Previously: We hung around Naruto; visited Onaruto bridge and an egg vending machine
It would be a big, eventful day. The long awaited, highly anticipated visit to a real-life onsen.
We started early, hitting up the local McDonalds for breakfast. In case you’re wondering, the menu is the same as in the rest with a few small differences. Like melon soda – a lime-green carbonated beverage. It’s okay.
We got our meals to go, but we just ate them in the car in the parking lot. Jessica pointed out to me that everyone had parked facing out. Because tsunamis are a serious hazard, people want quick escapes. It made us stand out a lot since we had parked facing in – and we were foreigners but hey that’s an everyday occurrence.
We hit the road on a two-hour journey deeper into the prefecture.
For the first half of this drive, we were on a toll-highway. Japanese highways, as I said earlier, have low speed limits. They’re also only one lane. It’s crazy to me, since in North America you can find four or even five lane highways. But I get it – it’s not a car-based society. And I like that! It’s just really annoying when you want to pass someone.
So the first half was normal. Nothing exceptional happened. We passed through some towns, talked about Yuri on Ice!! and listed to music.
It was the second half that got my heart beating.
See, the onsen we were going to was in the middle of a mountain valley. It’s a natural-spring type that takes its water from a river, so to reach the onsen you follow the river for a long time along a single lane road.
And I didn’t bold that for nothing. I mean a literal only-one-car-can-drive-at-a-time single lane road. Right next to a huge drop into a river valley.
So yeah, my heart was pounding.
This road (unfortunately I don’t know it’s name) had numerous convex mirrors along it to help drivers see each other. Now, clearly whoever built this road wasn’t stupid – you can’t just have a single-lane road and expect people to drive on it in both directions. To counteract this, there are numerous pockets where a car can pull over to let another through. A strange system, but I guess it works.
It’s difficult to picture because it sounds so ridiculous, but bare with me. Imagine a road on the side of a forestry green mountain. It’s a winding road, so more often than not you won’t be able to see around the corner. Driving at a modest speed, you check the mirrors whenever they come up and on a rare occasion, you may pull over to let someone through, or someone will do the likes for you. All of this, where rock/land slides are a thing, and you could easily fall to your death if your car went off the road.
What a lovely Sunday drive!
But in all seriousness, it was a nice drive. Jessica handled the road beautifully and we were lucky to not come across a driver coming at us until 30 or so minutes in.
We happened across a group of monkeys early on the road. Real monkeys! I freaked out when I saw them because I wasn’t expecting such a cool spectacle. A few scurried away when we approached (at a slow speed) but I managed to get a few blurry pictures of them.
There was also an observation deck along this road. We stopped to grabs some pictures and generally appreciate the view.
I’ll briefly mention here that there are two types of cars in Japan, distinguished by either a white or yellow licence plate. IIRC, white are domestic, yellow are foreign, but really it’s obvious because the foreign cars are HUGE compared to the domestic ones.
I bring up cars because there was a huge SUV parked at the observation deck. It was such a big car, it wouldn’t have been able to stop and let other cars through – it was too wide for that. I’m still amazed such a behemoth made it on that road. There was also a motorcycle couple where the woman had a (IIRC) three-wheeled bike and the man had an adorable mini-bike.
We arrived at the onsen sometime after noon. Though the parking lot was full (there weren’t a lot of spots), the lobby was somewhat empty. I’m assuming there were hotel rooms housing guests or everyone was in the restaurant.
Anyway, the lobby went three ways. To the front was the restaurant, to the left were the stairs leading to the indoor baths, and to the right was the funicular that lead to the natural-springs baths.
Jessica, with her handling of the language, inferred we could buy a ticket for the funicular which also covered both baths. IIRC, our tickets also got us a free hand towel – or more possibly it was just a discounted price with the tickets.
We had a small mishap, but we bought our tickets and waited in the harsh wind for the funicular. It was damn, damn cold. I left my coat in the car so it wasn’t a fun time. But the funicular came after about three minutes and the small group of nine-ish people piled on and took seats. I liked that elevator car: seats were nearly stacked on top of each other due to the way it was constructed.
A voiceover in both Japanese and English played over the speakers, talking about the river water and natural sulfur properties. We got to the bottom and filed out. There wasn’t much to see as the bathhouse covered most of the scenery. We opted to go in and get straight to the action.
