Archive

Onsen

Day 3. Beppu.

Beppu, for all its quirkiness, the HELLS and the lovely onsen is still not the most thrilling town in the whole world. We had allocated ourselves two days to explore it and we quickly discovered that this was going to be more than sufficient to see everything we wanted to.

So a quick scour of the lonely planet suggested a few less popular tourist options. Fran, being an arsy crafty type immediately seized upon the bamboo crafts museum. I, being a bloke who likes a quiet life and who enjoys seeing his girlfriend being happy, acquiesced.

First we had all the fun of figuring out a bus schedule, attempting to get there and walking past it a few times as it was so non-descript.

Then we had all the joy of the bamboo crafts museum.

Yay!

I’ll be honest with you, it is very impressive stuff. Some of the things people can do using only bamboo and simple hand tools is absolutely astonishing. There are patterns of incredible complexity here. I certainly couldn’t hope to ever produce anything this beautiful and I did seriously admire the craftwork.

But there is only so long that you can look at bamboo sculptures and things made from bamboo before your brain starts to engage in a kind of trial separation. Part of you is taking in all the patterns and making the appropriate cooing noises and part of you has wandered off to think about something more interesting. Like what’s for dinner?

I did like the hats though. I think I look very stylish.

Probably the most interesting thing about the museum was a display about all the different kinds of bamboo there are and which varieties grow where.

Although there were some very impressive individual pieces; many of which are posted here without comment.

The museum did offer a few bamboo craft lessons. On the day we went there they were offering a class in how to make a charm. Fran had a go and was very pleased with the result.

Sick of bamboo and hungry we flagged down a cab to get one of the so called “hidden” onsen of Beppu. In this case Ichinoide-kaikan. Ichinoide-kaikan is not actually an onsen but rather it is a restaurant. However, the owner of the restaurant loves onsen so much that he dug two onsen of his own behind the restaurant. A lunch or dinner comes with a ticket to the onsen. Diners go take a refreshing bath outside and then come in to eat their lunch fully refreshed and cleaned up.

We arrived just after the lunchtime rush and as a result I had the entire onsen to myself. It was an outdoor onsen (or rotemburo) and had a decidedly homemade feel to it that seems to be common with Beppu onsen. It was filled with sulphur again so it smelled of eggs but being outside the smell was dispersed somewhat and didn’t bother me quite so much. And smell aside it was glorious. The restaurant is situated high on the mountain and from the onsen I had a glorious view of Beppu and the ocean stretched out before me and surroundings of a forest of dark ancient looking trees. It was blissful. It was quiet; and silence is such a rarity here that one really does grow to appreciate it.

As well as the main bath the owner has dug a steam room. And yes I mean dug. Rather than using artificial steam he has basically dug a hole directly into the volcano itself until he got steam issuing from it. Then he put a shed on top of the hole and called it a steam room. It was far from the most pleasant onsen experience I’ve ever had but it was at least novel. The shed was really muddy, slimy wet hot mud coated every surface and undid most of the good of the bath. Plus it was incredibly hot, much hotter than a normal steam room or sauna. However my abiding memory is just how scary it was. I was sitting inches from a hole that delved into a volcano. I had close to me a connection to the very bowels of the earth itself. It was issuing forth angry steam and occasionally made a noise. Nightmare inducing stuff if ever there was one.

After my bath I sat, feeling refreshed and cleaned with an ice cold beer and a good book, occasionally enjoying the view and waiting for Fran to arrive so we could have dinner.

Shortly after she did a waitress came over to say we had had a call.

Eh? From who?

The taxi company apparently. Had we left something in the cab?

A quick check revealed nothing. No sunglasses, hats, keys, wallets, phones, bags or anything else seemed to be absent.

It was only as I checked the inside of my bag that I realised I had left the guidebook behind, which had all our maps and the addresses and names of everywhere we intended to go.

Bugger!

We called the waitress over and she informed us that the cab driver was actually waiting outside with the book and he’d take us back down the mountain when we were finished.

How fantastic is that?! I’ve left things in cabs before, mostly CD’s weirdly, but also the odd bag or article of clothing. Never have I seen any of them again. In England the cabby would note we’d left something, drop it off at the dispatch office when he got a moment and go on his merry way. Here not only had the cabbie done the detective work to call the restaurant we were eating in but he came to give us our book back and he stayed and waited for us to finish.
In fact we got a message halfway through dinner to say that he was going to go pick up someone else but afterwards he would come back and wait for us again.

This started a long trend of people in Kyushu being incredibly nice to us, and especially cab drivers. By far the most resonant memory I have of Kyushu is of acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that make me smile just to remember them.

