unallersimple: (onsen)
I visited the city of Matsuyama on Shikoku island in Spring 2009. It's about six and a half hours by train, with one change in Okayama. One of the sights I saw there was Dōgo Onsen, a famous hot spring & home to a public bath house that the bath house in Spirited Away is said to have been based on. (Different websites claim different places.)


It's a beautiful, traditional, wooden building that dates back to 1894, making it one of the oldest bath houses in Japan.



What's nice about Dōgo Onsen is that depending on how much you want to spend you can opt for the basic bath or something a little more luxurious. For a few hundred yen more you can rent a yukata, get some green tea to drink in a relaxation room and access a less crowded bath.

Having had enough green tea to last a life time I opted for the cheapest option and was happy to use my own soap and towel. Unfortunately I forgot that the busiest time is around 4-7pm as everyone wants a pre-evening meal soak. It wasn't the end of the world, but it meant doing that awkward naked shuffling around other people in the locker room and sitting with a lot of other people in the water.

Unlike most of Japan, this is a site that gets so many foreigners the staff speak perfect English before you even open your mouth and the signs come in four different languages. After a long time in Shimane I was shocked to see so many white people and hear so much French and German eing spoken.

After paying a staff member led me through some stunningly decorated hallways to the locker room. I got undressed and went through to the baths. It was time to have a major chill out. The woman's bath was quite small but the atmosphere still made you feel like royalty. It was a few years ago now, but I think the walls were covered in a dark marble on the lower half and with some light colored mosaic tiles above. Also on the walls were some scenes of Japanese landscapes and wildlife made of blue and white ceramic tiles. In the bath you could sit on a step and lean your back against the side. At various points hot water is piped in along bamboo tubes and left to fall in from a small height so you can always hear the sound of water trickling. Heaven.

If you sit and take a look at the scene you can see people washing around the outside of the room (you have to wash before you get in the water), people coming in and out and dozens of old ladies having a natter in the pool. There's a great atmosphere and sounds of people talking and water being splashed on the tiled floor.

I was enjoying a moment in a happier, more relaxed place without marking or lesson plans when I heard some splashing close to me and felt the water get disturbed a little bit. I opened my eyes and saw a very enthusiastic little Japanese woman staring excitedly at me.
"Oh herro! Excuse me."
"Mqphg?"
"Excuse me, do you speak Engrish?"

Now please don't get me wrong, I'm a kind, patient ALT who is always up for helping the over 50s practice their language skills or tell them about me and my country but there are limits people. Appraching me then felt very inappropriate. She could have waited until I had my eyes open or was making eye contact with people or something. Sitting and relaxing with your eyes closed is surely a sign not to disturb someone right?
I know going to the onsen is a social experience. If you go on your own (doing things alone is quite shocking to Japanese people) then people assume you need and want some company. Plus they will be really curious about you as a foreigner. But still...of all the times! At that point I really wanted a break from the constant questioning and attention for a while, but at least she was nice and polite and didn't stay too long.

After leaving the onsen I felt so clean and refreshed. Darkness had fallen and while the onsen didn't have the air of Spirited Away so much in daylight, it definitely did after sunset. It stood out majestically against the dark blue sky and light shone out invitingly from all the little windows. Lanterns were placed around the building and some instrumental music was played quietely from speakers hidden in the entrance. I half expected to turn around and see No Face or Chihiro.



The onsen is very famous in Japan, so the street was lined with tourists and human rickshaws. Coaches kept winding their way up roads nearby, but it never felt tacky or annoying. Somehow the busy touristy stuff felt warming. Exciting. I made my way down one of the main streets at a snail's pace, stopping in shops to buy omiyage and ending up in a noodle shop to eat my first "niku udon" (thick noodles with meat which Matsuyama is famous for). After I bought a can of beer and some ice cream and walked back up the hill to the hostel. It had a tree house in the grounds so I snuck on to one of the platforms, sat on a swing and took a hearty swig. It felt great. I felt great. The view was great. Everything was great! That night is one of my happiest memories of traveling in Japan.


You can read more about Dōgo Onsen here or learn how to use a public bath or hot spring in Japan by clicking here.

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unallersimple: (boat)
My headteacher from my base school was kind enough to take me and Emily on a day trip around Shimane today. We were picked up by him and his daughter Kumiko (who I've become friends with recently) in the morning, then drove for about an hour to the Oku-Izumo winery. When you think about Japan you don't really think of wine and grapes but there are some good quality wineries here. We picked a great day to go on a day trip as the weather was so warm and sunny for January.



^Here's a view of the fields though sadly it's the wrong season to see any grapes.


^For some reason the winery was also home to some donkeys. I was surprised at how happy I was to see them as I haven't seen a donkey in years!

