Hakone: onsens & art

I‘ve been in this country a month, which feels both shorter and longer than reality. In this month I have become accustomed to my not-exactly-soft bed, grown to love eating rice & beans for dessert, and found a sense of rhythm here in Hiyoshi. I have a favourite grocery store, which only takes cash, is reasonably priced, and is run by a friendly bunch of septuagenarians. In it, I have finally succeeded in interpreting the evening sushi sale stickers (win!), and now know which udon noodles are real and which are tofu undercover (whoops).

Balancing academic interests and the curiosity to see everything has felt a little like juggling, but with the added benefit that, in a design course, much of the exploring can be justified as searching for inspiration — and in Japan that reasoning actually seems pretty reasonable. This past weekend was one such inspirational escape. With the shadow of dissertation deadlines on the not-so-close-but-not-that-distant horizon, a colleague and I left for 4 days in Hakone. Only 90 minutes from Tokyo, Hakone can theoretically be seen in a day. We figured that with four days, we would be able to find time for work in between Fuji sightings, onsen dips, and scenic hikes.

Fuji showed itself to us at Lake Ashi

Alison and I took the train from Hiyoshi and checked into our hostel, which due to the holiday weekend, was the last reasonably priced accommodation left in Hakone when we booked. Despite the good reviews, I remained skeptical until we arrived, when we realised this was easily the best hostel either of us had seen. Though we were in dorms, my individually curtained pod felt like having my own tiny room in Hakone, complete with tiny window and tiny shelves. There was also a large shared kitchen, two lounge areas and a dinning table on a tatami mat, where we actually did — gasp! — get some work done. The best part, however, was that this hostel had it’s very own onsen. Onsens are Japanese natural hot springs and Hakone, due to it’s volcanic activity and thermal waters, is onsen-central.

On the first day, we hiked around 3 hours to the top of one mountain, through the Japanese maple forests and cobbled roads from the Edo period. At the end of the hike was the stunning Open Air museum. Their collection of large outdoor sculptures was inspiring and gorgeous. Since we arrived towards the end of the day, it was also quite empty. We meandered for two hours, marvelling at the mostly joyful installations, which included a jungle of coloured knitted nets and two giant fried eggs. At the very back of the museum (which felt more like a park) there was even a foot-onsen, which felt spectacular after the morning’s climb.

On the third day, we visited an external onsen nearby. To enter an onsen you must fully undress and shower before getting into one of the pools. This particular onsen was composed of several small pools, the temperature of which varied from very hot to scalding. Being in the hot water was a very relaxing experience, complete with forest views and the sound of running water. Groups of women chatted nearby and individuals bathed and contemplated. I felt at peace and connected to the surrounding nature — until I went to the sauna. There, the first thing I took in was the heat, which was high, as is expected for a sauna, but perhaps a dash higher than what would be permissible elsewhere. The second thing I noticed was the very large television on high volume. Even so, I entered, sat and closed my eyes, thinking my lack of Japanese would make it easy to ignore. I was wrong. The channel was some kind of food network, and I was fascinated and repelled by what they were making as I began to sweat profusely. Had I unwittingly stumbled into some kind of perverse diet therapy? There was a 12 minute timer on the wall, the recommended sauna session, so I figured the television was a distraction from the heat. I needn’t have worried, since my attention was soon taken by a group of seven bathers who walked in accompanied by a fully dressed attendant with a bucket. They sat around me and nodded as the attendant began to explain something in Japanese. I smiled along, curious, as she finished speaking and handed each of us a branch. I wasn’t surprised as each woman began to whack herself with her branch, thinking I had seen this in a Russian mobster movie before. I joined in, but only briefly before the attendant took away our sprigs and left. By then, it was minute 6 of my sauna experience and I was uncomfortably hot. The attendant returned, this time with a bucket in one hand and a comically large fan in another. She spoke some more, ladled some scented water onto the coals, and then turned to us with a mischievous smile as she took the enormous fan in both hands. As she fanned the group, she too began to sweat, and I envisioned what it would be like to be a camel in a desert landscape as the scalding gusts of air came towards me. 9 minutes had passed, only three to go. The attendant paused, but instead of leaving, she spoke some more. By now her face was red and her fringe damp. There was a laugh from the group of bathers. Was it a nervous laugh? Probably, because soon after the attendant began to individually fan each woman three times. I was both afraid of and amazed by her commitment. She used both hands and really put her whole diminutive body into it, even going so far as to climb the step of the sauna seats to better position herself in front of the bathers who were sitting on the higher steps. When my turn came, I nodded before immediately hiding my face. It really did feel like all the dirt was burning off my skin, and I wouldn’t even have been surprised to find my little arm hairs had disintegrated (they didn’t). But thankfully I was last and by then 12 minutes had passed. I pretty much bolted out the door and into the iced water pool outside. Although I felt like a vegetable afterwards, I think that experience did keep me from feeling muscular soreness, so I may well be searching out the onsens near Hiyoshi in the near future.