Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Good Night

Uotoshi Ryokan is nice. Uotoshi-san himself is super nice. Our room is huge but cosy, with tatami flooring at futons on the floor, wood and paper window coverings, sliding doors, a TV, heaters, tea - everything you'd expect in the quintessential Japanese residence. Plus you get a view of snow falling heavily onto the trees and ground outside - one of my favorite things in the world.

There's the added bonus that he also has the only publicly accessible internet connection in Yudanaka. The next closest would be a 15-minute cab ride to the next town, so I apparently chose the right place as far as getting work done goes. (Remember, this isn't totally a vacation...)

However, Uotoshi falls short in the bath department. This is serious onsen country, and the facilities here - as Mom and Aunt Hiroko found out - are woefully inadequate. Luckily, the hotel that held our luggage earlier is a full-on onsen as well, and I decided to brave the dumping snow to go and bathe there instead.

I say without a hint of exaggeration that this was my best bath... EVER.

Not least of all because it was free. The front desk staff remembered me from earlier and decided my admission would be on the house. That's great, but I easily would've paid double the going rate at ¥1000. Or a hell of a lot more.

The washing up part was routine, but what a good routine it is. I've written before about how the methodical and single-minded Japanese bathing method is - for some reason - a means of centering the self. Of focusing. Of working on one task so vehemently that nothing else matters.

And then there's the soaking, which is the serious payoff. Two days of climbing, walking, hiking, being crammed into trains... it all melts away as soon as you enter the geothermal baths. It goes a step beyond when you're in an outdoor rotemburo, again, as mentioned before.

But throw that rotemburo into a snowy mountain environment and it's incomparable bliss. The moment of unbelievable cold between stepping outside the shower area and into the ultra-hot spring-fed bath is so worth it.

In the mountains here, there's a slightly sulfurous smell to the water, but you get over it the moment you're immersed up to the neck and feeling its magical minerals going to work on your very soul. The snow falling above is not only visually dramatic, but soothing as it lands on your head and your face, and should you be sitting straight up, on your shoulders. The slight chills it sends down the spine are immediately met by the comforting warmth of the bath, creating a brilliant balance that's almost spiritual.

When the bath gets too hot, simply stand up and let the snow fall on your body, letting two of the more extreme forces of nature work you over in ways that are simply spectacular.

It certainly helps when there's absolutely no one else out there with you - standing up buck naked isn't exactly considered fun for most westerners. And the solitary experience of you and only you in the middle of nature (with a little help from humans) is contemplative, exhilarating, and chaotic at the same time. The hot water relaxes you. The cold air chills you and makes you more alert. Flurries of snow swirl around you in the breeze, sometimes falling upon you in clusters when the branches of the scarlet Japanese maple are shaken above.

And to think - those bastard snow monkeys get to do this all day, every day.

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