Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Hells of Unzen

Oh my goodness, it’s been so long since I’ve been able to access the Internet that I’d started getting the shakes! Phew! The hostel we’re staying at tonight doesn’t have it either but Jeff managed to steal a wireless connection from someone next door. YAY!

OK, it feels like ages since we were in Nagasaki, but it’s only been a week! We’ve just done so much! After Nagasaki, we travelled to Unzen, a mountainous area known for its smelly, sulphurous hot springs. To be honest, after being in the awesome city of Nagasaki, Unzen seemed a bit… dead. We have realized very quickly that the Japanese do NOTHING outside of tourist season. Golden Week (at the beginning of May) is the official start of tourist season, and really, most people travel in July and August. So although we think it’s perfectly warm enough to hike and camp and all the rest, no one else does. We camped for the first (and so far the last) time that night, in a large, beautiful campground, and we were a-l-l a-l-o-n-e. We also ate a-l-l a-l-o-n-e in the MASSIVE beer garden (?) in town, but heck, at least it was open, unlike every other place that seemed to close at five…

All of Unzen seems to be hot and steamy. As we drove into town, windows down, we started to smell that familiar smell of rotten eggs. Sidewalks and boardwalks all through town are built to let the steam rise up through them. I imagine it’s a strange feeling when wearing a skirt.

You can spend a whole afternoon walking along various paths that lead you past the jigoku (translated as hells). These are open areas where the water and steam rise right up to the surface. In some parts, the water is actually boiling. A popular tourist hook is boiling eggs in the bubbling hot spring water, and then eating them. The paths need to be regularly replaced because of damage from the heat and steam. Here you can see how the wood becomes burned and blackened.

No, this hotel is not on fire. That is actually just steam from a jigoku. Looks convincing though, doesn’t it?

As dusk came, the whole town became engulfed in a really eerie mist. Right about that time, we came across a path that took you alongside a pond. It was kind of freaky walking the path. We couldn’t see the pond at all! By the end of our hour-long walk, we both felt like we were the only people left on earth. It was good to walk into town and see people again!

But the highlight of our time in Unzen was our trip to the local bath. Instead of paying a lot for a fancy hotel onsen, we opted for the 100 yen bath. Oh my – what an experience! First off, the "front desk" area was in between the male and female change rooms, meaning that you could actually see through the desk area into parts of the other change room. Not that there was much to behold, though. This bath was clearly frequented by the older, shrivelled variety of the town locals. And then, there was the bath area. Usually in a bath, there is an area to shower in, with shower heads and stools to sit on. After washing yourself off, you sit yourself in the hot bath for a good soak. Not in this bath. There were no shower heads in this bath. Although there were taps along the walls, most people preferred to sit on the concrete floor to wash themselves. They'd scoop water from the bath (the water is constantly flowing in these things) with a bucket, dump it over their heads, and wash. And we were an endless source of curiousity to these folks. A lot of them had seen our license plate on our car, and they couldn't get over the fact that we had driven all the way from Gunma! To bathe with them! Two foreigners! And the wife can speak Japanese!

Strangely enough, this little bathing experience has been one of the highlights of our trips. Talk about getting down and dirty with the locals...!


James said...

Cool shots, Jeff.

Questions (I may sound ignorant): Are you naked in these baths? And if so, why does it matter about the change rooms? Or does this maybe explain the fascination with undergarments, and why your underwear was stolen from your clothes line?

epps_nihon_go said...

Haha. Good questions. Yes, you're naked in these baths. But men and women go into separate change rooms, and they also have separate bathing areas. You do NOT see each other at all. There are places that have mixed bathing, but we haven't been to any of those... yet.