Friday, 6 January 2012

The Art of Onsen

The Socks justify the fortune they spent on their Japanese hols by thinking of the hundreds of thousands of pounds saved on not having children.  (I'm thinking that over the years of holidays that is quite a lot of children we didn't have.) We spent some of this saving on staying in some gorgeous ryokans - Japanese traditional inns usually found in scenic locations and offering fabulous food, warm hospitality and the inevitable onsen hot spring baths.

Our first two night ryokan stay was high up in the mountains at Lake Chuzenji near the fabulous temples of Nikko.  Hotel Shikisai was set just back from the lake shores a few miles from the nearest village. Non-descript from the outside the interior was warm and welcoming and our room the first experience we had of Japanese customs. 

First the great Japanese soft shoe shuffle.  Your room will probably have a little entrance chamber with a step up into the main tatami matted room. DO NOT STEP ONTO THE MATS WITH YOUR SHOES ON!!! I did more than once and I didn't get away with it! My lack of manners (in a country whose population excels in exquisite manners) produced a slight gasp of horror from hotel staff and more than once the hand of the Bedsock on my collar hauling me back.  You take off your shoes and either go barefoot or wear the slippers or socks provided for walking on the tatami mats. On leaving your room you change into different slippers (like plastic mules) provided for indoor wear or sometimes geta which are incredibly uncomfortable clogs like flips flops made of wood and probably worn with weird woolly tabi socks which have a divide for the big toe. In the toilet, as well as the all singing and dancing heated seat, there will be a separate pair of slippers presumably to be worn whilst 'communing with nature'.

The room will be almost empty except for a low table and chairs which will take you five minutes to ease your numbed creaky knees up from (I found it best to roll around on the floor a while until the Bedsock took pity and  hauled me up),  a round box containing tea making materials and some peculiar tasting sweets, and a kettle which will take you several hours to figure out how to work.  Then as you start to ransack the room to discover what other goodies have been left for you, you will find in the cupboard a tray containing a yukata (cotton kimono), obi sash and overjacket for each person.  These can be worn all round the ryokan, to breakfast, dinner and generally slob around in.  They sometimes come in a choice of colours and in various different sizes - at the Shikisai the owner took one look to size us up for them and then said "sumo" accompanied by much laughter (from him anyway cheeky beggar!).  These were a joy after a hard day's sightseeing and at each ryokan we couldn't wait to relax into our Japanese 'leisure wear'. At the Shikisai, the beds were left out on a sleeping platform which suited us very well to doze on as we shook off the tail end of our jet lag, but generally the mattresses were stored in cupboards and bed-making fairies would turn up whilst we were out of the room.

Dressed in yukata we wandered along to the bathing rooms  removing our slippers at the entrance chamber and lining them up with those of the other bathers.  We were surprised to find that we often ended up with a different pair of slippers when collecting them as the Japanese didn't seem to claim ownership of any particular pair.  (I was rather glad I had finally got rid of the verucca I'd picked up last year.)  As at most ryokans the baths were separated by gender, so the Bedsock and I made our ways into the different changing rooms filled with an array of beauty products for post bath perfuming and primping.  Sometimes the Bedsock spent so long playing with the different facial and body lotions that I started to fear he might have fallen asleep in the pool!

Following the printed poster instructions on the wall (which included the fact that you shouldn't wash your knickers in the baths something I hadn't actually thought about doing, although one of my holiday packing 'musts' is a pegless washing line so we can string up our sink-washed smalls in the hotel bedroom!)

Robes placed in a straw tray I entered the steamy warmth of the indoor bathing area.  (I sneaked these pictures with my pocket camera when the onsen was empty on an early morning bathe so the quality isn't great - clic on any pictures to enlarge)

If you look to the right of the photo you will see 'washing stations' which were common to all the onsen we visited.  These consist of a small wooden stool and bucket, a hand held shower to hose yourself down with before entering the baths, and an array of lovely shampoos, cleansers and moisturizers.   I waded into the knee-deep bath  and relaxed into its cloudy warmth, watching the Japanese ladies of all ages sitting naked on the low wooden stools washing their bodies and hair whilst chatting happily to each other.  There are few greater pleasures than swimming naked in crystal clear seas but this might be one of them - the softly lit steamy warmth, the beautiful slight, sensual curves of the Japanese women so unashamedly naked and relaxed, and the cocooning comfort of the hot spring water - sublime.

On our second day we were up early enough to have the onsens to ourselves.  A quick naked dash through the cold mountain air and into the roten-buro outdoor pool to lie in the luxurious warmth. Gazing down through the bare winter trees to the silvery lake, a cooling early morning drizzle against my face, I  felt it had been worth journeying all the way to Japan for this experience alone.

Returning to our room we found a macaque monkey staring in through the verandah windows at us - I wondered if he had been sat in the onsen all night when no-one was looking!

