Fear of the Onsen

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May 14th 2018
Published: May 14th 2018
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The rain has cleared overnight and we wake to blue skies and only a few scattered clouds. We’re desperate to get a good view of Mount Fuji after yesterday’s thick cloud and pouring rain, so we get back on the Hakone Ropeway and head up again towards the Owakudani Valley. As we head higher we can see the lower slopes of Mount Fuji, but the only clouds in the sky seem to be very determined to gather around its peak. We decide to get off the ropeway halfway up at Ubako where we were told there is a Mount Fuji viewing point. It’s not obvious exactly where this is, but we find a sign to a trail through the forest to a viewing point, so we assume that this must be it.

We pass a sign saying that we need to beware of dangerous wild boar. The sign doesn’t say what you’re supposed to do if you run into one of these, or exactly how dangerous they are. I think I remember seeing a horror movie once about a wild boar going around killing everything in its path. I didn't think it was based on a true story, but I'm now beginning to have a few doubts.

The trail is very muddy after all the rain, and it seems to go on for a long way. We’re on the side of a mountain and all we want to do is catch a glimpse of another very much higher mountain, so we’re not quite sure why there aren’t viewing points all over the place. Eventually we reach the viewing point. It doesn’t look out towards Mount Fuji. It is on the wrong side of the mountain and all we can see from it is Lake Ashi. Lake Ashi is very nice, but we didn’t just trudge a long way through a muddy forest full of dangerous wild boar to view something that isn’t Mount Fuji. We turn around and head back towards the ropeway station. We hear a lot of rustling in the undergrowth, and it seems to be getting closer very quickly. We panic. Issy grabs a stick so that she can fend off the giant wild boar that is about to jump at her throat. It's not a very big stick and I'm not sure how effective it's going to be. The rustling stops. We conclude that it was probably a bird.

We arrive at the rim of the Owakudani Valley. The sun is shining and it’s much warmer than it was when we were here yesterday. The vents down in the valley seem to be gushing harder than ever. We read that the first person who ever saw this valley three thousand years ago thought that it looked like hell. It seems that it’s even more dangerous than we thought. Not only is the old hiking trail closed, but the whole site was closed for nearly a year in 2015-16 due to fears that the whole area was about to erupt.

We go into the small Hakone Geo Museum which gives some background to the geology of the valley, and how they go about harvesting the water for all the onsens in the area.

We see a long queue to buy black eggs, which are apparently a local specialty. They come in packs of five and we decide that we should try some. The egg shells are black, and when you peel them off the rest of the egg smells like sulphur, but other than that it looks and tastes just like a normal hard boiled egg. They make the black eggs by boiling them in the hot spring water, and they are supposed to make you live seven years longer than you would have otherwise. I wonder how many you’ve got to eat before this benefit kicks in. Shortly after we buy our eggs an announcement comes over to say that they’ve run out for the day because of the bad weather. It’s a beautiful sunny day, and in any event they make the eggs by boiling them in an endless supply of water coming up from the centre of the earth, so we’re not quite sure why bad weather would have anything to do with them running out. I think that they should try to come up with a better excuse.

As we are eating our eggs the clouds around the peak of Mount Fuji suddenly move away and everyone with a camera scrambles to get to the best viewing point to take a photo. I join the rush. I can see a better viewing point than everyone else on the other side of the road, and I make a dash for it. As I cross the road a man in a very official looking uniform yells and waves his arms angrily at me. It seems that the viewing point that I’ve spied is out of bounds. I think that this is the first time I’ve seen anyone get angry since we arrived in Japan. I hope I’m not the only person in Japan who can make people angry.

I get some pictures of Mount Fuji, but the clouds quickly move back in. I hear someone near me say that the "window" never stays open for too long.

We get back on the ropeway, and head off towards the Hakone Open Air Museum which is down in another valley near Gora. We read that it was opened in 1969, and displays include lots of "out there" sculptures, and a gallery full of works by Picasso. It even has an outdoor tub fed by hot springs, and people are sitting on the edge of it warming their feet. I climb a tower surrounded by stained glass, and get excellent views over the museum and beyond from the top.

We head back to the hotel for a rest. The hotel has an onsen, and Issy is very curious to find out more about it. We go to the entrance and read its strict rules. Issy asks the attendant whether men and women bathe together. The attendant looks a bit shocked and assures her that the facilities for men and women are quite separate. I assume that’s what she wanted to hear.

I’ve had a deep seated fear of using an onsen ever since I first heard about them, but I decide that if Issy is going to try one then I’m going to have to try one too. The rules do seem to be very strict, and we see them plastered all over the place in our room as well as at the onsen entrance. Even the rules around what constitutes an onsen are strict, and you can apparently only refer to something as an onsen if its water contains at least one of nineteen officially prescribed minerals. You’re not allowed to use an onsen if you’ve got any tattoos, because the Japanese associate tattoos exclusively with the yakuza, who are the local mafia. You‘re not allowed to wear any clothes in an onsen, and you have to wash yourself thoroughly before you get into the main pool. You also have to carry a small towel with you, but under no circumstances are you allowed to let any part of the towel touch the water in the main pool. I haven’t got any tattoos, but I’m sure that I’m more than capable of breaking all the other rules. I’m also a bit shy, and not at all sure that I feel overly keen on the concept of wandering around naked with a whole bunch of other blokes who I don’t know from a bar of soap.

I suggest to Issy that if we’re going to fit a trip to the onsen in before dinner then we’d better head off now. She tells me that she’s now decided against having an onsen. She then quickly adds that she thinks it is very important that I have the experience, and that I should therefore head off by myself. I can’t help but think that I’ve been conned.

I put on my robe and slippers and head nervously off. I’m careful to wash myself thoroughly and I then head to the main pool, which is outside. I remember that I need to keep my small towel with me and to not let it touch the water, so I decide to put it on my head. I notice that most other people have put their small towels on their heads as well, so I start to feel a bit more comfortable. This is very short lived. I then notice that everyone else‘s head is draped with a very neatly folded small towel, whereas I’ve just thrown mine on. I casually remove my towel, fold it up neatly, and put it back on again. I don’t think that anyone has noticed, and I start to breathe a bit more easily. The pool is very hot, and I’m not sure how anyone could stay in here for more than a few minutes. I get out, and put my robes back on. As I leave, a fully clothed female attendant walks casually in amongst the naked men and takes away some of the dirty towels. I think about asking her whether she might have wandered into the men’s onsen by mistake, but the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself. I get back to the room and find that I do indeed feel very relaxed. I am proud that I seem to have faced a deep seated fear head on and come out the other side apparently unscathed.

We don our traditional robes and head up to the dining room for dinner. Issy says that she’s read somewhere that it’s considered rude to pour your own drink in Japan, and that you must instead wait for someone else to pour it for you. I suppose this would at least stop people from drinking alone.

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15th May 2018

Laughing my way around Japan
Hi Issy and Dave really enjoying your blog, it’s so much fun following your trip. Do you think you can convince Peter to go with me?? What a fascinating and beautiful country. You guys seems to be having a lot of fun. We are back in Melbourne now, the artic freeze has begun.

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