Dinner done and cab taken we did what pretty much everyone does on an onsen holiday. We had another bath.

This time we bathed at Kitahama Termas Onsen. Situated next to the beach, this onsen was the swishiest and most professional of the onsen we used in Beppu. This was far more like what I was accustomed to. Polished floors, rental towels, several different features of bath and more were in evidence. Basically, imagine a big municipal swimming pool but where the end goal is bathing, not swimming. Although it did feel even more like a swimming pool in that the outside pool overlooking the beach was a mixed gender bath that required you to wear a swimming costume. With my trunks on and kids splashing about it felt much more like a warm swimming pool than an onsen. The inside was a proper bath, however, and after all that swimming and pruning up I needed another one. Plus there was a sauna and an ice cold bath and I love the mix of hot to cold, hot to cold one can achieve with that combination. It makes your skin feel all tingly and does wonders for blackheads.

Tired of onsen but having exhausted Beppu we did a little shopping, had dinner at a horrible diner (People may be friendlier in Beppu but the cooking is miles better in Kansai) and then, well, went to another onsen.

Our planned destination was Mugen-no-Sato; a collection of private rotemburo nestled deep within a forest and way up the mountain. The prospect of a small private bath we could share together seemed too good to pass up and Mugen-no-Sato was probably the place we were most looking forward to attending.

We had problems getting there right from the start. It was very difficult to figure out the bus timetable and we ended up riding a bus with the same number as the one we desired but which was actually run by an entirely separate company and which went nowhere near where we wished to go.

When we finally figured out which bus we needed it turned out that we had missed the last one of the night by about 15 minutes.

So of course we took a cab. But the cab driver seems worried. He thinks that Mugen-no-Sato might be closed down. This is the first we’ve heard of this and are quite distraught by the news. Seeing our faces he goes for a chat with his mate. Good news, apparently it isn’t closed down and he’ll take us there.

So begins a journey up a mountain, on winding roads, without a crash barrier, in utter pitch blackness! Seriously, no cats eyes or anything. The only light was from the headlights so we only saw curves in the road seconds before we had to turn.

I have something of a phobia of heights. Weirdly if it something safe like a rollercoaster or if I’m under my own power I’m fine. However cars on mountain roads absolutely terrify me. I don’t mind telling you that I was (metaphorically) wetting myself.

Eventually we pull into Mugen-no-Sato which is dark and barely lit. There is nobody around and the place is utterly silent but for the idling of the engine. The driver decides to have a look around. Now at this point fear has become mingled with paranoia. I don’t know where I am, I’m in the middle of nowhere, with a man I don’t know, in the dark and far from civilisation. Frankly anything could happen and I’m having quiet hysterics in some dark corner of my mind.

The driver comes back and lets us have the bad news. Mugen-no-Sato is closed for the O-bon festival (a festival of remembrance of the dead) and we’ve driven all this way for nothing.

Weirdly this seemed to upset the driver possibly more than it did us. He kept muttering in Japanese about how it was all such a shame, how we had travelled so far and even taken a cab to come here. He offered to take us to another onsen; one which he promised was the best in Beppu.

By this point Fran and I were just tired and having none of it. Neither of us had heard of his supposed “best” onsen so I think we figured it was some kind of scam he had going with the owner. Plus we had our hearts set on Mugen-no-Sato and didn’t want to pay to go to an onsen we weren’t keen on in the first place.

However he was really insistent. No, no, it’s the best onsen in Beppu. And it’s such a shame that you came all this way. Really I’ll take you there, for free.

Excuse me?

Was this a cab driver offering to take us somewhere…for free?

Indeed he was. He charged us to go to Mugen-no-Sato but took us to this other onsen for absolutely no charge whatsoever.

And do you know what? It was lovely. The onsen was also a series or privately rented baths. Admittedly they weren’t rotemburo but instead we rented a little thatched hut which had a bath inside sunk into the floor. It was lovely, really romantic, quaint and a lot of fun.

And that about wraps it up for Beppu. Tomorrow/ Whenever I post it, we begin a long bus journey to the famous and infamous Nagasaki.

Advertisements

Kyushu Day 1

Very late I know but I’m finally going to get around to talking about my summer vacation in Kyushu. When this is finished I aim to take you on a tour of Tokyo and then it should be more kit-kat reviews.

For those not in the know Japan is comprised of 4 main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku) as well as many smaller ones. Kyushu is the southernmost of the main islands.

Consequently it is the hottest and balmiest. Not the smartest of choices for a summer trip.

Oh and the island possesses several active volcanoes.

The whole trip was somewhat unplanned on the spur of the moment. Fran and I had planned to go to Aomori and Matsushima in the north of the country. However after a friend of ours visited for three weeks our finances were not looking particularly healthy. Consequently we couldn’t afford to fly up to Aomori and pay for the hotels there.

