Monkeying around in Yamanouchi

“It’s a typhoon!” Julia shrieked.

“It’s not a typhoon,” I called back as we ran through the wooden lanes and ornate roofs gushing water into the street. 

“How do you know it’s not a typhoon?”

“We would have heard about it. Keep running!”

We tried staying as dry as possible then finally arrived back near the shopping mall where we had met Yuka and Ai the day before. We ran under awnings, across some streets then got to the big intersection in front of a temple. We had to make a break for it, but Japanese almost never J-walk and we didn’t want to cause an international incident. We ran out into the rain, pressed the walk button and diligently waited several minutes until the light turned green. We noticed most Japanese were carrying umbrellas, so we started to think these sudden rainstorms were a common occurrence. We arrived back to the steak restaurant when the rain let up.

“See,” I said, breathless and looking like I’d just emerged from the ocean, “it’s not a typhoon.”

The next morning we left Sakara House and took the subway back to Kyoto station for the long ride to Yamanouchi. For those who have no idea where it is, watch the first few minutes of the movie “Baraka.” The monkeys sitting and relaxing in the hot springs are near Yamanouchi. I had wanted to see this for the previous twenty years, but my timing was off because the monkeys don’t usually appear until December. Monkeyless, we had other business in Yamanouchi. I booked a traditional Japanese ryokan (part hotel and part B & B) and we were visiting some of the famous “onsen” (hot springs) in the area.

The first leg was the bullet train to Nagano, followed by the “SNOW MONKEY” line. That train was a little more rustic, but still shockingly clean. We continued to Yamanouchi as daylight started to wane. The train hugged several mountainsides then pulled into a tiny station, where a lone man carrying a sign saying “Suminoyu” stood on the platform. I knew he was there for us.

“Paul?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “Come.”

We got into a large white van then rode through a quaint township, then along what looked like the main drag that ran parallel to a wide river and perpendicular to several stone bridges decorated with large fabric lanterns. We pulled into Suminoyu then were instructed to take off our shoes and wear some of the slippers provided, slippers that looked exactly like what my Grandfather used to wear. Our shoes were stowed away and we were asked if they could clean the rollers on our suitcases.

“Of course,” we both said.

She explained a little about Shibu onsen and gave us a map. There were 9 baths in total, numbering 1 to 9, and each claimed to possess a particular health benefit. We were supposed to visit all 9 in order then proceed to the temple on top of a hill to make a wish. I pumped my fist thinking I had another chance to get my million dollars. She went on to explain that these same onsen had been used for 1300 years, and that many bathers were royalty. I was getting excited; I had seen pictures of beautiful hot springs surrounded by mountains, quaint streams, and bonsai gardens. Surely if these were the hot springs visited by Samurai and Shotokan, they would be some of the most pristine in all Japan.

We walked up to a door that had “Paul” written on a small piece of paper with two kanji symbols underneath. We were told to remove our indoor slippers at the door before walking into the main room that had tatami mats on the floor, two chair backs with cushions, and a table just high enough to fit my legs underneath. There was a tea set in the corner and a lovely little shrine on one side next to the television, as well as a small fridge and Washlet, finally a return butt bliss.

I had emailed Suminoyu from Nagano to ask if we still had time for dinner then was relieved when we heard we could eat at 6:30. We were both feeling a little gross, so we went upstairs to try the rooftop onsen. We took the elevator to the top then said good-bye where the room split between men and women. I didn’t really know what to do, but read the instructions carefully. This calls for another Japan Travel Moment – Visiting onsen:

  • Japan is famous for its onsen baths so you must put it on your itinerary; however, as with many things in Japan, there are specific rules you should follow.
  • Bathing is always done nude, so don’t be shy about exposing your whole self to random Japanese men (or women, but only if you are a woman). 
  • Most are NO TATTOOs, which means 90% of North American hipsters are disqualified. Tattoos in Japan are associated with organized crime, specifically the Yakouza, so I wasn’t going to take any chances and was glad I didn’t go ahead with that cleverly placed rocket ship and googly eyes on my ass cheeks.
  • Since they are nude only, most onsen are gender specific. I did not see an onsen with doors for pan, trans, or two-spirits. Not saying they don’t exist in Japan, but we didn’t see any in Yamanouchi.
  • If you need to wash then you should do it before getting into the mineral water, since the water is supposed to possess healing properties and should never be washed off. (I haven’t bathed since.) Fortunately, Suminoyu offered all the bathing amenities, even disposable toothbrushes for when you need to brush your teeth in front of other naked men.
  • When you get to the onsen, you must first wet yourself by kneeling beside the bath, splashing or dumping water on yourself. It’s important–there are signs everywhere–that you do not splash people beside you. I also discovered too late that you wet yourself facing away from the water to avoid displaying your dangly things to other men in the bath. Sorry fellas.
  • Almost done here, folks, I promise. You may take a small towel (never a large towel) in with you and are supposed to use it for drying off, not in the tub itself. Bundle it on top of your head or carry it in front of your secret areas. No “need a longer towel” jokes please.
  • You’re finally ready to enter the bath, enjoy, but do it quietly. Keep oos and ahs to a minimum or others may think you’re talking about them.

While at dinner, staff set up our bedding, which consisted of two futon mattresses on the floor. Again, very traditional, but I’m not much of a floor-sleeper either–or so I was about to find out. The pillows were filled with some kind of nuts, grains, or seeds that felt like river rock. Dinner was a cornucopia of curiosities, with about a dozen little plates and cups, each with something different inside. There was some sashimi, several small cups of pickled things, and the main dish was pork belly in broth nestled against a cluster of wild mushrooms. The server lit a small fuel pack underneath and it simmered until the pork was cooked and the mushrooms soft.

Where do we start? Serious, we didn’t know where to start.

“I like mushrooms as much as the next person,” Julia said, “but this is too much for me.”

She grabbed a bundle and dropped them into my broth, then feasted on the one thing we both recognized: a hard-boiled egg. After all this was consumed the dinner finished with noodles in bamboo charcoal soup, which, as you may have guessed, tasted remarkably charcoaly–if that’s even a thing. Julia tried tea for the first time in her life: matcha pudding that she said tasted like soap. I didn’t mind any of the food, but Julia was having a texture meltdown: one thing was too slimy, something else was too soggy, and fish bones got stuck in her throat. Texture is not a big thing to me, except perhaps natto, which I’ll discuss in a later edition.

After dinner we put on our slippers, headed to the lobby, put on our shoes and went for a walk through the pretty little town. The big lights dangling over narrow lanes, cobblestone streets, and dark wooden facades gave you the feeling of walking around Tokyo in 1800. Even the sewer-hole covers were images of monkeys sitting in onsen with towels perched on top of their heads. I was getting increasingly excited about these baths. They didn’t look like much from the outside, but I was certain they’d be sublime inside.

The next morning we had a breakfast of pretty much the same things we had the night before, except a large jiggling block of tofu replaced the pork belly and mushrooms. I was hallucinating Denny’s hungry man special. Before the bath experience we went for a short walk around town, identified all the baths and made our plans. We strolled through a beautiful temple then an immaculate graveyard creeping up the side of a hill. Near the entrance to Suminoyu was a foot washing station consisting of four chambers each with mineral water at a different temperature. Two ladies were sitting on a bench nearby, so it suddenly felt crowded; we hustled back, changed into our yukatas and gettas then headed out for a three-hour tour… of Shibu onsen. Bath number one was squarely in our sights.