I smell faintly of sulfur, which makes me intensely happy. It is because I’ve fulfilled one of my World Tour bucket list goals already: visit a Japanese onsen. Well, it was technically a sento, which is a public bathhouse. Onsen are baths that are fed by hot springs. Both are intensely awesome, and I’m so glad that I got to visit one in Japan.
We moved to a new hostel for tonight in Kyoto, near the center of the city. Our Japanese style room with tatami bamboo mats and heavy Japanese futon mats is on the second floor of a guesthouse tucked away on a pedestrian alley. Surrounding houses are filled with locals; the buildings are low and slightly old fashioned and a bit frumpy looking, but all the more real for it. Kyoto escaped much of the war-time bombing, and has many more buildings that pre-date the ’50s and ’60s. We strolled the streets before dinner, and the crowded but neat and narrow alleyways reminded me so strongly of Beijing, especially where my grandparents’ house used to be located before they pulled the entire block down for the Olympics. For dinner, we ordered hot steaming bowls of udon and soba noodles (sendai or wild greens for me, kitsune or sweet fried tofu for Steve) at a restaurant two blocks away for 590 and 520 yen respectively. That translates to roughly $11 in total. Yes. Japan may have some expensive-as-heck transportation and accommodation, but we’ve learned that you can get delicious, fresh food at the same places where the locals go on the cheap. My best memories have involved food, and after we left the restaurant, I rhapsodized on umami and bonito tuna flakes and why the broth of noodle soups are so important for about 10 minutes before Steve brought me back onto relevant topics again.
Even better, next door to noodle paradise was Hakusan-yu Rokujo, a sento that came heavily recommended by the hostel that we’re staying at tonight, and also had the added bonus of having a mineral bath. Needless to say, I slipped out after dinner and literally had to keep myself from running the two blocks down to the bath. All it took was 410 yen for an entrance fee (that’s $4.10, people!). In Japan, you must shower and scrub yourself before hitting the actual baths. Afterward, I spent some time in several boiling baths, one bath with a red tint (not sure what that contained), a freezing cold bath that felt like taking a plunge into the ocean, and my favorite, an outdoor sulfur bath. It was a cloudy white, and felt like warm, warm heaven, with the cooler temperature of the outside air on your face. I couldn’t stay in any of them for too long, as the temperature was pretty high. Also, the baths are somewhat of a social thing in Japan, and I can imagine I would have happily spent hours there if I had a friend with me. Chicago people, know that I miss you quite dearly. I came out feeling warm and languid. Some parts of this trip have been stressful, and carrying around a large backpack is certainly also a strain on my back, but I came out feeling remarkably light and cheerful. I’m already planning on visiting the hot springs in Taiwan when we get there in October. If anything on this trip demands a repeat, it will be this!
So far, Japan has been great. Our last day in Tokyo included Asakusa, the Sensoji Shrine, and dinner in Shibuya. Today, we saw the Golden and Silver Temples in Kyoto and a little bit of the Gion District. Tomorrow, our last day in Kyoto, we plan to visit the Fushimi Inari-taisha, or the Inari torii gates, and maybe head back to the Gion District. Then an overnight bus ride back to Tokyo before our flight on Wednesday morning to Beijing. A lot of travel is ahead. While I’m eager to get to Beijing, I wish we had more time in Japan and more time to reflect on this very interesting country. There’s lots of similarities with China, but the differences are so stark. Also, Steve continually asks me questions about what I can glean about the Japanese on menus, maps, and written signs given the kanji I can recognize; it’s surprisingly a lot! I love what I’ve seen so far, and will hopefully have time to write down more impressions tomorrow and Wednesday.
Looking forward to a good night’s sleep,