However we were so disappointed at not getting a holiday this summer that we decided to look at other options. Kyushu popped up and a little digging proved that 6 days in Kyushu in 3 different cities was cheaper than just 3 days in Aomori during the festival time we wanted to go see.

And so in less than three days we booked it, packed it and completed a Peter Kay gag.

The general randomness of the genesis of the holiday would permeate the whole vibe of the trip. Everywhere we went strange, odd and somewhat random events would happen to us. It was a very ramshackle vacation but a very fun one.

The first of the strange detours was taking the bus to the ferry port. A special shuttle bus had been laid on and Fran and I boarded quite happily and sat down. As did a few other couples.

Then an entire football team with multiple squads tried to get on. All told about 30 high school kids, all with massive bags of gear and their coach were trying to squeeze onto a tiny bus.

For the better part of twenty minutes kids piled onto the bus squeezing into every available inch of space but no matter how far they moved up there seemed to be no way they would all fit. Surely the coach could take the next bus with some of the kids right? Nope, he was determined to send the whole team at once.

Finally, miraculously the whole team managed to fit on, leaving little room for breathing or moving for the rest of us and we set off; passing many other bus stops with long lines of people with bags that looked excited and then subsequently more disappointed than a child whose just been informed its hamster had died as we zoomed past without stopping.

The ferry was a bargain. 8,800 Yen for an overnight trip from Kobe to Beppu in Kyushu. That 8,800 Yen bought you space in a room. The room was about sized for 20 people with a tatami mat floor and every person got a futon, a pillow and sheets. The journey was about 12 hours long arriving at about 7:30 in Beppu after a good nights sleep. I can think of no more agreeable way to travel. I’m sure if this was Britain then people would stay up all night being noisy or drunk and if this was another Asian nation that set up would be excuse to have everything you own stolen. However being Japan everyone was courteous, honest and reserved. There was even a little television on the wall displaying the weather.

What was the forecast?

Thunderstorms…for the whole week.

Arse.

Oh well.

Sadly the only thing the ferry lacked was anything entertaining in the slightest little bit so after a not amazing dinner and a best of 7 game of connect 4 (which Fran won) we went to bed.

Day 2, Beppu.

After awaking and refreshing the Ferry drew into the port and took the train onto Beppu.

Beppu is a smallish town at the base of the active volcano Aso. Tourism and bamboo are its main industries and what it mostly has going for it is lots of varied and very traditional onsen.

It is also the quirkiest place I have ever visited in Japan. Japan is usually considered to be weird and odd by outsiders but live here long enough and you start to take most of that in your stride. Crucially most places in Japan are not odd by Japanese standards, they are fairly homogenous. The Japanese don’t like quirky, they like conformity. Beppu though was quirky and very proud of it. The first inkling of this I got was the announcement the lady on the train made as we approached the station. Normally announcers mumble a place monotonally in the bored way you would if you had to say the same place names for hours everyday. Instead this woman pronounced it in a rising inflection like someone calling suh-wee to a pig. Bep-pooooooo Bep-poooooooo. Fran and I had to immediately pause in our conversation to check what we had heard.

The second wondrously quirky thing was our hotel which was a gleaming art deco and chrome monstrosity transported wholesale from the middle of the 50’s.

The third thing was probably this statue. I say probably because whilst it is definitely odd I don’t know if it is quirky of downright bizarre. It is, as the base of the statue says.

“The man called Shiny Uncle who loved Children.”

Another inscription describes how he pioneered tourism to Beppu from the main land.

Now clearly this guy is something of a local hero who probably cared deeply and genuinely about kids like a nice grandparent. However the statue makes him look like some kind of paedophile super-hero. The expression on his face is one of a cackling Mr Burns look-alike. The cape makes him look like some kind of mental case. The pose is borrowed from the child catcher from “chitty chitty bang bang” and there is a genuine child hanging from his cape. He properly looks like he is going to sweep down from the sky and kidnap children whilst cackling menacingly. It is the most horrifyingly unflattering portrait I have ever seen.

Stopping to drop our bags off Fran and I went off to take a trip.

TO HELL!

As I mentioned above Kyushu is full of active volcanoes and Beppu sits on the slope of one of them, Asoyama. Consequently Beppu is something of an onsen town with dozens of hot springs making use of the volcanic sulphur and natural hot springs.

However a few of these hot springs are far, far too hot for people to actually bathe in. Not to be outdone the enterprising people of Beppu have cobbled together a tourist attraction out of them, dubbing these hot onsen “hells” and tarting them up a bit with some statues and signs.

