Numata, Japan. planetross certainly knows how to show a girl a good time… One morning, he put me in the van and announced we would go bathe at a very special outdoor hot springs: Takaragawa. Public bathing in Japan appears almost like a lifestyle and a great social equalizer. The anonymity of nudity allows the street sweeper to rub elbows with the business big wig. Ross, I think, is addicted.
Most of the Japanese Onsens (hot springs) are gender segregated but this particular one is co-ed. The rotunburo (outdoor onsen) has four different basins located on each side of the river. The basin’s size is expressed in number of tatami mats; the Kodakara-no-yu is the largest outdoor bathing area and measures 200 mats (I even think it is in the Guinness Book of Records.) Japanese translations never fail to crack me up and the English version of the Onsen brochure describes the Kodakara in the following suspicious manner: “It is possible to take a bath at ease even in the female because it is wide.” Ross did not attempt to do so. In retrospect, I feel slightly slighted.
The facility, tucked away in the mountain, was breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately, on the path to the ticket counter, a few small cages with miserable looking bears. I averted my gaze. The adjacent hotel advertises Bear Soup. Sometimes, it’s better not to ask questions.
In a typical onsen, you disrobe, go sit on a little stool, and thoroughly wash yourself before entering the basin, but at Takaragawa, they apparently trust that you’ve showered before leaving home. Men and woman have separate changing rooms. Guys receive a modesty towel which is actually a very modest towel and is supposed to hide their bits and pieces as they move around between basins. Woman, on the other hand, are supposed to wrap themselves in a much much bigger towel and keep it on at all times. Towels are generally frowned upon in the water but apparently the rule at Takaragawa is for the women to stay modest (unless they bathe in the special ladies area).
I emerged from the changing room and spotted Ross (modesty towel over his head as is the usage) in the water already in great conversation with another gaijin (foreigner.) I put a foot in the water and gasped at how incredibly hot the water was (the brochure states between 109 and 158 degrees!) While feeling on the verge of being poached, I practiced a nonchalant look as I made my way towards Ross. Death before ridicule, that’s my motto! His buddy gaijin, an American professor, had the slanted eyes of people that have resided in Japan for a long time and he was CREEPY. I was glad when Ross suggested we tried another basin on two levels: one, I wanted to get away from the professor, and two, I was about to faint.
We moved to another bath area, and ten minutes later, the creepy professor followed us, and entered the basin with a slip and an unfortunate head dive. A stunning faux-pas although I’m quite sure he did not mean it considering the way he was choking and spitting water. We moved to the basin across the river. Soaking in the slightly sulfurous hot water, perching yourself on a stone before passing out, the sound of the river in the background, most men walking around all naked, all of these factors contributed to make the experience unique and almost surreal. The best part though is the aftermath: the complete relaxation that ensues. Wow!
On the way back, I made Ross stop every five minutes to take in the scenery.
Tombs in Japan do not always belong to cemeteries. You’ll find them on the side of the road, in the middle of a rice field…
Ross does NOT like monkeys.
Japanese people play Pachinko in parlors. While the game is not considered gambling for historical reasons, the parlor employees are forbidden from telling players where they can exchange their prizes for cash. They’ll have to figure out this one on their own.
The devices used to purely mechanical (like the one featured above), but most machines are now digital. The odds of winning on each individual machines are decided by parlor employees and can be changed. These manipulations are tolerated by local police as long as done outside of business hours. As far as Pachinko etiquette, you should do okay as long as you don’t touch someone else’s balls and do not grab a machine where a player has left a pack of cigarette or other personal possession (sign they are holding the machine.)
And so we headed back to town, all sulfury smelling, water wrinkled like Sharpeis, and very very mellow. We had a photographic appointment with Kelly Pettit and his family. I’m sold to Onsens. The outside ones anyway. I don’t think I’d like the Sentos (inside public baths) quite as well.
If I may add, not to be difficult, but I’d rather soak with a towel over my head too.