Japan 2010: 11 - Where I Stand Naked Above a City

Travel time had come once again. At 6am, I was woken from slumber. Someone was moving about. Elizabeth came past on the way to the bathroom, her face visible from beyond the curtain only for a split second. She had said she was leaving as early as possible the previous night, with a ballpark target of Beppu to make on her bike before nightfall. By now even though she had completely stolen my heart it was clear that nothing more could come of our relationship. I waited quietly for her to return, and when she did I, in as steady a voice as I could manage, said 'Sayonara, Elizabeth'. She stopped and looked up, and smiled her heart-stopping smile back at me. 'Sayonara', she replied, and was in the next moment, gone.

It was time for me to think about leaving too. I packed up my things and came downstairs at about 8am. Luke appeared shortly afterwards, followed by a couple of Australian mothers who had taken one of the family rooms to share with their kids. We chatted for a little while, and then I said my goodbyes.

The 8.45 to Higo-Ozu was the first of several train journeys. I had decided that Nagasaki, or rather, the nearby town of Isahaya - much lauded in the tourist guides for it's hot springs - would be the place where I take the plunge and try a proper Japanese Onsen before I carried on to the city. In hindsight, I could have gone to the one at Aso if I'd have had time, but it didn't work out with all the other things. On the way, I'd be changing at several points, and depending on when the connecting trains set off, having a quick nosey around.

I stood silently at Aso station for a while waiting for the train. The platform where Elizabeth assembled her bike was just across from me, so I turned the other way. A statue of two bears in v-neck sweaters sat munching on plantlife filled most of my vision until a train finally arrived at a quarter to nine. The local train took me back to Tateno briefly, causing me to worry for a while, but then switched tracks and began to head west towards Kumamoto. The routes were single track through the light woodlands and pleasant fieldscapes that I had seen in sunset two days previous, and it was quiet and peaceful; the stations not close enough to the big cities yet to be filled with hurried office commuters.

We pulled into Higo-Ozu, and switched trains to one just departing. I may have been imagining it, but I felt a coldness from the other passengers on the train, people didn't seem to want to sit next to me even though it was getting full; maybe it was just my imagination, or perhaps my shoes were getting a bit ripe by this point, but it was stark compared to the normal hospitality I had always seen. I tried to concentrate more on the view, especially as there were several sections on the way that involved waiting for oncoming trains at tidy little stations.

The train reached Kumamoto at about 10.30 and I went to get the next tickets, plus a Nagasaki guide map. From Kumamoto, I could get all the tickets needed to get to Nagasaki and the first would be setting off in a quarter hours time. Just enough to quickly venture outside of the small station to see what I'd be missing. The scenery was one of urban transition; half of the city seemed to be under construction and the air had a dusty quality. A lot of this was because of the transport upgrades the town was getting - a major upgrade to their hundred year old tram system was being installed, and a whole arm of the station was being extended to service the almost-complete Kyushu Shinkansen line. The guide book seemed to mention little of the place, and what there is might have been mercilessly pulled down, and so it was safe to assume I'd miss nothing by heading back and not risk missing the train.

One hours train ride through some nice scenery around Mt Kinpu took me to Tosu, and again a short half hour break took me out of the station for a look. Tosu is a large interchange in a smallish city, the bridge just to the side of the station overlooks a huge girth of tracks meeting at this intersection between the north/south commutes and the ones from the east heading out towards Nagasaki in the west. The concourse was decorated with a sporting theme, particularly football, to recognise the local talent. The bridge was paved with a picture of the mascot, and stone panels showing various players were hung on the sides between others depicting local ceremonies.

Though the map showed a few places to see in Tosu, many of them were too far to walk while laden with backpacks. The nearest thing to look at was a Tsutaya shopping mall across the road. Hulking my bags across the car park in the heat of midday sun made me not so curious by the time I had got there; inside, the mall corridors were predictably shiny and clean, but none were of the shops interesting enough to head inside. Only a large poster for an imminent balloon festival in Saga piqued my interest, but they had selfishly decided not to have it until I'd left.
I returned in time to the train and we followed the western perimeter of Kyushu around the Ariake Sea, a stretch of water barely deserving the title of 'sea' as it is more of an in-wash of water separating two mountains. This extended detour allowed for the occasional picture opportunity of the bay, though the views are fleeting and cameras are slow to realise YOU NEED TO USE THEM NOW.

