Level of zen=nude
We did it. We experienced the innate and *naked* beauty that is the onsen.
It happened sooner than we thought. We had been warned that there would come a time when the iridescent streets, exquisite smells and sites around Tokyo would be infectious to the point of fatigue. A month in and we finally understood. As your feet drag in the stale smog and humidity that the rainy season brings, there is a sense that life is simply giving up.
So we ventured out to a well-known town in the Kanagawa prefecture, complete with an array of onsens (hot springs), ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and a cable car. Hakone is just over an hour’s trip outside of Tokyo and the skyscrapers and triple-decker roads soon slip away. Avocado-green hues and lime green bush cover the distant hills and train track banks. The air clears and the sounds of Roppongi evaporate.
And suddenly we were surrounded by everything we had assumed Japan to be; lush Japanese gardens, large koi carp and catfish enjoying a chilled-life swimming through murky green ponds beneath quaint brick bridges.
Having done a few perimeter walks, attempted to read all of the signs and guess when we weren’t sure, venturing head first and feet last into different areas of the hotel, it soon was time to get naked with the masses. It was time to put all prejudgments behind us and plunge into the social depths of the hot springs. Luckily most onsens have separate male and female ones so there's no danger of unwelcome wandering eyes or awkward encounters.
After a 20-minute Google, an assessment of our Yukatas and toe socks, we approached the onsens with trepidation. Unfortunately, I have no photos from the inside, as that would be the most offensive thing I could have done since I last stuck my chopsticks into my rice.
There were a few things to take note of:
Rule 1: As with many places in Japan, no shoes. They are all about cleanliness.
Rule 2: Don’t be too awkward. Strip down in the locker/changing rooms, take your little towel out and attempt to cover your bits before you enter the onsen area.
Rule 3: Find yourself a stool to sit down on, bare-bum and all, and wash yourself thoroughly.
Rule 4: Fold your towel on top of your head, or feel free to place it on the edge of the bath. DO NOT drop it in the bath or wring it out in the bath.
Rule 5: Chill. Personally I would avoid eye contact, but it’s polite to at least acknowledge the presence of anyone else in the bath. And don’t attempt to splash anyone.
Rule 6: If you move to another bath, feel free to cover up your bits with your little towel when moving around, but ultimately, embrace the nudity.
Rule 7: When you leave, make sure your wash yourself down again!
Although mildly mortifying, just remember: everyone is just as wobbly, spotty, wrinkly and insecure as you are … well most, from what I saw, many were public-nudity-pros. Some are more than happy to let it all hang out and even have a good stretch.
After all of that relaxing, we sought a little adventure. The train that runs through Hakone and up through the mountains was an experience all on it’s own. When traversing a mountain, the tracks zig-zag their way up and driver switches ends every few stops. The stations were fairly close together, but who wants to walk?
We eventually arrived at the cable car stop and clambered in, the misty rain spraying itself at the cable car windows. On arrival at the top, plumes of smoke escaped from a small chasm in the earth. Currently, Owakudani park is still under alert for an eruption. It was a spectacular sight and not one you would expect in the middle of dense green forest.
As always, later we got lost, in the pitch black, somewhere up the mountain and as always, we found an okonomyaki restaurant to feed us at 11pm in the middle of nowhere.
It's easy to forget where you are when you venture out of Tokyo, and it's one of the reasons why Tokyo is so arresting; one minute you're playing Angry Birds on the subway (yes there is signal on the trains!), and the next you are floating through crisp mountain air gazing at streams and rose petals.
For more photos, have a look at my Hakone album.