After eating lunch at the winery we drove over to an onsen (a natural hot spring) which was on the side of a river in a really remote location. Unfortunately I forgot the name of where we went! I saw some of the most beautiful scenerey I've ever seen in Shimane there. Before going in we took a quick walk around the banks of the river.





The building that housed the onsen was a tiny little place made of wood. I couldn't take any photos inside (unless I wanted old Japanese women chasing after me for taking photos of them in the baths) but I did take a photo of the foot spring outside.



Inside we did the usual onsen routine. Men and women are in separate changing rooms and hot springs. First we took off all our clothes, then washed thoroughly to ensure that we were squeaky clean before going in. That way the water in the hot spring is clean for everyone to use. The changing rooms were so cosy, beautiful and warm with wooden walls, floors and benches. It had real character and charm. The onsen itself was split into two parts, one pool inside and one out. Don't worry though, the outside one had wooden screens so nobody could see in! The hot spring had stone floors and steps into the water which really added to the natural feel of the place. The water itself is completely untreated and contains a lot of minerals that are beneficial for your health. I love onsen as they're really good for my scabby skin. (I have eczema.) I wish I had one next door so I could use them all the time!

On the drive home my headteacher was even kind enough to let us nap while he drove. I guess us girls were sleepy and relaxed after all the eating and bathing! I'm so grateful to our headteacher. Unlike many Japanese people he's comfortable and relaxed around foreigners and doesn't mind listening to and trying to speak English. He has had me, Emily and Bryan around to his house many times now and this is the second day trip he's taken me on. (Remember last year he took me and Bryan cross-country skiing?) I'll miss him and his family so much when I leave.



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unallersimple: (onsen)
For someone new to Japan and the country's bathing techniques facing public baths can be a little daunting. People change in front of each other, wash in front of each other and share a large bath together without clothes on. This nakedness is most daunting thing, especially if your foreign, as people usually stare at your body to see what it looks like and how it differs to theirs. I've found a lot of people want to know if the colour of the carpet matches the curtains too!

Public baths (sento) are like hot springs (onsen), but the difference is that there is no natural supply of hot water from the ground, it's just piped in.

So why use these baths at all? Why not just wash at home or in your hotel? Well if you're staying a cheap hotel or a capsule hotel, you might not have your own private bath or shower anyway. This is also true if you're staying in a guesthouse. If you do have your own bathroom, it's likely that the bath will only be big enough to sit in it with your knees tucked up by your chest. That's the case for me and I'm only a mere 5 ' 2"! Public baths provide a way to have a proper soak (though you sadly can't bring a book) and they offer an enjoyable social experience too. It's really fun to chat with your friends whilst having a bath at the same time!

The pointers below also apply for using an onsen too.

First tip, look for the sign. It'll look like this and you can see it on the curtain above the entrance.



Next, make sure you go in the right half. Men should look for this kanji - - > 男 
Women should head towards this one. - - >  女

At some point along the way you'll have to take your shoes off before entering the main changing area, which will look a little like this:



You can even see yours truly in the mirror - hello!

Now it's time to get stripping! Depending on the size of the place, you can chuck your clothes in a locker or a plastic tray on some shelves. Get your wash stuff and towel ready.

Head for the baths...but don't get in yet! This is the most important thing; never get into the bath before washing! Never wash in the bath or bring any soap in there. You must be all squeaky clean first.



See the stack of stools in the photo above? Take one of those and have a seat while you have a good rub a dub dub. The thing to remember here is even when you think you're clean, wash yourself for a couple more minutes. Japanese people spend a long time sat by the taps washing. When you're done, you can put your stuff on the shelves provided near the bath. No good getting your towel wet!

Now it's time to dive in! (Don't take that literally.) Don't sit too close to the little stream of fresh water pouring in either as it's usually boiling hot. The exception to this is some baths or onsen have a larger pipe of water that you can go under so that the water falls on your head and your back. You'll be able to tell which is which though as the little pipe of boiling water to keep the pool warm will be tucked off to one side.
So now you know what to do you can sit back and chillax. Stay in as long as you want, even if you start to resemble a prune.


^ The photos in this post were taken in a communal hotel bath which was really small, but most public baths have several pools that are much larger. I've even seen one in Kyoto with a jacuzzi and purple water!

When you're done dry off on the mat before you go back into the changing room. After you've put you clothes back on, feel free to stand in front of the mirror for a ridiculously long time while you dry your hair and fuss over your appearance. The changing room also has some scales so you can fret over your weight too.

So there you go, all set for washing in public in Japan!

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unallersimple: (boat)
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan? Maybe it's something along the lines of sushi, kimono wearing or the urban sprawl of Tokyo. For me it certainly wasn't the image of sand dunes, but Tottori is famous for having over 30km squared of them. They are the only sand dunes in Japan. Me and Regina went there on the Sunday morning of our trip. We weren't the only ones. Around 2 million people visit the dunes every year. When we were there the roads leading to the site were so congested the cars weren't moving at all. It was a shock for me because living in the least populated prefecture of Japan I'm not used to anything being crowded! (Which is weird considering the population size on the other side of the country...in Tokyo they employ people to push you on the subway it's that crowded.)

