What is that smell???!!!
28.09.2011 28 °C
We travelled next to Beppu, on the island of Kyushu, a city famous for having the largest number of hot springs or 'Onsen' in the whole of Japan.
The onsen are hot springs that are produced by the 'emergence of geothermally heated groundwater from the Earth's crust.'. (thanks Wikipedia). The Onsen water is supposed to have healing powers because of its strong mineral content, so we were looking forward to some relaxation and recouperation after 'the Saga saga'.
When we arrived into Beppu, the city was sandwiched between the sea and the mountains; it looked like the landscape from the opening scenes of Jurassic Park, lush green mountain sides and still blue water. The whole place seemed to be on fire; thick clouds of white steam were billowing up into the sky, and ooooooh my god, did someone fart? Was it you Hamish? Jeeze, we're almost at the hotel, try to control yourself!
We arrived at the hotel late afternoon, and to our surprise, we had been booked into a Ryokan! This was an amazing experience, my first ever traditional old style Japanese Inn. We left our shoes by the door and climbed the narrow staircase to a long corridor, along which were several rooms, separated only by paper walls. The corridor went round into a U shape, and in the middle there was an outside area. Peeping through the glass, I could see several wooden boxes, all in a line, forming a circle around a giant pipe in the middle. Curiosity got the better of me, and I asked the owner what was outside, and if I could go and have a look. He laughed, and told me that was our kitchen – here they cook on top of the hot springs---would that be OK for me?
OK? Would that be OK? For me? That would be flipping awesome for me! I was so shocked and excited! That's amazing! You cook on the hot springs? No oven? No microwave? No toaster? But how do you heat up your pop tarts?
There was no time for such questions. Running down to the supermarket, we bought handfuls of meat, vegetables, rice and Sake. This was the first time we had been given the opportunity to cook since arriving in Japan, let alone cook on a hot spring!
We were given instructions of how to cook everything – basically stick it on a plate, lift up one of the wooden lids, place the plate inside, close it again, and wait. Under the wooden lids were holes which you rested the plate on, and the heat rose up from the spring underneath and cooked the food. It was really amazing, like being in a time warp, totally amazi---'OH! Sam, was that you? Not you as well! Bloody hell that stinks. you boys are disgusting....'
That evening, the boys and I made our way down to an public Onsen down the road, to have a relaxing dip together. When we arrived, we decided to have a 'sand bath' as well, although none of us actually knew what it was, it sounded like fun, so we were given paper pants and a little dressing gown and sent out towards the changing room to put them on.
This is where things got confusing! Luckily it was a separated male/female onsen, so I didn’t face the embarrassment of being in the buff with my colleagues... yet. I had on these paper pants, a small dressing gown and flip flops, and I was wandering around trying to find this sand bath, desperately wanting to ask someone where I was supposed to be going...but feeling a little uncomfortable striking up a conversation with a naked Japanese lady.
Eventually someone took pity on me and directed me back outside to the sand bath. As I entered the room, this wave of heat hit me, whoa, this sand is hot! I opened up my dressing gown ready to hop into the sand, when I heard a big chorus of 'Nooo!' and whipped my gown shut again; apparently you aren’t supposed to be naked in here...so I lay down in the sand, still in gown and pants, and a man with a shovel came and buried me. What a strange feeling! I am still not entirely sure what that whole exercise was supposed to do, other than make me hot, itchy and dirty, and perhaps aid in the removal of some sort of unsound phobia laying dormant in my mind...
Eventually I got out and the woman told me I had to take off my dressing gown and pants and put them into a bin at the door. I swung my dressing gown open again to more cries of 'Nooo!', put them in the bin at the door INSIDE the womens' changing room. They must have thought I was a real exhibitionist.
When it finally came time to strip off and get into the onsen, I felt a little prudish English gene bubbling up to the surface... But my anxiety was soon gone when a new and even stronger wave of hot egg hit my nostrils; Jesus, what is that smell??!
There were several indoor Onsen, all about 30-40degrees hot, and a lovely outdoor Onsen too. I got looked at quite a lot, I seemed to be the only Westerner there; but it didn’t bother me too much, I thought they were probably just curious to see if I looked the same as them (I must admit, I had a cheeky peek as well...)
The following day we tried a different Onsen, the one that Hayao Miyazaki based the image of his 'bath house' on, in his film Spirited Away (which funnily enough I had watched just 2 days before). Here I had another sand bath and decided that I actually didn’t like it very much at all; and if anything it was probably starting to give rise to an irrational anxiety of being buried alive as opposed to ridding me of it. (Did I even have this fear before today? I don’t think I did...)
That evening we went to an art exhibition, cooked together, drank together and curled up on our tatami mats and slept very, very well.
Our final visit to the onsen was, well, interesting.
We decided to go to a mixed sex Onsen, which we all felt grown up enough to do. It was only as we were walking into the building, at the very last minute before we hit the changing rooms, one of my male colleagues whispered; “just.....don’t look at it...”
Thank God! I thought, now I don't have to ask the same!!! (Perhaps we aren't grown up enough for this after all...)
This particular Onsen had a sulphur bath and a mud bath, so we had a great giggle covering ourselves in god knows what and rinsing it off with more god knows what. Jane went off to the toilet (probably to sort herself out, all I could smell was this hot eggy stench-she must've had some bad fish eggs or something, poor girl). So there I was, alone, holding a little towel over me as I walked around to see the different outdoor areas, the 'mixed sex' pools.
As I was wandering around, I felt someone approaching very close behind me. Thinking it was one of my colleagues about to make me jump, or say something to embarrass me, I wiggled my bum in a jokey way, thinking it might break the ice or give me a false air of confidence in this highly uneasy situation. When I turned around there was a Japanese man behind me, stark naked with a massive grin.
Luckily; just a grin.
I apologised and moved away quickly. And can you believe it, this bugger started to follow me around the onsen!!! Not even discreetly. As soon as I went to whip off my towel, he was there, gawping and waiting to see the goods. Oh the cheek!!! In the end, Jane got really irritated and told him to hop it, because it was actually starting to get creepy and weird.
As we left, I decided that single sex Onsen were probably the way forward, and my colleagues sheepishly agreed (we had all seen each other at some point and clutched at our bits, red faced and awkward). Its funny, because in German saunas, everyone is naked, and its never an issue... and reading this back I realise that I sound more like an old maid than a young actress... But, well, would any of YOU be comfortable in the buff with your work colleagues?!
Oh, and I later realised that actually, anyone with tattoos is completely banned from entering Onsen; even small 'peaceful' tattoos. The only Japanese people I have seen with tattoos in fact, have been the Yakuza – the Japanese Mafia. So I guess its made to keep them out really, but could also explain some of the staring...
On my last day in Beppu, I walked down to the beach to take in some of the sea air. Still a bit eggy though......perhaps its me I thought, sniffing my armpits...
I kept expecting to see a Tyrannosaurus-Rex bounding across the green hilly mountain, as we set off on our 6 hour back to Honshu, mainland Japan, but alas, no luck! And as we weaved through the mountains I took one last look back at the far away steamy atmosphere, and breathed in my first breath of normal, clean air. Whoever had been making that unholy smell, they were OK now...