Most of them seemed unutterably naff. Particularly a pair that had small zoos which reportedly kept animals in very poor condition. A few were just pools of water with some statues by the side. However three of the hells were genuinely quite interesting.

Water spout hell has a geyser which erupts at regular intervals of about half an hour. A few pictures in Japanese explained how it works and Fran and I waited for about five minutes to watch it erupt and then go oooh and ah. It was bloody hot and very steamy and all this steam is used to grow a tropical garden. Fran and I had a quick wander round the garden and then fled the humidity by standing in the gift shop until the ac freeze dried the sweat to our bodies.

Monks hell is full of bubbling mud pools which apparently resemble the bald head of a monk. Although these were pretty cool to look at what most impressed me is how the sides of the pools had built up. Layers and layers of mud had formed little baths about three foot high filled with boiling and bubbling mud.

Finally blood pool hell is easily the most impressive out of the whole set. Iron in the mud at the bottom has mixed with the water to give it a bright red hue that looks like a lake of steaming boiling blood. Hell seems an apt description, although actually it was rather pleasant, if a bit hot, and had a lovely foot bath.

I even indulged myself in eating an egg….FROM HELL!!! I.e. boiled in the onsen water,

It tasted…of egg. And it didn’t half stink too.

Having visited hell we set about trying out Beppu’s other famous attraction, the sex museum.

My apologies guys but for obvious reasons there will be no pictures from the sex museum.

I have visited the sex museum in Amsterdam and my main memory of that was being overwhelmed to the point of desensitisation with cocks. From the first room right until the end the entire edifice seems all too obsessed with transforming any object you can imagine (hairbrush, jug, chair, vase, smoking pipe, etc) into some kind of phallus. This is at first shocking, then funny, then quite interesting and finally utterly boring. “Oh look,” one drearily moans “yet more cocks, this time arranged to form an entire chez lounge.”

Gratifyingly the sex museum in Beppu is much more balanced in terms of gender and gives equal opportunities to transform common household objects into phallic and yonic (which is apparently the female equivalent of phallic I was pleased to discover) sculptures. It’s also much smaller then the one in Amsterdam and so you’re still square in the funny stage of the experience by the time you leave. One particularly enlightening section devoted to the relative size of animal genitalia was particularly enlightening, although the sculpture of a Whale’s vagina will haunt my nightmares for many years to come I fear.

There were a few problems with it. Many of the exhibits were broken and in need of repair (that poor zebra) and of course in Japan it is illegal to show uncensored images of human genitalia which somewhat puts the kibosh on the whole museum really. They rather neatly got around this by displaying all their antique Japanese erotica in glass cases with a little frosted bit about 6” in front of the actual print. If you look at the print straight on it is censored however if you are not yet a complete and utter drooling buffoon you can take a step to the right and look at it completely unhindered from an angle.

Since we were now so hot and sweaty (from all the steam you perverts) Fran and I decided to try out the thing Beppu is really famous for; Onsen.

Beppu is one of the premier Onsen towns in Japan sporting some of the best and most unusual Onsen in the country, many of them completely free. Fran and I set off to Kannawa, just up the mountain to try some of them out.

Kannawa was a very cool place to have a wander around. It is a tiny little village and almost all the buildings have traditional thatched roves. Even better some of the old buildings were a kind of traditional bath salt farm. Basically a pipe is dug into the earth from which steam and sulphur can emerge. Above this is built a thatched roof that is set directly into the floor kind of like a wooden tent. Steam rises and floats out through the roof but the sulphur stays behind and settles on the floor. Eventually the local people scrape all the sulphur up and use it to make bath salts which they flog to tourists who wish to smell of eggs.

And in fact pretty much the entire town stinks, horribly, of eggs. The stench of sulphur is omnipresent and choking. As much as I enjoyed the scenery and just wandering around; it was almost impossible to stay that long because the smell was so awful.

So we quickly scuttled down the hill and made our way to a lonely planet approved “mud bath.”

Unlike the swish and organised onsen I’m use to in Kansai this was a decidedly home made and ramshackle affair. Much of the baths had a rough and ready quality to them as if they were made on the cheap a few weekends ago.

The onsen itself was split into four stages. First we had to shower and clean ourselves. Secondly we got into a lovely hot sulphur bath. This made us smell of eggs (why people would want this, I do not know) but was wonderfully relaxing on our tired limbs. Kyushu is very hilly and after trudging up and down a mountain all day a nice bath really does a world of good. Thirdly there was an indoor mud bath. The bath itself was mostly more sulphur water but with a layer of soft, silty mud at the bottom like some kind of velvet cushion. This was squelchy and felt awesome to run through your fingers but the bath was so poorly designed, and the mud so slippery that I kept sinking in.

