Volcanos, futons and Onsens

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November 23rd 2012
Published: November 24th 2012
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Day 7

When we woke up, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and it was decididly murky outside. Breakfast was good again, with bread rolls, but no toaster! We packed up and headed downstairs, the temperature had certainly dropped and it was beginning to drizzle.

Our first stop of the day was Mount Aso. We drove for a couple of hours through the countryside, and passed some lovely autumn trees, bamboo, and saw the grasses that make the tatami mats that form the flooring in a traditional Japanese home. Actually it is part of a series of 5 volcanic cones. The existing crater is 128km in circumferance, where volcanos had previously erupted leaving a huge crater floor. The active volcano (Mt Nakadake) was the one we were hoping to see. As we started to climb, the weather closed in, and by the time we reached the point where we were going to get the cable car to the crater rim, the cloud was right down. It was quite quiet at the stop off, and as we approached, we realised why - no cable cars today due to extensive sulphuric activity inside the crater.

Instead, our guide arranged for us to go to the volcano museum - not quite the same, but they did have live feed cameras that you could operate yourself and see the activity at the crater. The cloud and gases cleared enough for us see a little bit of the turquoise water. We went to watch a film in a five sceen panoramic cinema, which showed the volcano through the year, and other random bits of film. The BBC have nothing to worry about!

Just along from the museum was our lunch stop. It was an 11am lunch, which consisted of a lots of small dishes, and a pot which the waitress came and lit a flame under to cook the contents inside. We experimented with the different portions, and once the flame had died out, lited the lid on some fatty bacon, beansprouts and noodles. Dessert was tinned fruit cocktail and a peanut covered buscuit - cereal bar on the bus then!

The next part of the journey was another 2hr bus journey away to a place called Beppu, famous for its hot springs. The journey took us a really scenic route and it was nice to be out of the cities and into the countryside. On the route we happened upon a layby of sorts where one of the locals had toparied all of the trees (at least 50 or so) into different animals and characters, there were some really good ones including emu, samuri and Tyranasaurus Rex. There were also some deer that were fenced in, but didn't mind coming to the fence looking for food or getting stroked by people. We crossed 3 mountains on the way to Beppu, each with numerous hair pin bends. What we did realise was that the sesmic activity in the area has clearly made the mountainsides unstable, and their way of combating this is to bolt concrete to the mountainside to stop it slipping. Japanese engineering has also meant that they have tunnelled through the mountains in lots of places to cut down on journey times. As we started to descend into the city, there was a marked change in the smell in the air - sulphur. A vast number of the buildings had steam coming from them, and as we went down the roads, the drains and culverts had steam coming from them too. Lots of the private houses take their water from the hot springs through local providers, and there are lots of hotels and bath houses that use the water too.

One of the hotels that we passed on the way was covered in camouflage, this is a Japanese "love hotel". Rooms are available to rent for 2hrs, 4hrs and overnight, for couples that have things to discuss, or play Nintendo instead. The rooms are often themed too - Disney or Hello Kitty! We were hoping that our hotel was in a slightly different class!

Beppu's famous springs are known as the "Hells", of which there are nine. We were not visiting all of them, just the most popular. First on the list was "Umi Jigoki" - Sea of Hell - so called due to the colour of the water of the Hell resembling that of a tropical sea. Once you got past the smell, the pool of water with the gases coming up did indeed look like that described. Also they were boiling eggs in baskets for people to buy and take away. Most disappointing - as with everywhere we have been so far - was the gift shops. The Japanese seem to love "tat". Small trinkets, plastic items, cake, biscuits, mobile phone charms etc - no quality items, or crafts really. We are hoping this will improve once we get to Kyoto, which according to the guide books is the best place to buy things.

We then went to the 2nd Hell - "White Pool" Hell, where the water was indeed white in colour, and slightly oddly, a number of fish in tanks dotted around the outside. We then got back in the bus to visit the final two Hells - Dragon Teeth and Blood Pool Hell. Whilst we looked round the gift shop at Blood Pool Hell, our Guide went to Dragon Teeth to see what time they would be shooting the water up. The water at Blood Pool Hell was indeed orange, when you could see through the vapour. The final Hell was within walking distance, and they build the pressure up, and then release the pressure at set times in a fountain.

We then got back on the bus, and headed for our Hotel for the night. Our Guide advised us that we would be staying in "Japanese style" accomodation - tatami mats, futons and low furniture, with Japanese dressing gowns - yukata - and slippers, that we should wear round the hotel and for dinner that night. When we got to the hotel and to the rooms, they were set out with a low table with tea things on it. Lim informed us that the beds would be put out by the hotel staff during dinner. We got changed in the gowns provided, remembering to dress with the left over the right of the dressing gown - the other way round signifies death in Buddism. We shuffled to dinner, as the slippers are one size fits all - Japanese size that is, so anyone with a foot bigger than a 6 would struggle. When we arrived, we had individual trays set out for us, and everyone was dressed in the yatori. Once again, it was a case of smelling the food, trying to avoid the really fishy things, but trying to have a little bit of everything, even if we werent that keen on it. We managed to ask for a beer to have with dinner, whereas everyone else seemed content with tea. Again, dessert was fruit which was fine.

We returned to the room, and the staff had been and laid out the beds, pushing the table to one side. They had provided 2 futons on top of each other for extra comfort, and a pillow that had plastic bits in it! More traditional homes have pillows stuffed with buckwheat, which this was trying to imitate. We waited for our meal to digest, and ventured to the Onsen. They are seperate spas for males and females, but there are some in Japan that are mixed - luckily this was not one of them! The prospect of taking a hot spring bath completely naked was a concept that we had struggled with, but appeared that everyone else was going to, or had already given it a try. So when in Japan, do what the Japanese do! Once you can get past the fact that seeing someone you know in there means having a conversation with them naked, the whole experience was quite nice. You do have to remember that there are rules and a set way in which you take your bath. Everyone goes to the Onsen in their yukata, with undergarments, and takes with them the large towel provided by the hotel, together with the small white towel. You enter the changing area, and put everything into a locker, and take the small white towel with you. Men usually use this to cover themselves. Once inside the spa area, you sit on the stools provided and shower yourself, using the towel to scrub. Once completed you enter the water and spend upto 5 minutes in there to aclimatise the body to the heat, putting the white towel on the side or on your head, but not in the water. You then get out and wash again, and this time you can use the bathing products that are on hand. There were big tubs of soap, shampoo and conditioner. Once you have rinsed thouroughly, you can get back in again. The ladies spa also had a jacuzzi bath in it, and there was an outdoor Onsen for the brave. Altogether, it was a good experience, and should be good for the aches and pains due to the high mineral content of the water. Once cooked, we returned to the room to cool down. We had been the only westerners in the hotel, and according to one of the Onsen guests, it was the first time she had ever seen a Western person in an Onsen - I wondered why the two elderly ladies I had passed on leaving were laughing to themselves so much!

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