I had a ticket to use all the way to Nagasaki, but wanted to get off at Isahaya to see what was there. Once off, the signs were promising; the posts holding up the roof of the station were covered with posters for local tourist spots, including spa and onsen.

I got the bags into a locker and headed out enthusiastically. Today was definitely the day I would bare all in front of a load of Japanese people I didn't know. NHK World programmes like Out and About are always going on about the traditional onsen all over the place and how great they are, and this was meant to be a spa town, so where were they?
After taking a picture of the tourist map, I got a drink and headed out of the station and down the road, towards what appeared to be a residential area, where onsen are usually situated. Across a bridge and up a large hill, there were still no signs of anything, and after trying to work out how to enter a nearby copse for a bit of shade from the sun, I ended up walking down a neighbourhood backstreet. A man on a motorbike was delivering packages. Chancing my arm that he was local, I asked him which way to go for some hot onsen action (although not in that way, obviously).

The man, rather than his face lighting up immediately and stringing off a half dozen suggestions to me like you might expect in an onsen town, just stood there with a puzzled look on his face. Maybe I had asked him wrong and he was wondering why I needed to visit a sausage factory or somewhere. I tried again, enunciating the syllables a bit more. Again, he seemed confused. After saying a few hurried Japanese sentences that I didn't understand, he pointed vaguely further down the hill, so I gave up and followed his finger.

The backstreets came out at a main road, and the river had turned to join it. The road was lined with old-fashioned shops and businesses, but none of them were sporting anything like the bathhouse signs I had been expecting. Was I really in a spa town or had I got it all wrong? Doubts were creeping in, but I was here now.

I fished out the picture I took of the tourist map and instead tried to find something interesting on there. Again, there was no mention of anything on the map either, so in exasperation, I decided to leave the search for now as there was not much time, and instead concentrate on what I could do; follow the map. Maybe a spa would show itself to me when looking for something else, as things like that often do.

The map showed me two nearby places; the Goshoin temple, and Isahaya Park, which were pretty close to each other, both seemed accessible by following the river, and getting back to the station would just be a case of following it back.
The riverbank was accessible from the road and more pleasant looking than tarmac. I headed down into a nature area, the sign depicting various spots to see birds and frogs and various flora, using a stylised drawing of a dragonfly as the mascot, that looked like something else in my opinion... After a short while a large set of stone steps in the water beckoned me over to the other side. This was the rather grand entrance to the very modest looking Goshin temple and grounds. It was a standard, but tidy Buddhist temple which was mildly distracting, although the quiet nature in the river bed drew more of my attention.
I followed the road round to the park; the landscape at the other side was little more than emptied lots awaiting development and a few unspectacular buildings, so I kept my eye on the riverbank for the promised animal life. Rounding a corner imposed by a large wall being in the way, a small stone Torii beckoned me up a dark path into what appeared to be the park grounds.
Climbing higher on paths that zigzagged between several levels, I ended up at an open area; well-matured trees and plants dug themselves into the ground, disturbing mans' puny attempts to bring order using paving and walls. The area was flat and donut shaped, in the centre of which was a huge raised bed full of large rocks and bushes, the highest point of the park which appeared to be inaccessible.

I sat on a bench for a while as an old man admired a statue nearby, and sipped some soda. The place was almost deserted, it being a Monday, which is traditionally the day when things in Japan don't open anyway. At that point, I'd pretty much given up on Isahaya as a place to get my hot water fix - maybe Nagasaki had something better to offer - and instead consigned myself to enjoying a bit of the park and then heading back. Glancing down the hill behind me to see yet more pathways heading off in some other direction which would take a bit to explore, but it was upwards first.
I did a circle around the central raised section; at the front where I had entered it was bathed in sunlight, but the course dappling of trees around the back had given it a much darker feel. I took a second flight of steps up, and was greeted by one of the largest trees I had seen. This was not like the grand ones I had seen in Takachiho that looked like the gods were building a massive fence, this was more along the lines of a rounded, squat tree, perhaps an ancient Camphor with branches going off in all directions.
I stepped over the interwoven branches of several normal sized trees which had almost obscured the pathway beneath - these were tiddlers compared - and approached the big one. It was clear why this tree was held in such regard as a spirit overlooking the city, although the puzzle of whether the park owners planted the tree hundreds of years ago, or whether the tree inspired the park around it was ambiguous.
The original site housed Takashiro Castle, now long gone save for some lanterns and supporting walls that were occasionally visible covered in roots. The tree must have been 200ft high and about 50 feet in circumference, three massive lower branches, themselves the thickness of a decent sized tree, grew up into the heavens and provided the impressive canopy of leaves above. The whole area had a feeing of ancient mystery to it, a place left several hundred years ago to return to nature.
Leaving by what appeared to be the main entrance, I happened on the Spectacle Bridge, a style seen relatively frequently throughout Japan and beyond, named because of the impression it gives when combined with it's reflection. Underneath and around the bridge was a pleasantly picturesque pond which, predictably had a school of Koi swimming around in it. They swam over to me as I balanced on a rock to see what I might have to eat, but quickly got bored when I had none. I took some snaps and then headed back along the river.
Taking the river path rather than the road got me closer to the reed and bamboo beds, which were rewarded with the odd sighting of some of Japans' birds, including this Japanese White-eye in the pic. (birdwatching recommendation after looking up that bird: go here next time!). A last look down one of the commercial districts for any spa or onsen symbols came up with nothing, so I left Isahaya, bothered but not completely disappointed.