Finally there is an outside mud bath which is mixed gender. There is a wall of towels in the middle protecting modesty but both boys and girls can come up to the wall to have a chat.

I say protecting modesty, protecting female modesty at least. There was no male modesty to protect. Women can enter the outside bath from their inside bath simply by rounding a corner. This means that as they approach the wall all the relevant bits are nicely underwater. In contrast the men have to stroll across the courtyard, in full view of the ladies, with tackle flopping around in the breeze.

Fran had gotten to the outside bath before me and was waiting at the towels for me to arrive. All the other women were sitting around the corner out of sight meaning Fran looked like some kind of massive pervert sitting and staring at all the naked boys as they emerged one by one. Not that she isn’t a massive pervert; but she doesn’t like to look like one in public.

And on that note I shall bid you sayonara. Next time we will explore Beppu further. If you like bamboo, you’ll love it.

Why you no post Adam Halls?

Long story, combination of golden week, my parent’s recent visit, my need to clean the house on a semi-regular basis, joining the gym and something to do with the letters w i i.

But post today guys regarding pretty much my only real adventure during Golden Week. A trip to a little out of the way village near Nara known as Kasagi.

I hadn’t intended to go to Kasagi that day, I had thought I was going to go to Nara for some kind of a scavengers hunt. Apparently I thought wrong.

The plan, as it was explained to me, was to go to Nara, meet up with some of my girlfriend’s friends and wander around the town solving riddles taking photos of things we thought were the answers to the riddles.

This was wrong in pretty much every respect.

For starters, before my girlfriend and I had even reached Nara we discovered that we weren’t in fact going to Nara but instead going to a town just beyond Nara, and slightly beyond the best named town in the whole of Hyogo prefecture. Kamo, or duck.

This was fine with me albeit a little surprising. I quite like the small towns in the area just beyond Nara and Kyoto. They are full of cool surprises such as the Ninja Museum.

In fact this scavenger hunt was going to be ninja themed slightly. I had no idea in what way it would be ninja themed but I brought my ninja mask and my kunai in preparation for the possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man with my half remembered tae-kwon-do and rubber knife.

It seems that Kasagi is actually quite close to the ninja museum and the area was previously a ninja village, however it hasn’t turned this into a tourist industry like nearby Iga Ueno.

Fran and I arrived by cab having already taken three trains to get there and met up with Charlie and Sarah, the two people organising the event. They hooked us up with two free maps (neither of which had any scale and had the landmarks only in a rudimentary positional relationship to each other), a free cup of coffee and our final team member in the form of Sarah’s visiting brother, a freelance web page designer.

They also explained that the actual aim of the hunt wasn’t so much to find everything on the clue sheet as to go to all the areas on the clue sheet and take a ninja pose there. Fair enough, but apparently we weren’t just looking for places in Kasagi but in a neighbouring village that we needed to cross a mountain to get to.

Hang on a moment. Climbing a mountain? Nobody mentioned that before and neither me nor Fran were in particularly good shoes for such an endeavour.

However as we set off to go collect our photos thoughts of difficult mountain climbs were far from our minds.

They’d return.

Things started out really cool. Kasagi, like many small Japanese towns, has lots of small scale attractions. The kind of curios that it wouldn’t be worth the effort for a tourist to seek out but that are nonetheless cool little treats for we long term residents. Take for example this diorama of samurai in combat with some kind of super human rock throwing man.

Also note how the stealthy ninja dispatches the arrogant samurai. Foolish samurai!

I should probably explain why on earth Fran is posing the way she is. Well everybody had to come up with a name for their ninja team. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles having already been taken we opted for Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and Fran took it upon herself to pose like a hamster in every photo.

Hence photos such as this.

We were also commanded to do a “Ninja Disco Dance of Death.”

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY MOVES!

At one of the targets, a local onsen, we met up with one of the competing teams…

… and mercilessly slaughtered them.

There are ninja hiding here, can you spot them?

Having found all the spots in Kasagi, at about 11:30 in the morning, we set off up the mountain to get the spots on top of the mountain and head over to the next town.

This is where it all started to go wrong.

After about 40 minutes of waling we had no idea where we were and we were seriously scared that we had wandered onto the wrong mountain or done worse. The maps we had didn’t detail most of the roads we had passed and there was no sight of the peak, the turning to the next town or anybody else on the mountain.

To make matters worse it started to rain, I lost my kunai and Fran began to get serious pains in her foot. Fran had come directly from Tokyo the day before without getting any proper sleep in between and a mountain hike did not seem like the smartest plan in the world.

We gave serious consideration to retracing our steps and calling off the whole thing but at last we were emboldened by meeting up with another team on the same road. This meant we hadn’t been mistaken or lost just underestimating quite how high the climb was.