When looking at the immense size of the sand dunes you just see teeny ant people trailing everywhere.





The sand dunes were really beautiful but hot! I managed to overheat in about five seconds despite wearing a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and shorts (for the first time in public for about 10 years, wooooop!) and drinking water all day. The sand radiates the sunlight back up at you making the temperature even hotter. After walking about a kilometer from one edge of the sand dunes to the sea shore I was struggling to walk back. Pheuff! I still managed a little giddiness though. :)


(Thanks to Regina for the photo.)

While Camels aren't native to Japan many have been imported for people to ride on when they visit the dunes. Regina spent weeks being really excited about the prospect bless. I love how happy she looks here.



I declined a ride on them though as I felt like they were being badly mistreated. One camel had a metal hook through its face so one of the handlers could pull it along. Also, the whole time we were there I never saw any of them receive water or a break. I'm all for having fun sitting on animals but only when they are well looked after. :(

Later that day we visited a sand museum by the edge of the dunes. Despite sounding horrendously boring it was actually a kind of art exhibition a la sand rather than the history of rock erosion. Several sand artists had sculpted some beautiful mini-replicas of famous historical sites throughout Asia. The Great Wall of China and Angkor Wat were some of the sculptures we saw. The detail was amazing. I struggled to work out how they carve the top without damaging the bottom! My favorite addition was the tiny little people to this statue in Afghanistan, can you spot them at the bottom?



The Great Wall.



That evening we decided to check out a hot spring near our guesthouse, which was perhaps an ambitious idea given the high temperatures that day. We ended up in a tiny little place run by an elderly lady of at least 70 years old and it was a big moment. A huge test of our friendship. Both of us had doubts about our first hot spring experience together as this would require seeing each other naked. Being naked also meant facing up to my low self esteem issues. I wasn't going to let my low opinion of myself stop me from doing exciting new things any more.

In a Japanese hot spring, which called an onsen, you bathe naked and have to scrub yourself clean *before* you get into the water. Lots of taps and stools are provided by the side of the pool for this purpose. You then you ease yourself in and enjoy the feel of boiling hot water soothing your hiking and sand dune related pains away. It was absolute bliss...for about a minute. Then the heat of the water combined with the heat and humidity of the day became way too hot! Not wanting to look incredibly foolish I lasted as long as I could (a feeble 15-20 minutes), then me and Regina decided it was time to go before we burst into flames. I'm looking forward to trying a hot spring again when it's freezing cold in winter. It'll be a great way to keep warm!

When we arrived back at the guesthouse I slipped out to the bathroom when no one was looking to photograph the toilet slippers. This sounds like a weird thing to do but they were so hideous and fantastic I wanted to show you all. In Japanese buildings you must take off your footwear in the entrance area and wear indoor slippers. For hygiene reasons these are swapped for special toilet slippers when you go pee. They are usually made to be silly and brightly coloured so you don't forget to swap them back again. Foreigners tend to forget! Sometimes life in Japan can be annoying for me because I feel like I don't do anything but slip footwear on and off. However, having the chance the wear these made me feel excited about going to the loo! Hehehehe.




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unallersimple: (onsen)
Forgetting my current life for a post or two, on Friday 21st March I was happy to wake up to some gorgeous blue skies and temperatures that were above zero for a change. It turned out to be the perfect time to visit one of Anna's relatives' hot springs, as the day before we couldn't bathe outside because it was so cold.

The place we visited was absolutely amazing. It consisted of a small wooden hut nestled between some snow covered hills, a beach and the sea. Built onto the side was a few steps which led down to the pool, which was a small, blue concrete one which had been built to hold the hot water which flows out of the ground there. It was so perfect, the cabin was so cute and cosy and even featured four tiny bunks and a modest kitchen. Imagine my delight when Anna found a rubber duck by the sink - heaven! (As you may have guessed I really love ducks, rubber or otherwise.) Adding to the already beautiful surroundings, the hot temperature of the water combined with the cold air formed waves of steam which floated around majestically in the breeze. It's difficult and to explain how happy I felt there that afternoon, but to just chill out in another country in such an amazing, peaceful location with a friend was wonderful. It's these little moments that make life really special. When I was telling my housemate about it upon my return the smile never left my face.



The view facing the sea...



Aside from chillaxing and swimming we also had a great time splashing around with the duck.



For an hour or so we floated and soaked up the sun. There was no one around except one or two passers-by. You couldn't hear anything except the occasional car and the waves lapping up against the shore. I wrote in my travel diary that I never wanted to leave, though we had to drive back to Bildudalur that afternoon and Mosfellsbær the next day.





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