It was a quarter to four, which wasn't great considering all I got were a couple of snaps of a big tree but that's the risk you take open exploring. The next express to Nagasaki was in an hour, but a local train was due in 20 mins so I took that. The route in was pretty well developed so little to do but relax on the way in.
Nagasaki is a large city with plenty going on. It shares the unenviable honour of having the crap blown out of it a few days after Hiroshima in 1945. Even though the city has it's share of memorials to the event, it felt a very different city to the Hiroshima that I had visited two years previous. The omnipresent and slightly overpowering paper crane motif was missing from the city, and was replaced by.. nothing. Nothing that you could call a reminder of Nagasaki's past. I'm not saying that Hiroshima was trying to profit from the atrocity; far from it in fact, the place had a deep solemnity with it that was supremely respectful to their dead - it's just that the people of Nagasaki had decided to handle it in a different way. As I left the cavernous cathedral-like station, what greeted me was a bustling, energetic city.
Once thing the two sister cities did have in common was a peace museum site. If I had managed it earlier in the day, I'd have got off at the previous stop at Urakami to go see it, but that could wait until tomorrow. Instead, I used the remaining time before things closed to have a look round. I put the big bag in the lockers just outside the station (400 yen for a small one), climbed the bridge over to the trams and took a look at the map. Closest was the monument to the 26 Christian Missionaries and the adjoining museum.
I managed to find the monument pretty quickly enough, a sombre wall decorated with the statues of 26 martyrs who were executed by crucifixion in the 16th century for practising and preaching Christianity. Behind it was the museum, a rather ugly building with two hideous steeple-like towers growing out of the top. Inside, it apparently records the problems the early missionaries had with trying to get the Japanese people to accept this imposing new religion. Passionate and sometimes violent reactions from the population at large pushed the small congregations underground and until recently in history, not even acknowledged. Unfortunately, the museum was closed, seemingly in the middle of a refurbishment. However, my Japan By Rail book had highlighted another place a few yards down the road that was of more interest to me; the Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum.

Oka Masaharu was one of the survivors of the atomic bomb, and had become a passionate campaigner for the recognition of the Japanese government, and the main peace museum, to recognise the Korean casualties and their treatment by the Japanese before and after the war. He was the guy who managed to get the Korean monument into the Nagasaki peace gardens, and was the inspiration for a similar memorial in Hiroshima, a statue I paid respect to in 2008. Since his death in 1994, his supporters have worked to create a museum to his memory, which opened one year later. The museum expands on Oka's original passions, to include the various atrocities committed by the Japanese in other situations and countries, its aim to show the side that the more mainstream museum is unwilling to include. The website hasn't been updated in more than a decade, and it's English is a bit broken, but it gives a small taste of the museum's aims.

Without condoning their actions, it was disappointing but understandable that the museum doesn't appear on any official tourist guide books, or any of the myriad signposts for all the other tourist spots. I'm guessing that their presence is tolerated but not encouraged. It's a small, converted office building nestled away on a back street, and predictably on a Monday, closed. I peeked through the shutters at the gloomy contents within, and made a note to see it the next day.