With courage restored we pressed on and finally reached the sight we had come to see, an 80 foot Buddha carved into the side of a rock.

I love Japan. I love that interesting sights like this are so common that they are hardly ever mentioned. I love turning mountain bends and been confronted by something completely unexpected and perfectly Japanese. I love that art and aesthetics find their way into seemingly everything. It’s a great country.

There was an even more interesting carving of a Buddha that had seemingly faded away over the years. Seen here with a ninja “scaling” it. It was certainly less well done than the other Buddha but I consider it more interesting because it prompts so many questions. How old is it? What did it used to look like? Why was it allowed to wear away? Just what purpose did it serve?

Having done our best ninja poses at these two spots we set off down the mountain again to get to the next town and complete all the spots there.

We would never make it.

Oh we made it to the town but the combination of heavy rain, terrible maps and a member of our combined team that was unfortunately wearing heels meant that the travelling was painfully slow going.

It was a lovely walk though. The views from the mountain top were typically grand but furthermore this may be the greenest place in the whole of Japan. It almost reminds me of dear sweet England, except for all the mountains.

It was completely deserted too. No tourists, hardly any buildings and maybe 2 or 3 cars. It is staggeringly rare in Japan to get that level of privacy and I cherished the absence of people. Particularly once we descended the mountain and the valley opened up into these really wide rice fields. It was so..spacious. Not usually an adjective one associates with Japan.

Mostly what impacted on me was the noise. In the absence of human sounds the noises of nature were noticeably louder. There were frogs EVERYWHERE. We never once saw one but the sound of their croaking was omnipresent. The rain too was thundering down and the noises it made as it rushed over roads, gurgled down drains and splashed against rivers made a kind of natural trance. For a long time we just walked and listened as nature filled all that human need for noise for us.

By the time we finally got to the other town (which is so small it isn’t listed on wikipedia and I cannot remember the name sadly) it was nearly 3 o’clock. What was supposed to be an easy hike had taken us nearly 4 hours, and worse we were supposed to survey the town and somehow make it back to Kasagi for 5 o’clock.

Simply not happening.

Instead we sussed out a bus heading back to Nara and all poured into the only restaurant in the entire town that was open. I had curry udon, a dish that consisted literally of udon noodles in curry sauce and as such not something I recommend to anyone. It wasn’t bad as such but it was deeply unsatisfying in comparison to ordinary udon or ordinary curry.

So that was Kasagi. A bit of an adventure but ultimately a frustrating one. Whilst there are many parts of it I enjoyed I can’t help but regret that we didn’t get the chance to explore further.

As for the scavenger hunt? Well we never really got to hand in our photos did we. For all I know Charlie is still waiting for us to show up.

I’m back. 

Did you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year period or I suppose I should say “Holiday Season” for our American readers (all two of them)? I certainly did. My Christmas time activities are a private affair, largely because it would just consist of a list of the various ways I gorged myself like a pig, however I will be posting something about my New Year festivities shortly. 

My resolutions this year by the way are: 

1.    Study for the official Japanese Language Qualification level 4 or 3. I haven’t decided if I stand a shot at 3 yet but 4 is practically worthless.

2.    Join the gym (yes, pretty obvious).

3.    Consistently get at least two blog posts on the site a week and attempt to get more. 

Before I talk about the New Year first I want to talk about the very last thing of interest I did last year. A trip to the onsen town of Kinosaki

Kinosaki is a very small town roughly North of Kobe on the opposite coast of Japan. It is famous for two things, Onsen and crab. Both were in enormous abundance when Fran and I visited last year. 

The start of our trip was a very long train ride. It is quite easy to get spoilt by the trains in Japan which are both fast, comfortable and amazingly frequent. When the Shinkansen turns a journey that spans the entire length of the country into something that can be done in half a day it is a little easy to lose all sense of perspective when it comes to rail travel. Alas, Kinosaki is such a small and out of the way spot that there is no shinkansen access to it. This leaves the traveler with two options for getting there. Take the regular JR at regular JR prices but change trains frequently and spend about five hours on them or reserve a seat on a special train that will cost as much as the shinkansen and go direct but only move at regular JR speed taking about two hours to get there. Being the laziest traveler in the world I opted for the latter. 

And I must say the scenery was spectacular. Japan is all about its coastline, everyone lives here and it’s just one big continuous urban sprawl along the southern coast. On my rare trips into the inside of the country I am always taken aback by how much space there is and how much untamed raw nature is left in this country. Japan really is a land of dichotomies. It doesn’t have proper suburbs it just moves from city to dotted villages in the blink of an eye. 

