which I had purchased several large cans of Asahi, as we sat and watched the television. It is strange how being dizzy from the hot bath, delirious from your cold and tipsy from the beer all work together to somehow make Japanese television more palatable. Before long I sank in a mouth-breathing slumber on a wonderfully soft futon. Sleeping the Japanese way can be very nice.
The next morning’s breakfast in the communal dining area was a bit of an ordeal for me. In the same way you could stumble across a one night stand as she’s out walking with her husband, and all you can think is “I’ve seen you naked”, in the same way was I acutely aware of the fact I had seen the flabby arses of every guy in the room. They apparently had no problem with this all, but then they are not British. It certainly didn’t make me any more comfortable thanks to the continuing nose-dripping and debilitating coughing fits. After breakfast we checked out, bought our usual omiyage, presents for the family in law, in the town and made our long way back.
And you may ask if it’s worth traveling three hours each way with a bad cold for a single night in a hotel in the countryside and a dip in a pool, and I say it absolutely is. Having a brief walk through nicely wooded areas, away from the crowds, is wonderfully calming, even with a pocket full of used tissues. My skin feels smooth and my body somewhat soothed thanks to the session in the volcanically heated spring water; it is absolutely wonderful to experience, despite the coughing. For anyone willing to build a new life in a major city like Tokyo, the occasional escape makes life, in general, somewhat easier to cope with. And with Japan’s countryside as beautiful as it is, I highly recommend a trip to the onsen for even the temporary visitor.