“Here it is,” I announced. “Read what it says.”
“Onsen number one is called Hatsu-yu and it’s good for stomach and intestinal ailments.”
“Great, this is exactly what I need!”
I opened the door to let Julia in the lady’s then I strolled into the men’s side. It was a small change room, with about a dozen cubicles for towels, yukatas, getas, and keys.
“Paul, is that you?”
“Are you alone?”
Fortunately, the wall was only about 3 metres high so we could talk overhead. I took off all my clothes then turned to the sliding glass door. Fog was so dense the glass looked frosted. Looking upwards, there was an angled roof and stone chimney with steam billowing up then getting whisked away by the breeze. I slid the door open and walked into a wooden planked room with a rectangular wooden tub. I read the instructions on the wall: add water from the cold tap if you find the spring water too hot. Got it, but first I should see if it’s hot or merely lukewarm. I stepped onto the wooden seat, with water halfway up my calves. Within seconds, the oddest sense came over me; it wasn’t calmness, serenity, or mindfulness, it was burning, scalding, fucking heat.
“Holy Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” I yelled as I danced out of the water onto the deck.
“What’s going on over there?” Julia called out.
“Oh my God, it’s too fuuuuu… ah, ah ah, it just splash my foot!”
“I’m fine. It’s nice, I’m sitting in the water.”
“You’re in the water?” I gasped, confused and more than a little humiliated that I couldn’t get in. What kind of wimp was I? Mind over matter. Keep chanting my mantra: balloon ball. I decided to try again; I put one foot back into the water to see if I’d acclimatized, “balloon ball, ballooooon ball.”
“Jesus…No! Holy shit… That’s too hot, too fucking hot!” I cursed. “Cold water, I’ll add cold water.”
I reached over to turn on the cold tap just as tub water sloshed over my feet, gushing mere centimetres from my scrotum. I was stunned and couldn’t speak. This was absurd. Try this at home: boil the kettle and dump it all over your feet. I ran the cold water for several minutes, tried one more time to enter then told Julia I was leaving. I took one of the pails and dumped water over myself for the sake of my intestines, but it seared my skin even with a 50/50 cold and hot mix. I gasped again, kneeling in stunned silence, mouth agape. That one image could have set Japanese tourism back 50 years.
We met back out on the street.
“Well that was interesting.” I said.
“I don’t know what you were talking about. Mine was totally fine.”
We stamped our commemorative towel, then walked to number two, called Sasa-no-yu, that was good for skin conditions.
“Perfect!” I said again, “This is just what I need.”
We got changed, then just as we were about to walk through our glass doors, Julia said, “mine looks really steamy.”
“Mine too.” I said as I walked into a room that was all cream-coloured tile. I quickly realized that these weren’t the mountain onsen seen on Tripadvisor, but legitimate, functioning, bathhouses. I wisely dipped a toe into the water.
“Nope!” I yelled. “I’m not doing it.”
“Me neither,” I heard in response, “Wow, it’s too hot, way too hot.”
I tried running the water again, but it seemed only to knock off a couple degrees like the bath was now 88 Celsius instead of 90. We walked out disgruntled.
“Seriously, I could have cooked ramen noodles in there.” I joked.
This was not what I expected at all, but things started looking up; three, four, and five were all okay and we spent about fifteen minutes in each. We got to six, which was good for eye disease and, given that Julia had developed a stye a week before going to Japan, this was the one onsen she really needed. I was able to wade in immediately, but it was not good on the other side of the wall. I heard screeching and wailing, followed by, “can’t do it, nope, can’t do it.”
“Give me a few minutes!” I yelled back.
“Ahhhhhhhh…” I said as I sunk into the water up to my neck. I closed my eyes and splashed some of the warm, hazy water over them.
“Meet you outside!” I heard from over the wall.
I sat for a few more minutes then we moved on to number 7, which was another good one for both of us. Number 8 (Shinmeidaki-no-you) was for “women’s health issues,” so I wasn’t entirely sure if it was for me, but it didn’t matter because neither of us could get in the water anyway. It was perhaps the hottest of the lot and out front, steaming onsen water trickled into a large bowl with a basket of eggs partially submerged inside. The sign outside said: “Soft boiled eggs, 50Y.”I was more concerned about boiling my own eggs.
Finally we arrived at 9, the only true public bath. All other baths required a special key that is only given at ryokans in the area. Number 9, called O-yu, was twice the size and had a natural steam room. We spent about a half hour at O-yu then met out front. We got our final stamp but had one job left: climb the long steep staircase to the temple and make a wish. After close to three hours I was feeling more confident in my getas, but still had to walk up the stairs sideways so the block at the back wouldn’t hang over the steps. When we got to the top, a small woman, bent from osteoporosis and wearing a black shawl half covering her shaved head, started up the stairs, sweeping leaves off the steps. She was mumbling loudly to herself and breathing heavily.
“She’s not going to make it.” I said to Julia.
We walked around the temple, clanged the gong, and made our wishes. The old woman’s talking got louder and louder then it stopped. Either she walked away or had died and was draped over the railing.
“Let’s go here.” I said, pointing towards what looked like a well-worn path into the forest.
I turned around startled; the old woman was right behind us as if she had appeared in a puff of smoke.
“Monkeys,” she said with foreboding, her eyes bulging like a lemur.
“There are monkeys there?” I asked, pointing at the path.
“Monkeys!” she growled again.
A look of horror washing over her face, then she pointed a bony finger back down the stairs.
“Okay, ah… arigato.”
We climbed back down as the old woman went back to sweeping and mumbling. If it were so dangerous, why was she still up there… alone? We never got our stamp at the top and I started wondering if she had been there at all. Perhaps the onsen for mental conditions had been laced with hallucinogens?
We felt surprisingly invigorated after all that bathing and screaming, so we went for a walk, had some okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake0, then visited the local sake brewery across the river. They had a museum and art gallery, but when I asked for a tour, the guy at the front said they didn’t do tours, but to walk around then have some samples. I glanced over to the small bar and the ten bottles of sake sitting on top.
“Samples?” I queried.
“Yes samples, help yourself.” he responded.
“Yes, free.” he said, turning to talk with some other employees.
We walked around a bit, learned little about sake then headed to the sample bar. I was intent on trying them all while Julia provided the all-important colour commentary:
“Are you trying that one too? Wow, that’s a big pour. Do you really need that much? Slow down a bit. Your eyes are already glassy. Next time you should try to taste it. Whoa, staggering a bit there. One more then we leave, okay liquor pig?”
After another dinner of unique dishes (Julia especially loved the Dashi soup with tiny shrimp who floated eyeballs up and seemed to be imploring us not to eat them because they had a family back home) we headed back upstairs to the rooftop onsen. I arrived just as five men were leaving then had the entire place to myself. I washed up then headed outside to the rooftop bath. The spring water trickled over rocks and steam gently rose into the night sky. I looked out over Yamanouchi while a sharp crescent moon grinned at me from above the mountains. I didn’t want to leave… ever. I felt sad that our trip was winding down, only two more days in Japan, back in Tokyo, but I had a few more surprises up my sleeve. (Not really, I was completely naked, there was literally no place I could have hidden anything).