I think anyone interested in visiting a genuine Japanese onsen, or open baths in general, are somewhat naïve about it. If you’re by yourself, sure go wild. Enjoy your time. If you’re with friends…just be ready for it to be a bit awkward.
I had gotten used to being temporarily naked in front of other women (segregated baths) via changing rooms and showering at the gym. I really don’t have an issue when it’s strangers. We all got the same bits right? But because I was with Jessica – well it was just weird. Not exactly an everyday hangout activity.
So we stripped. We didn’t make eye contact and we held our towels up to modestly cover ourselves. We walked down a small set of stairs and entered the bathing area.
Always be sure to wash yourself before entering a public bath. It’s to keep the water clean for everyone! These baths, however, were a little different. Since it was directly connected to the river, fresh water was always passing through. In theory, you could step right in – but we took a basin and dosed ourselves anyway.
Since the water was sulfur-heavy, it did have that egg smell, but not in a bad way. It was a nice time! We soaked and enjoyed the view of the view and mountain. Obviously phones were prohibited, but I wish I could’ve gotten a picture of that view.
There were only a few other women in the baths besides Jessica and myself. One was a grandma-granddaughter duo and a European woman. Obviously we were thrown off by this since we were deep in Japan. I’d say Osaka was at least 4 hours away by car and this wasn’t exactly a place you could reach via public transportation.
After 20 or so minutes, we agreed it was time to get out. We dried off as best we could – which wasn’t easy since we only had hand towels. We dress again and wait for the funicular.
During this time, we had a small conversation with the European woman. IIRC, she was from France. I tried speaking in French to her, but she just opted for English. I think she was on a personal hot springs tour or something.
When it arrived, we got on the funicular and traveled back up to the main building. We immediately went for the indoor baths – a lot of people had the same idea.
Just before that, however, Jessica, myself, and a small group of people stopped to have a quick drink of tea. I’m pretty sure it was tea. Either way it tasted awful. It was red and cold and my face soured when I drank it. Bleh.
The indoor baths were, honestly, very similar to what’s depicted in anime. To one side there were sit-down shower areas and there was the huge bath with a grandiose fountain. Because of the humidity, the area was hot and foggy. Again, the baths were segregated but it was possible to throw something over the wall into the men’s side.
Because it was an enclosed bath, I didn’t stay in too long. I’m not fantastic with high humidity, so my breathing was a little laboured. It was nice though – I’d go back.
By the time we finished and changed, I’d say it was 2. We hadn’t had lunch, and we considered the onsen’s restaurant, but we had other things to do so we left.
Our next stop was along the same single-lane road and within the river valley: An ancient wooden/vine bridge once used by a village as a form of protection. It’s a fascinating piece of history – but fuck that bridge.
We parked at the main tourist building, briefly walked through a small market, but made a beeline for that bridge. We paid a fee of 700yen or something and cross over. I clutched my stuff so close to my chest. I didn’t trust myself, that bridge, or anyone else to not drop something.
Seriously, I can’t downplay this bridge. There was a little Japanese girl crying her eyes out and screaming because that shit was scary. That poor girl – I wouldn’t be surprised if she had nightmares because of that experience.
After that, we explored the area a little more. Along a road there were some tiny restaurants and shops. There were fish on sticks roasting over fires. It was very cool and mellow. There was a path off the road that lead down to the river. Families and couples took pictures and took in the view. We did the same.
We wondered around and eventually returned to the market we walked through before. We approached a Gashapon machine, intrigued. It was vending dog/pastries combinations. Cute stuff, I’ll admit. This would be my first merchandise purchase – IIRC 300yen.
See, I learned early after this encounter that Gashapon is a game of regret. You have to be fully committed to everything in the machine if you want to walk away happy. You can’t delude yourself thinking ‘oh, I really want that one!’ cos it’s not going to end well. I wanted the Shiba Inu, but I got a pug. I was disappointed, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to spend 300 more yen.
With our dog-food keychains, we headed back to the car. We still hadn’t eaten lunch by then so on our way back (a different route, not the single-lane road) we stopped by a 7/11 and grabbed some snacks.
The rest of the day was uneventful. We drove back to Naruto in about two hours. We got dinner at Lawson because we were too tired to hit up a restaurant or make anything.
The next day Jessica would be back to her job and I’d be catching the bus to Osaka. We planned the morning to ensure there would be enough time for her to drop me off at the station.
It was a hell of a time and I’d really miss having a friend in a foreign country, but it was time for the next step of my vacation.
Next time: The bullet train and Kyoto!