Turning round, I had to blink a few times to make sure I'd seen what I thought I'd seen. A massive Buddha rising high up above the houses a few blocks away. Massive as in maybe a hundred feet tall. The sun was getting low, and my hostel for the night was beyond the last stop on the unfamiliar tramway. My camera had hit near-zero battery levels too, so whatever it was would have to be quick.
I short-cut down a back stairway towards the statue, and found a set of steps flanked by a pair of stone lanterns. Heading up, it was clear from some large headstones that I was entering a cemetery. A large flight of stone steps culminated in a gravelled area, a traditional iron bell, and a sizeable graveyard, full of highly polished cubic headstones embossed with gold leaf lettering. The stones spread out up the hill until they were finally hemmed in by houses, accentuating the size of the place. However, the statue was still off in the distance somewhat, so this was not the place to be, though it was interesting.
I was just about to start taking a few pictures when my camera finally died. To add insult to injury, just then an eagle flew down and landed on top of the roof over the bell! (really it did, I'm not making this up just because I have no pictures - the ones here are from the day after). It sat there looking silently down at me, as I complained to it about how unfair it was being, and making it promise to come back again the next day so I could take a photo. I was not happy.

Seeing the last of the sun peeking over the houses I decided to call it a day with the sightseeing and find the hostel. I returned for my bag, and then got the #3 tram to Hotarujaya, the last stop to the east of Nagasaki. Trams in the city, like in Kagoshima, were a flat rate (120 yen) per trip, so I could see this building up. However a day ticket for 500yen was also available, which would be useful tomorrow. The lights turned from ambient to neon and the city turned to night. By the time I had got to the final stop it was late. The tram had taken me most of the way up the final hill, but I still had some way to go. With tired legs I hulked my possessions the final half mile and eventually, thanks to some quite specific directions, found the hostel.
The entrance was up a very traditional back street. Stone and wooden Torii gates marked the front and back entrances, and the small houses and flats were typically snugly placed against each other. At the end of a narrow pathway, a traditionally welcoming ryokan-style sliding door greeted me through their modest garden.

Inside, the hostel had a very traditional ryokan theme. Unusually for a ryokan, the owners - a friendly and welcoming husband and wife couple - spoke very good English. I took my shoes off and they helped me with my heavy backpack up their beautiful but hard wooden stairs to the dorm above. Inside, there was Dave. He was from New Zealand on a similar trip to me. He had just come from Hiroshima, having climbed up Mt. Misen. We shared a couple of quick stories of beautiful views and hungry deer, before I headed back out to sort out more washing.

Downstairs, I asked Yukari, the lady of the house about washing, and she took them off me for 500 yen (wash and dry). We began talking about where I had come from and naturally the Onsen larks came up, to which I took the chance and asked her about whether there was one in Nagasaki she could recommend for tonight. Yukari took me aside and went behind the reception desk, and took out a voucher and a leaflet. This was for one of Nagasaki's most luxurious spa complexes, Fukuno-yu. She explained about a free bus that took people from around the city to the spa in the outskirts of town. I looked at the leaflet - the last bus left the spa at 10pm, and there seemed to be half-hour circulars until then. It was 6.50. I had seen a promising-looking ropeway that would take me up Mt. Inasa that I could maybe fit in on the way. Yukari looked doubtful, but I went back upstairs and gathered my things. On the way back down, I suddenly remembered I had no towel, but fortunately Yukari saved the day. For another couple of hundred yen, I could rent a towel, and.. a small flannel.

I asked about the flannel, exposing my lack of onsen knowledge. 'The flannel is to allow you to protect your dignity, you do not take your towel in', she explained. Oh. I had forgotten, onsen are strictly nudey naked affairs. Yukari went on to mention a confusing selection of dos and donts about onsen etiquette, mostly passing right over my head. My confidence was falling, but I had decided now that I was going to go for it. I thanked her and left for the trams once more.

The trams seemed to take forever at the stop to arrive. Every time one arrived it filed into the tram shed and refused to come out, until one of them finally relented and took me back into the city. By now, the darkness had completely fallen around me and the place was lit up by a thousand street signs. During the journey I decided that the ropeway could wait a day, it was late and I didn't want to rush my first time in the baths. I got off at the train station. The bus departed from somewhere outside, although I could not place exactly where. I looked around, but there was nothing in English, so I tried to scour the timetable signs for the Kanji on the leaflet. I was getting increasingly flustered as the bus was due, and there were several coming and going each minute, any one of which could be the free bus. A moment later, a trio of ageing but quite feisty women asked me (in Japanese) what I was doing. I explained as best I could showing them the leaflets and my towel, and one of them broke from the pack and beckoned me on. Surprised at her athleticism, she got a head start on me, and flagged down any approaching bus that would come near and ask them if they were the one I was after. Occasionally she would beckon to me for the name, and, breathlessly, would repeat 'Fukuno-yu'.