The scenery itself was wonderful. Great grey mountains, fierce looking forests and rice fields up to the horizon. However, it was a touch monotonous in its wonder being all of the same character for the entire journey. We did get very excited when we spotted snow on the mountaintops and the roofs of people’s houses but sadly as we came back down from the mountains any sight of snow began to vanish and Kinosaki itself was woefully un-Christmassy. 

That said the town was absolutely delightful. It was pretty small and focused on two main roads. One running away from the station and one crossing this road that consisted of two pavements each opposite a river. The river street in particular was really lovely, a page straight from a Japanese history book. Lined with willows and lit by lanterns at night with wild herons living in it. It was simply too perfectly quaint. 

As I said Kinosaki is famous for its onsen and its crabs and the assault of crab imagery begins as soon as you get there. Visitors to the town start their trip by being assaulted by a giant crab monster.

And the main street is lined with market stalls and vendors with boxes of live snow crabs wriggling out in the open waiting to be bought. 

We wandered down the street taking in the absolutely gorgeous architecture. Everything is done to a very traditional Japanese style and the streets feel positively ancient, even though they’re not. 

Eventually we got to our ryokan, a kind of traditional Japanese Inn. 

To anyone considering a trip to Japan or currently living here I cannot recommend ryokan enough. The standard practice for a ryokan is to stay in a Japanese style room with tatami mats on the floor, all the chairs and tables at floor level, a sacred alcove with a scroll and plant in it, and the futon beds packed away. Each night a maid will come into your room at an arranged time and unpack and lay the futon. Meals are eaten in the room and again are brought to you at an arranged time by a maid. The level of service is incredible. Quick, efficient but also really friendly. We had a nice chat with our maid about football as he got our beds ready. 

And as for the meals, wow. I can honestly say without hyperbole that our meal the first night in the Ryokan is the best meal I have ever eaten in Japan. True to the theme of the town dinner consisted mainly of many variations on snow crab. So we ate: 

Snow crab sashimi (i.e. raw snow crab)

Grilled snow crab

Snow crab nabe (snow crab in a hotpot stew)

Tsukemono (Japanese pickles)

Kaiseki (various arranged small side dishes such as a small piece of tofu with a sauce on it, a prawn, etc)

 And to top it off just a whole crab there to be used as we saw fit.

This in addition to the usual extras like rice and miso and dessert. 

The Ryokan claims that the menu offers 2 and a half crabs per person but it feels more like 20. It takes an incredibly long time to eat and by the end of it you are fed up of crab but my god is it good. Really, mouthwateringly taste bud glorifying, kiss the chef good.

 

The next night we opted for the not quite so impressive but still pretty amazing Beef menu. This consisted of more sashimi and kaiseki, a kind of savory custard with food in it called … a bowl of cold soba noodles with dipping sauce, an absolutely wonderfully done tempura set and finally sukiyaki with tajima beef. 

Tajima beef is one of the many variants of Hyogo beef (which is what Kobe beef is generally known as.) Like all the Hyogo beef family Tajima beef is incredibly soft and tender and beautifully marbled. Japanese beef is not usually used to make steaks but rather it is served in thin slices and eaten in a traditional Japanese stew such as nabe or sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is a kind of do it yourself hotpot, similar to fondue. Everyone sits around a bowl with some stock bubbling in it and takes it in turns to drop vegetables, tofu, fu, meat and other things in it. Watch it cook for a few seconds, dip it in raw egg and then eat it. Rare tajima beef cooked in such a fashion is a rare treat that hits every taste in your mouth at once. Mine is watering just remembering it.

Breakfast was not served in our rooms but rather in a shared banquet hall. It was nowhere near as amazing as dinner but it was still impressive and very, very Japanese. Fish, rice, miso, pickles, tofu and the odd bit of veg. Lovely.

The other major difference between a Ryokan and a hotel is that the baths/showers are shared. Now, before visions of school showers or camping pop into your head I should probably say that the baths are shared but private. The Ryokan has 3 and each one consists of a really very hot mineral bath, an area to clean yourself and a vanity mirror. In Japan the tradition is to clean yourself thoroughly and then get into the bath which is purely for relaxing purposes. And very relaxing it was too. There is nothing that soothes a long train journey and a heavy dinner than a nice hot bath. Particularly one that stays hot and is run by someone else for you. 

But who needed hotel baths when we were in an onsen town! Well we avoided the onsen experience on our first night but the next day we got up bright and early, ate breakfast in the ryokan, had a bath and then got dressed to go out and, what else, have another bath. 

I must say it’s a holiday idea I could get used to. Get up, eat have a bath, get dressed, go for a wander, have another bath, eat a delicious crab sandwich, have yet another bath, wander back to the ryokan to play some board games and eat a fantastic meal then get dressed up to hit the town and have…yet another bath. 

