There is something in the water! Japan is dotted with volcanos and thus active thermal activities. Taking hot spring or “onsen” bath is an age old Japanese tradition which has now become almost religious. Onsen are spread out throughout Japan but some are valued highly for its water quality and ambiance. The old ones usually do. There are several ‘types’ – indoor and “rotenburo”, outdoor (open air); gender separated and mixed; simple and intricate; family and communal; public,”Sentō” and private (as part of a ryokan). Indoor pools can be tiled or wooden – cypress, oak, cedar. I was looking forward to indulge in this tradition. Navindd and Lee Cheng were apprehensive, nakedness is involved!
My first was at Kawaguchiko. After the long accent and decent on Fujisan, it was only appropriate that I soak this battered old body in a nice hot spring. Near to our hostel is a five star ryokan, Fuji Onsenji Yumedono, which offered its “onsen” facilities at ¥900 (discounted rate). The entrance is landscaped with dense vegetation and wooden buildings. The narrow walkway with lanterns led to a reception hall. First, remove the shoes/slippers and slip on an indoor footwear which were all neatly arranged facing inwards. Here the “onsen” is gender separated with large red (women, “Onnayu”) and blue (men, ” Otokoyu”) “noren” , curtains with a ‘yu’ symbol. Then, to the changing room, “Datsuijo”. There are strict etiquettes’ to follow in an “onsen” experience. Removed all my clothing and left them in a tray. Entered the hot pool (this was an indoor pool). It was steamy with a few people around. There are a few taps with basins and stools along a wall. Here, it is required that one takes a bath, completely scrubbed with soap and washed down (seated, I might add). Now, I entered the hot pool. It was certain HOT! The hot shower did help to acclimatise to the hot spring water. Clothing’s, including towels are not allowed to touch the pool water. Gradually, my whole body was immersed in the mineral water. My body relaxed and sensual appeal of a hot bath set in. I noticed that the men around me had a small towel, “tenugui”, either on their heads or on the side. Basically, it is used to cover the genitals when out of the water. I had none.
The essence of being naked is that all are equal, no boundaries – no differences in status, profession, wealth, etc. I like this ideology. Sweat poured out. I needed another shower. Then, back into the soothing pool again. Just outside the bath rooms, is a large raised wooden platform. Time for pause, sip some tea and to reminisce on my first Japanese “onsen” experience. It was comforting, calming and sedative. I returned the following day for another session. Hakone is a popular “onsen” region with numerous resorts and traditional ryokans. The initial euphoric feeling remained with each experience as we travelled. Immersing oneself in this Japanese tradition is essential and definitely rewarding. Next time, an outdoor or even, perhaps a mixed “onsen”?
“The “onsen” experience is not just entering a hot bath but is much more although subtle – it is the cleansing of the body and mind; a healing place; take time to slow down in a rushed world; recharged as fatigue dissipates; perhaps, in such a place – a zen enlightenment may occur?”
Our last stop was the Music Box Forest – a small musical theme park not quite Japanese. An array of musical instruments from the past, imported from around the world, was on display and in fantastic working order. It was quite amazing – organs, violins, jukeboxes, chimes and even a hand-driven music box. The exterior is decorated with manicured gardens, canals and a spectacular musical water fountain. There is also the essential gift shop. The views of the lake, with obscured Fuji, are quite remarkable from here especially during cherry blossom as these trees occupy the waterline. After a six hour ride, we headed back to our hostel, wet and a little bit cold. Nevertheless, it was a great outing indeed. We were later informed that a passing typhoon some distant away was the cause for this gloomy and rainy weather.
“You would have thought this place was in France if you didn’t know where you were!” – Navindd
“……we cycled on through light drizzle, wind in our faces and our bodies warm from the movement. We cycled through flower farms, forests, tunnels and alongside the lake the entire time” – Navindd
The Japanese couple we met at lunch suggested that we have dinner at an authentic local restaurant. Armed with a map, we made our way to an unfamiliar part of town. It was a long walk but managed to locate this place. It was small and with some broken Japanese and usage of the menu, we managed to order some meals. As usual, it was quite good and we were the last patrons for the evening. Fulfilled, we walked back slowly to our hostel. This was our last day in Kawaguchiko.
“The entrance, decorated with ‘noren’, Japanese sheets of decorated cloth on doorways…..” – Navindd
Next morning, I looked out of my room window. It was bright. My excitement grew as I wondered if Mt Fuji would emerge from the clouds. I walked towards the main road. There it was, still hidden in a shroud of thick clouds, the summit was clear. Just the mere sight had raised my spirits. I could imagine how it would have touched – all the poets, sages, scholars and ordinary men and women. The thought that we had climbed it came as a relief as well as respectful and humbling. Within moments, Fujisan vanished.
At the entrance past a huge clock, magnificent coloured images of Fujisan in varying light conditions and seasons were displayed. I looked out across the lake and could only see Fuji’s base barely visible in black and white. This is also a major stop for tour buses. Jars of blueberry jam and more were displayed on the shelves. We relaxed with a nice light meal near a pergola. We continued cycling close to the water’s edge and passed small patches of wild flowers and rice fields. Straws of rice hung upside down on wooden poles to dry. At one stage, the pathway was completely covered with undergrowth and sedge grasses. With a little effort, we continued along this shoreline. Where there were no paths, we detoured towards the main roads. We cycled past several capes and bays along the shore. Picturesque settlements dotted the shoreline. Once we had passed the Koyo Tunnel, the stretch of road was covered with evergreen trees on either side and was pleasant to ride. The damp weather continued and the skies stubbornly grey.
Along the main road, opposite a shrine, was a delightful eatery. It was small but had fabulous views of the lake and the rocky outcrops floating on the water. With our shoes damp and clothing wrapped under the rain coats, we decided to stop for lunch. The hostess could not speak any English. However, a congenial couple next to us acted as interpreters. There was only one fixed lunch menu – pork belly. I requested for a vegetarian option. The hostess obliged.
“…..had only two dishes on the menu – lunch and desert……the food looked amazing. On my plate was the most delicious smelling pork belly, soup, eggs and potato salad – a scrumptious combination” – Navindd
We had one of the best meals served by a hospitable hostess. The atmosphere was great –homely. It is these small eateries that are a delight when travelling around in Japan, both in cities and rural areas. As usual language barriers bring about special rapport. These are the memories that last a long time about these places. Later we tucked into some lovely sweet local deserts. We continued cycling as the day headed towards dusk. The gloomy weather continued but was pleasant to cycle.
Next morning, I looked out of my room window across the lovely “onsen” I had visited yesterday. The sky was grey and drizzled intermittently. Kawaguchiko is an excellent place to view Mt Fuji but not today. I wandered off to the lake’s edge. A couple of fisherman had cast their line and waited patiently. Fine early morning mist descended onto the lush green mountains and the Kachi-Kachi – Yama Ropeway was barely visible. I walked across the Kawaguchiko Ohashi Bridge over a misty lake. A few fishermen on tiny boats headed towards their favourite spots. There was hardly any road traffic this morning. Only the sounds of bird calls and the hum of the motorised fishing boats broke the silence. I felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle and neon lights of Tokyo. However, it is only a two hour train journey to get here. This place exudes tranquillity and is reminiscent of a lake resort.
We hired some bicycles at the hostel to explore the lake’s surroundings. Lake Kawaguchiko lies within the Fuji Five Lake, “Fujigoko” region. The other lakes are Saiko, Shojiko, Motosuko and Yamanakako. One common feature of all these lakes is it offers best viewing opportunities of Mt Fuji and its reflection on the lakes. There were few vehicles on the road this morning.
We crossed the bridge which I had visited earlier this morning, and just followed the road left onto the northern shores. Where possible, we stayed close to the shore. We cycled along a narrow paved pathway under drooping willows and maple trees. This narrow lane is a favourite during the cherry blossom and autumn leaves colour when in season. We were excited to see just a tiny bit of autumn leaves colour. This site is one of the many views of Fuji- san reflected on the water.
Today, only the wide base of Fuji was visible. It started to drizzle yet again. We rode in the rain. Unfortunately, Lee Cheng fell off the bike near a hotel. Fortunately she recovered with a slight bruise. Along the pathway, there are a few small parks to rest and wander around. We passed rows of neatly manicured lavender bushes. Blueberry is also popular here. We had arrived at the Oishi Natural Living Center.
“….on a clear day you could see Mt Fuji. Sadly, when we arrived, the weather was not on our side as all we could see were angry black clouds” – Navindd
From Kawaguchiko Train Station, we were picked up by our hostel’s staff, Masuo. There were no views of Fuji here. Tired but elated to have completed our trek to Fujisan’s summit lingered in our minds. But I was glad it is over. Our room is a typical Japanese setting – “tatami” floor with “futon” beds. Our immediate task was to dry out all our wet clothing from the hailstorm on the summit. The sun shined brightly. The atmosphere at the hostel, located near Kawaguchiko Lake, was relaxed with plenty of spaces to unwind. It was clean, neat and tidy with kitchen and washing facilities.
To unwind, I headed to a nearby “onsen”, my first traditional hot bath. This place is an upmarket “Ryokan”. There are strict etiquettes to follow – one being naked in the bath. I was very comfortable. It was soothing to relax the tired limbs and muscles in the hot mineral bath. Navindd and Lee Cheng opted to have a nap. In the evening, we tasted a local delicacy – “Hoto”, a noodle dish in a very popular eatery. We topped it up with seafood “tempura” and pickled vegetables. Fortunately we did not have to sit cross legged. Conveniently, under the table is a dugout where the legs can dangle. The meals were wonderful with an ambient setting. It was a nice way to end a tough but memorable and epic day. Back at the hostel we made our beds. Sleep came easily.