As we languished at one end of the terminal, I heard yelping from the other end; the other two ladies had found the bus, waiting at the stop just next to the lockers. They waved frantically to us, and thanking my tour guide, I rushed as fast as I could to the other end and got on. I needn't have bothered with the running as we then stayed motionless for another five minutes, making me look a bit silly.

The bus took it's time making it's way through the night traffic. Some of the lights took an age to turn green, and there were a half-dozen stops along the way, but eventually we began to climb the hill out of the north end of the city. The bustle of cars faded a little and we turned off onto a steep, high-walled road, at the top of which was Fukuno-yu.
Sat at the end of a large car park, the modern-looking building did not look like the traditional sort of bath house I had been accustomed to seeing in various animated series. No Niea_7-style run down shack, and no Yubaba to greet me at the door. Through the automatic doors, a woman tended her souvenir and health food shop. Large baskets of apples and bags of nuts sat next to necklaces and branded towels. The bus driver, who had worked out that this was my first time, had come in with me and explained to one of the staff about my needs. She came over with a big smile and guided me over to a large bank of lockers.

After ditching my shoes, I was taken to the reception desk and told to wait in line. I looked around; not only was it a bath house, there were other things here as well. A screen behind the counter showed massage rooms and gym classes as well as a peak at the onsen itself. Behind me I saw rows of relaxing sofas, and what looked like a restaurant and buffet area at the end. I could get myself a bit of nosh while here and save a bit of time looking elsewhere. It was looking pretty promising.

How to use Onsen
Although Fukuno-yu was modern, it's bathhouse rules were pretty much identical to the ones at any other. It's split into separate male and female baths, and getting to the point where you are in the water can be (and was) confusing to me to begin with, but generally you follow these steps:
  1. Take off your shoes at the entrance, and place them in one of the lockers.
  2. Take the key to the reception desk. This gets swapped with a different key on a wrist tag. This is used for payment when you have done. (in more fancy places such as Fukuno-yu, you use it as a swipe card at drinks machines as well).
  3. Go in and find the locker in the changing rooms. Strip off completely. Everything goes in the locker, even your towel. The only thing you can take in with you is your little 'modesty towel' if you have one (it's recommended!). Trunks are a wussy cop-out and you will be derided as such.
  4. Go into the bath area and find the pre-wash section. This is usually pretty obvious - individual booths with a stool, a combi tap/shower, a load of soap/shampoo and a bowl to sloosh yourself with. It is good manners to give yourself a wash before getting into the baths.
  5. Once cleaned, choose a bath and wade in trying not to disturb others. There's sometimes a very cold one (~20c) and some hotter ones (~40-50c). If you don't want the cold ones, start with the coldest of the hot ones and work up until you find your level.
  6. When done, optionally have another go in the pre-wash section. By the time you've finished, this is actually more enjoyable than when you came in.
  7. Take your key and pay, then get your shoes back with the other key.
Oh, and after a good soak in a steaming bath like this (especially if you have a sauna there as well), you'll need a drink, so take plenty of coins for the vending machines. A drink will never taste as good as when you've just come out of an onsen.

As a foreigner in a foreign land, used to covering my bits when hitting the baths, it was a pretty weird thing to do removing everything and consigning it to the locker. Several men in various states of undress went about their business quite naturally, ignoring completely the female staff member that trotted through a moment later as I was removing my pants.

One of the men picked up on my inexperience when I tried to take my (large) towel with me into the baths. 'No towel' he said, so with some awkwardness I put it back, to the stares of several men who chuckled at the silly westerner.

This was it; I grabbed my little towel and held it against my bits, and walked quickly through the doors. What greeted me was much like a normal swimming baths; tiled surfaces everywhere, except the large wooden beams holding the roof up, and the smell of minerals mixing with the sloosh and gurgle of running water. I did my pre-washing and then headed for the pool.