And then the food!   Japanese traditional food delicious kaiseki ryori using fresh local and

seasonal ingredients.  Breakfasts were a revelation - the Shikisai makes a nod towards 'western' comfort (although all the guests were Japanese, we saw very few westerners throughout our stay in Japan) and we ate in the restaurant at 'high' tables.

Dish after dish arrived each one small but beautifully presented, the usual ume plum pickles, miso soup, Japanese tea, rice, slices of raw fish, various dried seaweeds, wasabi, little bouquets of vegetables, mountain mushrooms freshly picked from the woods, soya bean curd, rolled omelette and other dishes bearing no resemblance in taste or texture to anything I'd eaten before. And then little burners bought to the table cooking individual small pans containing ham and eggs.  Everything so fresh and pure of taste that you could fill yourself and still be bounding with energy-  none of that sleepy stodgy feeling a 'full English' breakfast invariably produces.

Dinner! Don't ask me what we ate - so many fabulous courses, so many never before encountered flavours, each a feast for the eyes

We were sad to leave the Shikisai but we drove on to our next destination a couple of hundred miles into the Japanese Alps stopping only at a motorway services for a rather strange curry doughnut which was very much going from the sublime to the ridiculous foodwise.

Our next ryokan was at Takeyama - mentioned in my earlier blog about street food.  This ryokan was one of the old merchant houses of the town.  As we entered dragging our enormous suitcases I made the usual mistake of stepping into the interior with shoes on - in my excitement I had somehow missed the big clue of various footwear all neatly lined up before the step. The Bedsock hauled me back just in time and we padded into the reception in our socks to be greeted by the owner, a  tiny,  steely-eyed, old lady who would have made a good Bond villainess.  As we checked in, two equally tiny, kimono-clad, elderly ladies appeared and started to try and lug my enormous suitcase up onto a trolley.  I'm not joking, the case was bigger than the ladies! Shocked at the sight of these poor, dainty little grannies trying to move the heavy case the Bedsock started to insist we would do it ourselves.  This ended in something of a tug-of-war - no way were they going to let us carry our own luggage.  Eventually, unable to bear the sight of these fragile looking women carrying the case on their backs up the stairs, we ran off and left them to it.

 At this ryokan meals were served in our room - again a traditional feast of local delicacies, sansai (mountain vegetables), marvellously marbled and tasty beef on the special burners, wasakana local river fish, we were becoming experts at using the chopsticks to dissect bony fish and also identifying the subtly different taste of the local sake we washed the meals down with.

The onsen at this ryokan was smaller and busier with no roten-buro but it was still delightful.  We spent some time sampling baths and various large pots to sit in fed by streams of hot water from bamboo pipes.

Then on to Lamp No Yado  hidden away in a normally tranquil rocky cove at the end of the Noto Peninsula.

Lamp No Yado - the black roofs and architecture reflecting that of the local fishing villages

I saw a picture of this ryokan on the Inside Japan  website and immediately knew we must go to Japan just to stay there.  We arrived in howling gales and driving rain to find the sea crashing over the rocks in front of the inn and splashing back from the infinity pool that separated our rooms from the tidal maelstrom.

Our accommodation was over two floors with sleeping mats upstairs and the usual low table and minimalist decor downstairs.  The only problem with this beautiful room was the pristine perfection of it - this was no place to leave one's knickers strewn* across the floor or a trail of paper tissues in my wake (as per usual).  In fact I invariably manage to make a room look messy just by being in it!  We stored all our luggage in hidden cupboards built into the walls but were eventually defeated by the low chairs and pulled various spare mattresses, duvets and pillows out of a cupboard to make a comfy but untidy nest on the floor by the glass doors where, for once on this holiday, we had chance to rest and relax, mesmerised by the wind and waves howling onto our terrace.

And wonder of wonders - our own private hot tub adjoined to the room opening right out onto the foaming seas!  I spent ages sat in the tub watching the waves crash so close by the spray came in through the open window.
At night the tub lit up through the crystal clear waters of the local hot spring that Lamp no Yado is famous for.

This ryokan's female onsen took the form of an outdoor pool in a cave and indoor rock pool.  The cave pool looked directly out to sea with the gales howling into it - a strange and exhilerating experience to be sat alone in the pool with a bitter wind whipping around the parts of my body not covered by the protective warmth of the water.  The Bedsock fared less well as the outdoor pool of the men's onsen was completely open to the elements and the driving rain eventually forced him back into the interior rock pool.

And at last the Bedsock and I got to bathe together in the lovely private bath house  hovering over the infinity pool (sadly too cold to use in the winter season) which the Bedsock and I reserved for an hour to ourselves.

We managed to tear ourselves away from the various baths just long enough to eat in a private dining room in the main building.

