Noilly Prattle: Yubara Onsen – 湯原温泉

Friday, December 28, 2012

Yubara Onsen – 湯原温泉

   There is another side to Japan from its ancient temples, shrines and castle donjons.


hand and foot soaks on the roadside
      Japan is surrounded by it. It falls regularly from the skies. And, like life blood, it flows through the body of Japan in the arteries and veins of its brooks, streams and rivers. Some of that water is heated naturally deep in the earth, for Japan is in the Ring of Fire, the volcanic rim of the Pacific basin. If the Japanese have some kind of religious sacrament it would have to be cleanliness, and with water in such abundance it's not hard to understand why. Japan is known worldwide for its neatness and relative safety. The corollary to environmental neatness is personal cleanliness. Bathing is not merely a necessity here it is considered one of the great pleasures of life. The best venue for the pleasure of bathing is the 温泉町 “onsen machi” –hot spring resort—the phrase also connotes many other pleasures. 

Asahi River in Yubara Onsen
      We are fortunate to live only a two-hour drive from the finest example of a natural hot spring in the western part of Japan (according to the town's PR spin brochure). All you have to do is follow the river upstream from Okayama City until you reach the hot spring town of Yubara where hot water actually flows into the Asahi River, the same river that flows all the way through Okayama into the Inland Sea. But, in Yubara, it's still more a stream than the big river that flows through our city. So, road buddy and I decided to kick off our winter travel with an overnight trip to Yubara Onsen for my birthday. As we got higher into the mountains the weather began to change rapidly. It was sunny when we left the house, but started snowing about half way. Perfect!

hot spring pools - lower center
entrance to the hot spring pools
      You see, the reason to go to Yubara Onsen is for the hot water pools that sit right in the Asahi River. Admission is free and bathing is both mixed and in the nude, swimwear is taboo. If you are shy and modest you would be unwise to go to the river pools. The ryokan – 旅館 – (inns) have same-sex bathing in privacy if you are shy of exposing your body in public. But, there is nothing on this planet to compare with the hot spring pools out in nature on a cold winter night with the snow falling. If you are really lucky, and we were, the clouds will break occasionally and the moon will peek through the falling snow. 

our own private hot spring tub
Madama Butterfly
      Our ryokan had its own hot tub filled with hot natural spring water piped right into the room. After we arrived and checked in we took a walk to the river pools. It was late afternoon and very cold so we were debating about going back out after dark. Returning to the ryokan we filled the hot tub, mixed a couple of Rusty Nail cocktails (scotch and Drambuie), opened a bar of dark chocolate and enjoyed a nice long soak before dinner. If you stay in a traditional Japanese inn you are provided with yukata – ゆかた – (sleeping kimono) which you can wear to go to dinner and even to go outside the inn if you wish. After reluctantly getting out of the tub we donned our yukata and went down to the private room where our dinner was prepared by an “Iron Chef”. We ordered some kanzake – 燗酒 – (heated sake) with dinner that boosted the effect of the Rusty Nails. 

      Being internally heated with sake we were feeling somewhat brave about going out to the river pools but still a little reluctant to go out in the cold. Yet, the memory and lure of the natural setting—we had been here before—finally overcame our reluctance. We put our down coats over the flimsy yukata and went out to the river. It didn't seem as cold as it had earlier even though we were wearing almost nothing (easier that way to get undressed quickly in the cold air to slip into the hot pool). 

      It is difficult to describe being in the hot spring in the cold, snowy open air. It is so idyllic. There were just a few other people when we arrived. It's chilly on bare skin until you slip into the hot water, then, miraculously, you don't feel the cold at all. Only your head is out of the water but the head and face are the least sensitive parts of the body to cold anyway. Nevertheless, the hot water penetrates quickly to the bones and you can soak for hours talking quietly just being alive. It is truly one of the most exquisite feelings I can think of offhand.

dressed to kill
      We stayed in the pools for over an hour and then got out, dressed and walked back to the inn not feeling the cold in the least—the penetrated heat holds for quite a while after getting out of the hot spring. After finally getting up in the morning we refilled the hot tub in the room and soaked a bit more before going to breakfast (mine western style, hers Japanese style).

hi tech instructions
      One more aspect of water usage in Japan I forgot to mention—hi-tech toilets. These marvels of the bowel movement have been around for a while, but being something of a naturalist I have avoided using them. However, all good resolutions meet their nemesis sooner or later and our inn had a hi-tech toilet that I had no choice but to use. Of course, I could have chosen to simply let if flush (by itself) and not to use the various toys on the wall panel, but curiosity finally got the better of me and I succumbed to a couple of the functions cutely illustrated on the panel. I will leave it to your imagination to decide which ones. 

hiking at Takebe
susuki - pampas grass
      It had continued to snow lightly overnight and the car had a light covering of snow, but the sun was shining and the road was clear enough so as not to present a driving hazard since I have no snow tires. We had a pleasant drive back on the back country roads along the Asahi River, stopped off to do some hiking on some woodsy trails that we know in Takebe, and arrived back home in the early afternoon. All in all, it was a great change of scene and a nice kick off for our upcoming trip to Europe in January.

No comments: