Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wednesday Weirdness: Bunny-Eared Magnetic Salt & Pepper Shakers

(Note to e-mail readers: click through to the blog for the video.)

As advertised: bunny-eared magnetic salt shakers, discovered in a curry shop in Kurokawa - which was incidentally the only place open for lunch that afternoon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kurokawa Onsen - Fujimoto Ryokan

You don't get much more Japanese than onsen (温泉). These volcanic hot springs can be found all over Japan, and the restorative bath has been a Japanese tradition for centuries. Some of the great onsen villages have been tourist destinations since times immemorial, but they have really taken off since urbanization: because most onsen are found in the countryside, they represent way for Japanese people to soak away the stresses of city life and get in touch with the country's rural past.

The downside, at least for a couple of prudish Americans like us, is that the onsen experience typically involves getting naked in front of strangers - usually, but not always, of the same sex. A second downside: onsen, and the ryokan (旅館, inn or "travel place") where they are usually located, can be really difficult to navigate without a little Japanese.

So it was that Nana and I were halfway through our second year in Japan before we had our first onsen experience. (Note: We did go to a Taiwanese-style, bathing-suit-friendly hot spring near Taipei.)

Now, there are many ways to do the onsen thing. For Japanese people, it seems the most common strategy is to book a room at a ryokan in an onsen town then spend the day hopping from bath house to bath house. But for a little more privacy and a little more seclusion, you can book a room in an isolated ryokan, or a ryokan outside a larger onsen town, and completely immerse yourself in world of ryokan hospitality.

Nana and I chose this latter option, with the help of a co-worker who found us a promising spot - Ryokan Fujimoto (旅館藤もと), just outside the onsen village of Kurokawa (黒川) in Kumamoto prefecture.

It's hard to describe exactly what a ryokan is. It's usually translated as an inn or a bed and breakfast, but it's more like a temple of relaxation. There is a definite ritual to the affair. You arrive in mid-afternoon, cross the threshold, and immediately step out of your shoes - this being the last you will see of said shoes until the moment of your departure. You're given a pair of slippers and a couple ninja-toed socks and escorted to your room,  where the feeding commences: a light snack and some green tea, a small hint of the two feasts to come.

Afterwards, you change into a loose robe called a yukata, which is basically a bathrobe you get to wear in public the whole time you're there, and you head down for a shower and your first of many baths.

This is where things can get tricky. First, you have to choose your bath - indoor, outdoor, public, private. Our ryokan had a great selection of private baths, ranging from warmish to roughly the temperature of the Earth's core. They were all essentially outdoor baths, though some had sliding windows you could close. The baths were arranged on the bank of the rocky little Shirokawa river, whose rushing white waters provided the perfect soundtrack for the bath.

Once you've chosen your bath, you need to shower - very thoroughly, if it's your first bath of the day. (And don't you even think of getting suds in the water!)

Then you get in the bath and simply . . . sit.

For those of you who know me, you understand why this is more difficult than it seems. Unless I'm asleep, I don't typically stay still, so it wasn't too long until I wanted to get up and explore all the other baths - which was naturally pointless, because as luck would have it the first bath we'd stumbled into turned out to be the undeniable best.

Anyway. Essentially, the entire ryokan experience consists of repeating this eat-then-bathe pattern, with one or more bouts of sleeping thrown in. It is, in a word, glorious. You arrive. They feed you. You bathe. They feed you. You sleep. You bathe. They feed you. You bathe.

And at a good ryokan, two of those feedings - dinner and breakfast - are so far beyond anything you've ever experienced that the word "meal" doesn't come close to capturing the event. The dinner includes about a billion courses of Japanese hatue cuisine, most of them featuring fresh local foods. Breakfast is a big buffet of more fresh local goodies. And because this is Japan, the volume in the dining room rarely rises above a whisper. I'm not kidding, the experience is almost holy. There's even the faint sense of incense in each and every room.

If it weren't for the less-than-forgiving floor mattress, which was pretty rough on my then-cracked ribs, I think I could have washed out an entire semester's worth of stress in a single night's stay - well worth the price of admission.


On either end of our stay at Ryokan Fujimoto, Nana and I had some time to kill in Kurokawa itself. We didn't do any of the onsen there - we just poked around the town.

Highlights included a heated public tatami room specifically for travellers in need of a quiet place to sit, plus a riverside bath that was, ahem, exposed both to the elements and to public view.

It was here we were treated to the unexpected sight of two young men dashing along the riverside, clutching towels to their nether regions while the steam rose from their backs. Yeah, I'm glad we found somewhere a bit more secluded - naked riverside sprints not being my preferred way to relax.