To some people that may sound like the most boring itinerary on earth but it is incredibly relaxing. Rather than a hectic sightseeing holiday it is a properly relaxing break from work. I cannot recommend it enough. Even then some of you are thinking “a bath may be all well and good but four in one day?” Surely that’s boring. Well it might be but the trick is that in onsen you take sort but frequent baths in different places. Onsen are hot, really, very hot. Much hotter than you’re thinking I assure you. Being in them is a wonderful experience but after a short while it becomes too much to bear. So you get out, cool down and dry off. And then have a short walk to a different bath which offers a different view. The short but frequent baths all add up throughout the day until by the evening your limbs feel like spaghetti wobbling in the breeze. 

Fran and I hit four different baths out of the seven that Kinosaki has to offer.

Ichi-no-yu
This was a “cave bath”. Basically a rotemburo (or outdoor bath) set into some rock so that it has a roof. It was lovely, not too hot and very atmospheric.

Kou-no-yu
Set quite far away from the others up the mountain somewhat but closer to the natural hot springs. A lovely rotemburo in a relaxing setting with birdsong and other natural features to help relax you.

Gosho-no-yu
Fran and mine’s favourite. Decorated to look like the imperial palace in Kyoto this has a two story rotemburo that is excellent. A perfect temperature and a wonderful setting. It also has a steam room and a kind of stone chair heated by hot water to help vary the experience a bit.

Sato-no-yu
The fanciest and most impressive of all the baths. The onsen is split into two sides, one of which is themed after a Turkish bath and the other which is traditionally Japanese. Which gender can use which bath switches daily. I had the Mediterranean and Fran the Japanese. With the exception of a massaging shower in the Turkish bath (which was lovely) and a penguin sauna in the Japanese one (a kind of walk in freezer which was mostly just cold and not very pleasant in Fran’s opinion) the features are the same on both sides. An indoor bath, a jacuzzi, a bath with powerful massaging jets, a rotemburo, a sauna, two steam rooms and a few showers. We stayed in this bath longer than any other moving hot to cold, hot to cold, steam to shower to bath. It was really invigorating and the best of the lot. The only points off are for the slightly cheesy theme.

Finally the major appeal of the town was experiencing something so very Japanese. The town was not brimming with people but it had a decent crowd there. In fact it had just enough people, not so many that it felt crowded and people got in your way but not so few that it felt quiet and desolate. Instead there was a constant feeling of lots of couples doing exactly as you were. Eating when you were, bathing when you were (but at enough different baths that they never felt full) and finally getting togged up in the evening in Yukata and Geta and hitting the town. 

Yes, here I am. 

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Kinosaki at night (beyond take another bath) but one thing it does offer is really ancient arcades full of pachinko machines that appear to pre-date world war two. 

Pachinko, for those not in the know, is a kind of Japanese fruit machine/pinball hybrid. You buy a set of balls and feed them into a machine. The balls fall down the machine and into slots. Depending on the value of the slots you get more balls back. The idea is to get more balls than you started with. You then exchange these balls for a “prize” and then immediately exchange the prize for cash (a way to get around Japan’s ban on gambling). Theoretically there is some kind of skill element but Fran and I had no idea how that was meant to work. It all looked like a load of balls to us. 

Disenchanted by Pachinko we had a go at a popgun game which was ludicrously easy. The idea is to use a cork firing gun to knock over some statues. However despite looking like a rifle you hold it in one hand and can lean as close to the statues as you like. Being a mutant gaijin I used my gibbon like arms to reach over about 6 inches from each of the statues. I thus got a perfect 10 out of 10. I figured this was just pathetically easy but I felt significantly happier when I noticed the small crowd of onlookers who were amazed by my accuracy and when Fran missed three times. We won a flute by the way, which Fran won’t let me play. 

More than the games though simply the atmosphere of being there, at night, by a river lined with willows and lit by lanterns dressed in Yukata and surrounded by other people all dressed the same. Hearing the clip clop of geta on the road and the laughs of young couples. It was like being transported to another world entirely, of traveling back in time. And nothing intruded to spoil the moment, no cars or bars or other noisy reminders of the modern world. 

There was only one downside to the experience and that was cost. Our Ryokan set us back a cool 90,000Yen. About 450 pounds each for our two night stay. However this did include entrance to all the baths, our food, towels, our Yukata, etc, etc so basically this price accounted for the entire vacation. And anyone I only mention this for the sake of being complete as I am of the opinion that it represents good value for money. It was pure bliss and it stands out as one of the best experiences I have had in Japan

%d bloggers like this: