Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Onsen

In literature, bathing can often be a metaphor for returning to the womb.
Perhaps, this is why the onsen seems to be one of the most pure places to be.

This past weekend the destination was the city of Beppu. Beppu is on the island of Kyushu. The city lays within volcanic rock and is full of geothermal hot spots which have been turned into natural onsens.

I would consider myself to be an onsen frequenter. I am comfortable with onsen etiquette and I seem to have an awareness as to what makes the onsen a place of simple pleasure. I believe Christine feels the same way. We spent a couple weeks discussing this trip to Beppu or our sort of holy land.

Christine's Japanese skills are impressive, so she took the initiative to research the area and created a wonderful long weekend.

We stayed in a capsule hotel in Matsuyama. The concept of a capsule hotel is something that would have been classified as futuristic in the eighties.
Our capsules were close to the lobby and people were smoking in the lobby. I slept in the bottom capsule and it sort of felt like I was sleeping on the floor of a bar.
The following morning we jumped on the train without a moment to spare to then catch a ferry.

We arrived in the city in the early afternoon. Beppu encompasses Japan into one small space with onsens, karaoke, and snack bars everywhere. And continuing with the capsule hotel theme, the city was very retro.
Christine created a few simple goals for our time in Beppu. One of them being the sand baths. We put on yukattas at the Sunau sand bath and were then buried in hot sand. The sand bath was outside and overlooked the sea.
We decided it felt biblical to lay underneath the volcanic sand. The sand was heavy so laying perfectly still was the only choice.
We visited a city run onsen later that evening in attempts to feel cleansed. Takegawara Onsen was built in 1879 and was named for the blue bamboo on the roof.
The onsen was cheap and we wondered if the walls had ever been cleaned. It was community run and being that Christine and I share an understanding for the importance of community, it was a positive thing.

And since we were the last people to leave I took the opportunity to take a rare picture of the insides of an onsen.
The following morning I woke to find Christine reviewing her precious map.
The goal for Saturday was to find the secret onsen in the woods. Being that this bath is on a map it is not the best kept secret, though still a challenge to actually get to.
We began with a bus ride and finally figured out where to get off.
The directions to follow from there were walking directions. We found the cemetery, where steam naturally poured out of the earth's surface.
We got to the part of the directions that instructed us to "jump into bushes." Things began to grow confusing at this point so we gave in and asked directions from the old man who had already offered some assistance. He explained that the onsen we were looking for was dried up, but we could go to the one further up the mountain. He told us it was too far to walk and we would have to hitchhike. When we did not see this as a problem he told us we were in luck because he was about to go there himself, so he could take us.
The three of us got in his car so we could all take a bath together. And in all honesty this was not at all weird.
We got a view of the out of service onsen. And headed to Hebinyu Onsen.
And Kyushu seems to have a bigger sky than Shikoku.
Getting to the secret onsen was like completing a mission I never thought I would actually complete. There were a couple of baths of naturally varying temperatures. One woman was there which served as a relief. All the old men bathing were polite and pointed out the small hut where we could change. We used our small towels to persevere our modesty while we shared these natural outdoor baths.
Our old man guide friend told us he comes to this bath about every other day. I am convinced that he does not have a bathtub in his home and this onsen serves that purpose. At least, that is what I hope to be true.
I feel like I have now reached the Mecca of onsens. I can talk about the onsen with a true understanding and appreciation. I have seen this bath and those who bath in it in the rawest form.
Our new friend gave us canned coffee and dropped us off in town. Christine and I then dinned on our favorite food, french fries; and I realized it was Valentines Day. No Valentines Day meal has ever or will ever be able to compete with those fries eaten on a bench.

We then walked to the fancy onsen, Hyotan where we finally felt clean.
I breathed in the special air.
Drank the special water.
And Christine and I discussed our future; when we will meet at a library science conference with mature men at our sides who pine away for us and who listen to and remember every word we tell them.

The following morning we took an express train to the city of Usuki to see some ancient stone Buddhas.
The bus from the station to the Buddhas runs infrequently, but this turned out to be a blessing as there were free bikes at the station and the 6km ride was easy and the weather was perfect.
There was a fire in the distance and these massive Buddhas carved out of stone made me wish I had learned more in geology class.
As we rode back to the station I decided it was unnatural to be 25 years old and not live in a place where I can simply take bike rides around my neighborhood with a friend on a nice day. This relieved my anxieties about returning to the States, momentarily.

We caught the ferry back and cringed as Shikoku and Monday came into the landscape.


rose leda ehler said...

I just love the way you write . . . and don't forget . . . you'll always be able to rollerblade down Inglewood!

Jane said...

can we go to an onsen when we come to visit? Mom

Caitlin said...

Rose, I know I will always be able to rollerblade down Inglewood, but the question is, will I be able to rollerblade UP it.

Mom, of course we can go to onsens. I think you might like onsens more than I.

Christine said...

Best Valentine's Day ever!