Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sanage Onsen Bicycle Adventure!

So today I decided to take advantage of the warm weather and bike to experience another wonderful aspect of traditional Japanese culture, the Onsen Bathhouse. Ryuichi had recommended I try the Sanage Onsen, which according to Google was a bare 7.1 miles (about 12 km) from my apartment, so I figured this was the perfect day excursion. I got a much later start than I wanted, for two reasons: 1. I was still tired from yesterday so while I got up at 9:45am, I didn't get moving until almost 12:30 (thus defeating the purpose of getting up early) and 2. I had to get my travel supplies organized, print internet maps, find all of my maps from the Visitor's Center, and the like.

I first made a detour to Jusco in order to by a portable air pump, tire patch kit and inner tube for my tires. The thought of being stranded in some rice field with a bike flat tire and no way to fix it has not been thrilling me, and as I travel farther and father afield, the peace of mind of knowing I have the general means to keep my bike basically operational is well worth the 2,300 yen it ultimately cost me today to buy supplies. Actually, all of these supplies were quite cheap, and my tire kit even came with the little things you slip under the tire to get it off (not as good as the ones that Carrie gave me that I for some crazy-ass reason left at home) but better than nothing. The only thing that was kind of annoying was they didn't have any kind of small “portable” air pump, so I had to buy a relatively lightweight regular one and load it into the back basket of my bike. Luckily my back basket is huge, and I bought a net for it, so the pump was secure. It should be a lot easier than Carrie's portable pump at least, as we all remember from Bike to the Shore 2009!

Also, as an aside, I'm super grateful for Carrie, Don and my shore roadtrip last year. Basically, when packing for my trip (it was a short distance, but getting lost is easy in Japan, and also, as I discovered, I was going straight up into a mountain range), I just kept saying “what did we bring for our shore roadtrip?” So I brought some sliced carrots with peanut butter, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (didn't eat it), an Onigiri (protein and rice) and a water bottle. The carrots and peanut butter were especially great for this trip! (and I do need more fruit, only strawberries in the fridge). Carrots have sugar, and the peanut butter provides excellent protein.

Bicycling distances takes a lot of energy and burns lots of calories, so it's important to have good, high quality snacks and to eat frequently on the road (about 1x/hour or so). Also, water intake is critical, especially on a relatively warm day like today was. Luckily though, Japan is one of the most convenient places on the planet, so even if you brought nothing, even in the utter middle of nowhere, you'll probably stumble across a vending machine or convenience store before things get too desperate. That is one very nice difference between Japan and the USA. (especially the vending machines).

After the Jusco trip, I was ready to go! I considered stopping at the Visitor's Center on my way out of town, but I really wanted to see if I could find the place completely on my own (with only three area maps and one google maps printout), so I figured why not go it alone? The worst thing that would happen is I wouldn't find the place, but it would still be fun! Also, less frivolously, I really want/need to get a better intuitive feel for how to get around Japan, at least my area, and that only comes through trial and error. I am definitely getting better at this, and today was a testament to that.

Of course, I totally lost track of where I was on the Google Maps directions less than a mile in. So I whipped out my Toyota City English map and tried to orient Google Maps directions/maps to the actual area map, with minimal success. So it was time for the Japanese map, which was a lot better. For one thing, the Sanage Onsen was actually on it! As another stroke of good fortune, the Sanage Onsen was roughly in the direction (though further away) of four of my schools: Nishi-homi, Toyota Yogo, Ibo and Ohata.

This meant I passed through Homi and Ibo (and Kami-Toyota, a station I've passed on the train but never stopped at, but got to see today). I also passed through 貝津 Kaizu (a haven for clams) where Eric teaches; no wonder he has to take so long to get to his schools! It takes me an hour from my apartment by train to get to Nagoya, and Eric lives on the opposite side of Nagoya than me, in Ogaki, about 35 minutes out by train, so you get an idea of scale and distance.

So figuring that I stood a better chance of finding the Onsen by using the map the Japanese people use, as opposed to my mediocre Google Maps printouts, I decided to head in the direction of Homi and once I got there, reorient myself again. I figured, if I was lucky, I'd hook back up with the Google Maps directions, and if not, I'd figure something out.

This plan was actually reasonably successful, though I did take some interesting detours. (on the way back, finding an Oiden busstop and using that to help me figure the direction of Toyota-shi, I accidentally connected with Google Maps directions, and hadn't gotten mixed up somewhere along the line of the beginning, they would have been quite a bit more straightforward than the path I ultimately took, but such is life)

In addition to finding the train stops for a bunch of places that I pass by going to my schools (Kami-Toyota, Kaizu, etc), I also stumbled into the Chuukyou (中京) University campus. Though it's Golden Week, there were still a fair number of students on campus, playing sports, walking around and the like. Finding the University was especially exciting for me because it let me know that my estimation of where I was looking at the sun (afternoon sun = West) was actually dead on. Looking at my map, I'd estimated that I was going North, and sure enough, I had been going North!

(note: I'm going to try and buy a compass tomorrow. One of the main reasons why I HAD to leave before dark was because I'm really crappy with constellations, and had no confidence in my ability to find the North Star, thus without the sun, I was essentially directionless.)

Getting out of Chuukyou University was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. The main road was a circle, and so I kept trying to look at the sun and go North, only to find out that I was just spinning my wheels. But I did find a bathroom, which when biking is a huge deal, and remembering our Shore Bike Trip, after partaking of the facilities, I also made sure to refill my water bottle at the sink.