The lamp lit Corridor of Dreams outside our room

By this time we had eaten so much raw fish in Japan that we thought we couldn't be so greatly enthused again - but we had not reckoned on the meal at Lamp no Yado! A fantastic banquet of seafood including snow crab,

sashimi of various exotic fish,

raw shellfish of a variety of kinds plus the myriad beautiful little dishes of vegetables, pickles, assorted kelp and other delicacies that we couldn't give a name to.

We ate everything revelling in the new taste and texture sensations, everything except for some jelly type stuff with black flecks in it which looked and tasted more than a bit odd (but I couldn't tell you why) and some roe-type part of a fish which had the texture of a very lightly coddled egg and reminded me of a fishy version of brains which I don't like either.  Perhaps it was the 'amputee ovary' listed on the Lamp-no-Yado's website menu which we feel might have lost something in translation.

We moved on to Kyoto staying in a lovely modern hotel but sadly no onsen. We were thankful that our last proper holiday night before the journey back to Tokyo and flight home was booked at another fabulous ryokan the Gora Tensui at Hakone.  Hakone is a busy tourist area high in the volcanic mountains near Mount Fuji and there is much to do and see up there.  But by this time the Socks had done enough and forewent sightseeing for the joys of onsen at the ryokan.

After an incredibly effusive welcome from the ryokan staff we were invited to sit at a bar for free drinks whilst  bathing our feet in a stream of hot spring water running beneath it. Then taken to our room with its hot tub on the large balcony.  As was usual in Japan their exceptional politeness demands that hotel staff spend a lot of time bowing to you and do not stop bowing until you have disappeared out of view.  This can sometimes be disconcerting and quite tiring as you have to bow back - at the Gora Tensui the kimono clad receptionist saw us to the lift and bowed at us until the doors closed which could take some time.  One time, out of curiousity, I pressed the button to re-open the lift doors to see if she was still there bowing and indeed she was!!! We had to go through the whole bowing ceremony again until thankfully the doors finally closed and we escaped.

The food at the Gora Tensui was remarkable.  Every time we felt that Japanese cuisine could no longer surprise us it came up with another feast for the senses.  No photos of this one but a copy of the menu which describes the various courses, each based on a different cooking method. (clic on it to enlarge)

The Gora Tensui offered several different onsen and we tried them all including a relaxing hour laid out on hot stone slabs. We spent our last morning in Japan bathing together in another roten-buro with views across to the Autumn clad mountain forests.

I had to make the most of it - we only have a shower at home, no bath!!!!

* People divide into two groups - those who toss their clothes onto the floor when disrobing and those who neatly hang, fold or place them in washing basket in an anally retentive manner. Sadly the Socks are divided on this issue.


JamesA-S said...

Ms Sock
You are a delight to the world. Who else could write such a long post about raw fish and nude bathing in such a captivating and charming way?
Thank you

Anonymous said...

Oh my. Looks incredible. What beautiful things.

@ReadsNursery said...

A delightful and inspiring post - thank you.

Arabella Sock said...

Ha ha James, I knew the words steamy and sensuality would tempt you back out from your Xmas break into the playground. It only really needed "Matthew Wilson" thrown in to be completely unmissable!

Paddy Tobin said...

Dear Arabella, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this account of your holiday; it was an extraordinary holiday. The food would appeal greatly to me; I love trying new foods. The presence of Canadian duck and N.Z. lamb surprised me but I'm sure both were delicious.

Many thanks. Paddy

Jo Thompson said...

I'm going to get a list of those ryokan from you. I'm not so happy about the slipper-swapping though

Helle (Helen) said...

I wanted to ask whether you'd seen any of those monkeys that sit in the springs, seems he was right outside your room :-) the food looks absolutely delicious as do the ryokans. Good thing we don't have children either!

ann-marie powell said...

Wow, just took a sneaky dip into your holiday world whilst I should have been working.

What a brilliantly fascinating post.

Whilst I remain extremely jealous, your post has made me feel that I too have experienced the seam delights that you did whilst away.

So thank you. A-M x

MarkD said...

Ive had one of those 'I must go there now and do some of that' moments follwed up by a slightly more measured and ridiculous thought of 'I think I'll wait til our daughter has buggered off from home so we can be entirely leisurely and not have to be energetic enough to keep a 6 year old entertained from 5.30 each morning'. Either way, a country I hope to visit even more since reading your posts

Harriet Rycroft said...

Ohhh this makes me want to go to Japan again! I think the roe-type thing was probably fish semen. I had erased it from my memory until I read your descrip. Not my favourite... Did you try fugu?

VP said...

How civilised - a culture which encourages you to don 'PJs' as soon as you get home. I want to go there now!

(I'm still lounging around in my dressing gown)

patientgardener said...

How completely fascinating and wonderful. You should take up travel writing.

KB said...

Wow. What a fantastic holiday (and even better blog) x x x

Roland Paterson said...

The wonders of natural spas and bathing done properly, not like the commercial setups we have here. Wonderful travelogue.