Agra town, India

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Onsen hopping in Kyushu

From Hiroshima we catch a day bus down the southern coast and then a ferry onto Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island. We're on our way to Beppu, a small city nestled cosily between the Sea of Seu and the lush forested mountains of Oita province.
Beppu's one and only (as far as I'm aware) claim to fame is it's proliferation of celebrated onsen. The city and adjacent mountain villages overlie a rich volcanic spring and tourists and locals alike come to bathe in the springs and lap up the health giving benefits.

Onsen bathing is one of Japan's gems, put it on your must do list - you won't regret it....
Finding a mixed spa (if you prefer to take a bath together..) was tricky, most were separate. BUT you can hire private rotemburo (open air baths) for relatively little yen, if you're unsure 'bout exposing your bits to all and sundry of your own sex.
As with most things in Japan, there are a few golden rules.
1. You bathe in your birthday suit.
2. You wash before you bathe but more about this in a sec.

The first we tried was hidden up in the Myoban hills, the so-called 'hidden caves' (anyone who makes it up there without gagging surely has iron-clad nostrils. The springs radiate fumes of sulphur as a waste deposit, the aroma of rotten eggs was INTENSE)
Through the linen curtains and safely ensconced in your designated changing area, strip off and head for the washing area. Here a thorough scrub is called for. Any mingers diving straight for the spring unwashed will be swiftly reprimanded and sent back to the washing area. I tried my best to look like I was a pro and knew what the hell I was supposed to be doing but that's not all that easy when there's a coven of ancient Japanese ladies observing your every move as well as your milky bits.
Resisting the temptation to flee, I stuck it out, washed and then wandered casually into the murky green water, and then dived straight back out! I learnt a valuable lesson that day, that lesson being kids not to jump straight into lava heated water.
N.B once you are acclimatised, the hardest part is definitely prising yourself back out.
If you have triumphantly maintained a mask of casual nonchalence during your bathing experience then well done. You are on your way to a higher better place.

I know it'll come as a shock but there can be downsides to naked public bathing. Andrew had to sit through one guy's naked sauna exercises. Apparently the thigh squat was used to devastating effect. Retinal scarring aside, it's all good.

Recapping still..Black Rain, Hiroshima

It's grey, grim and raining, it's also early, 6am to be precise. A goddam ungodly hour when the only sleep has been snatched between toilet pitstops and the strange twinkly musak heralding our arrival into another anonymous sprawl of town.

The packs always feel double the weight when you're knackered and this morning the shoulder straps are digging down something viscious. With the main pack on my back and smaller day sack clipped on my front, I'm balanced in a fashion although completely helpless. Should any early bird mugger chance it, aside from a sumo style belly bounce, I am a sitting duck.

The city itself is not quite what we had expected, I had read it described as vibrant and modern, yet the view is row after row of drab concrete blocks set on a grid - a city built around the cars which tear past us on wide four lane boulevards. There is little character or charm for the eye to warm to and zero sense of history as you might expect.

Our initial plan last night as we caught the night bus from Kyoto was 'balls to sleeping on the bus, we'll grab some kip in the park tomorrow' (the sun was shining in Kyoto).
The park was a puddle so we made a run instead for the Hiroshima Memorial Centre, really our primary reason for visiting the city. If you are planning a trip to Japan, definitely book time out to visit this museum. It takes around half a day t
o see the full exhibition and the admission is cheaper than a can of coke, but 50p!

As a history lesson, the focus centres on Hiroshima's history as an army stronghold, it's selection as a target and the technology and development of the A bomb. There are some strange omissions, the attack on Pearl Harbour and Japan's role and purpose in WW2 are not covered at all.

More successful was the poignant retelling of events on that day in August 1945 and the reframing of the bombing as THE modern tragedy. One that shows the mindnumbing potential for total destruction, a nuclear war would inevitably bring about.
Winter is hard already, a nuclear winter is frankly the stuff of nightmares.
There were many mementoes of those who perished, some leaving behind just a lunch box still holding its incinerated contents to signify its owners passing.
The most harrowing for me were the wristwatches, stopped dead at the time of impact - 8.15am, recording in macabre fashion the moment old Hiroshima disappeared forever.

Leaving the museum, the concrete eyesores and car ridden streets are transformed into visceral reminders of a once beautiful city razed until the land and its people were nothing but radiation and char.
As the years go by, and slowly the Hibukusha (those who survived) die one by one, the bombing becomes a distant memory. The museum seeks to keep it firmly in the modern eye, forefront in the nuclear discussion.

Visit Hiroshima if only to remind yourself of the fragility of life, the power of choice and the chance, the hope for a better way ahead.