When I finally got out of Chuukyou University, I found myself back at the almost exact place on the previous road as I'd left it. Which was a bit of a setback, but okay, because all I had to do was continue East until I hit another northerly road.

Which I did. It was at this point (about 2.5 hours in) that I looked at the map and realized I was in a cul-de-sack with only one exit, a tiny road that was highlighted in yellow that connected with a larger northerly main road. The rest of the roads, which looked exactly the same size on the map, simply lead back in to the center a sort of superstring fragment that connected only with itself. I also was further mislead (and terrified) for a second by a sign, with Kanji that indicated that I had already fallen past the event horizon of this black hole (I know I'm mixing my physics theories), but then I looked closer at the sign and realized it was an advertisement for a store of some kind in the cul-de-sac that I had not yet entered.

I stood for a while, leaning my bike against my hip, and tried to guess which road was the correct one. Ultimately, I made my decision based on two factors: 1. the road to my right was going north and 2. the road going North seemed to have more traffic. This was good decisionmaking (and probably a metaphor for life in some way) but as I traveled onwards, the road got thinner and more winding and full or rice fields being planted, and I began to have serious doubts as to where I was.

That's when I made this video:

And less than five minutes later, the road crossed with a larger highway. I looked to my left, and there was a sign for the Sanage Onsen!

That's when I made this video:

At this point, the lostness faded, and it was only the uphill. Seriously, this Onsen was straight up a mountain. I didn't fully realize this as I was going up. All I kept thinking was that I was brutally out of shape because I kept having to walk the bike for a bit, and then bike, and then walk, and so though I wasn't that far from the Onsen, it took me close to 45 minutes to clear the last 2.5 kilometers. But then I was there!

The onsen experience itself was totally nifty! It was a lot like you see in anime, except that you spend a lot more time pre-bathing than they show in animes and dramas. Also, you are given a locker, and a key which fits around your wrist, but the string is hidden in the keychain, so I had no idea what to do with it until I asked a nice woman how to use it. First she took the key from my hand and mimed putting in the lock with a really confused expression, but then I clarified that I indeed knew the basics of using a key, and just needed to know where to put it once I locked the locker door and she showed me the string.

Once I got my stuff lockered, I stripped, took my washcloth and proceeded towards the bathing area. I had been under the impression that Japanese women were not at all body conscious in Onsens, but actually this was not true for many women that I saw. Most women used the long washcloth to shield themselves in some way, some even managing to get it to cover all of their frontal nudity. I was rather sad about this because I'd been looking forward to a totally relaxed nudity environment. A year and a half as a nude model for artists has taken what little body shyness I had and demolished it; but I did do my best to mimic what the other folks around me were doing so as to not be impolite.

Still, aside from the minor washcloth thing, it was basically shame-free, and in addition to the women (this onsen had a separate male and female bathing area) there were also some mothers with small children (about 3-4 years of age of both sexes). The kids were really entertaining, getting into the water, shouting “atchi” (a shortened version of “atsui” = “hot”), and running around and the like.

Before getting into the onsen, you had to wash yourself thoroughly. Considering how gross I was, I had no problem with this. You sit on small stools in front of a spikot and movable shower stick (common here, my home shower is the same setup, with a tub instead of stool. The Onsen provided us with shampoo and conditioner and body soap. I accidentally sprayed the woman next to me with while trying to rinse my back with the shower stick. We had a long conversation about this, because at first I had no idea what she was saying, but now I know “mizu kaketa” = you sprayed me with water. I apologized profusely once I knew what I had done. I was also careful to wash as long as the two women next to me, including thoroughly washing and conditioning my hair (though the conditioner and shampoo they have makes a mess of my hair because it's not for my kind of hair, but gotta take the good with the bad. It was the same at the Ryokan and our hotel in training).

Once I was clean, I stepped into the onsen tub. It was like a hot tub, hot but not nuclear. There was also a section with jets which I soaked under, especially my neck which has been very stiff and sore lately. Then I made my way up a set of stairs to an outside pool, which was refreshing because inside was very steamy and humid and after a while I found myself getting a little dizzy.

Eventually I had to leave as the sun was getting low and I was feeling a little faint, partially from the heat and partially from hunger. I did make one stop on my way out, to try some local pastry. I was starving, and I wanted to have a taste memory of the Onsen. They had some type of soysauce miso sampler which I liked, so the man behind the counter gave me a second sample. I also tried a chestnut pastry with what seemed like was a hard boiled egg yolk in the center. I didn't expect to like it because I don't like nuts, but it tasted nothing like nuts and was quite creamy and delicious. I really enjoyed the pastry and made sure to tell them so, and I even got a picture with it and one of the chefs!

As I left, I realized it would be a good idea to make a video of me actually at the onsen, so here it is:

The way back home was much easier. Going down the mountain took less than 10 minutes, and I didn't have to pedal at all. Also, as is always true because I live in a major city center, it was much easier to orient myself towards Toyota-shi. I almost immediately found an Oiden Bus stop on the main road (I refused to go back into the cul-de-sac so instead figured if I stayed on the main road, now that I had found it, I'd probably be able to find my way back to Toyota. It took me about an hour and a half to get home, with a stop at the Sankus convenience store for milk. About half the time of getting there. And all in all, a highly successful day!

Tomorrow, I'm biking to Chiryu! Going to see the 4 Irises at the Temple Muryojuji. It's only 12km up Route 155, wahoo! Going to get an earlier start tomorrow than today, so I can spend more time at my destination. Then back to school on Thursday! Gonna miss Golden Week, but the weekend is soon in coming!

(note: Facebook is acting up, so I can't get the photos uploaded right now. Will post link to album later)