The next difference from a swimming baths was the layout. Instead of a single pool, there were four small ones. An introductory pool, with a big LCD above reading '18C' was closest. I dipped a foot in and took it straight back out - it was freezing, or at least felt like it. A man got straight in up to his neck and sat there smiling. I moved onto the next one.

38 degrees sounded much more body temperature-like, and it was pleasant. I waded in and took up residence next to two others. There was just enough room to stretch my legs out and get mostly underwater. It was pretty pleasant. I lay there for ten minutes or so with my little towel rolled up on my head, but I was eyeing up the next level.

Next to an understandably popular row of pods, each one a generous sunken bath with a high-strength jacuzzi in it (and each one taken), was the third pool. The sign said '40C'. I got in and worked my way around as people got out. It was a little hot, but still quite manageable. I tried to relax against the pool side in a sitting position with my legs out, but my bum kept sliding and I ended up perilously close to letting the submarine rise to surface and use the periscope, if you catch my drift. My eyes fixed on a recently vacated bit next to the window, a seated area under the water where I could sit normally. I went for it before someone else did.

Sitting down, I felt a slight twinge, which since I have a dodgy back that sometimes complains if I twist the wrong way, I didn't pay much heed to, until I felt a BLOODY BIG STING IN MY SIDE. I lept to my feet in shock.

The man in the adjacent booth explained in a single word - 'electricity'. Somehow that part of the water (and not the whole pool) was receiving sizeable electric pulses from inside. On encouragement, I parked myself slowly and with expectation back in the seat. The jolts were random, sometimes a small pulse that felt like your arse was being needled and massaged at the same time, and then another JOLT! and I'd be hard pressed to stay in one place.

It all got too much, so I got out. However, it wasn't over. There was a door, and the door led outside into the cool evening air.

The warm Nagasaki night was perfect. The outside section consisted of three pools varying from 40-45C, a trio of single seat baths constantly being refilled by bamboo tubes of water, and a couple of sunbeds. The place was dotted with large rock formations and large bamboo bushes and a couple of trees gave it a more natural feel - if you ignored the 60+inch television in the centre which everyone was looking at.

The two pools at the front were pretty much identical, had steps down to about four feet. The other side ended in a glass wall, beyond which were the neon lights of Nagasaki hustling and bustling some way below. I got in and bathed for as long as I could in the hot water, and then stood up to look out over the city. It was incredibly calming, not to mention a bit liberating, and by now, my bits were on full show to anyone whose line of sight happened to stray in their direction, but I didn't care. I had been naturalised, accepted and was completely at ease, mostly because everyone else was doing it without batting an eyelid.

I bathed for some more, watching mad people on a Japanese game show on the telly. Eventually, one of the individual baths became free so I got up and headed towards it.. and nearly fell over unconscious.

My body had become super-relaxed, and the blood had gone from my brain. The sudden change in altitude had a massive effect, but fortunately there was a font of cool water that I steadied myself with, and using the bowls provided, cooled myself down with as well.

There was another door next to the sunbeds. A sauna. Eschewing the baths for the moment, I gave it a try. There were two rooms, both extremely hot. The right hand one was a dry room. The LED said 60C inside. The room was lined with chairs and in the middle was a large barrel of course rock salt. A man was taking handfuls and rubbing it over himself, so I followed suit. He sat for a while and then headed into the other room. I sat for a moment so it didn't look too weird, and then followed.

The other room was small, tiled top to bottom, with some raised sections for sitting in around a shallow pool. Through the mist the readout said 60C once more. The heat (as with most saunas) was intense, but I could feel my pores opening up so much you could poke a drinking straw down them and suck up the bubbling fat.

Three minutes, (I counted) was all I could manage. I headed out and used the font to clean off the salty water. Now I knew what the sunbeds were for. Woozy and intensely relaxed, I flopped onto one of them and nearly fell asleep right there. I had never felt so utterly calm and rested in my life. Slowly cooling down in the night air was the most fantastic feeling.

Utterly relaxed, I spent the next hour or so slipping between sauna, pool, bath and sunbed, and becoming an onsen addict on the spot. The night air, the minerals and salts, and the relaxed and open atmosphere was nothing like what I had expected, and I loved it.

Eventually, as the clock turned about 8.30, I figured it was time to head out. I slowly headed back inside, and tried in vain to use the cold bath once more. A good scrub down in the wash area and then out.

Back downstairs, my legs were like jelly. How I didn't just tumble down the stairs I'll never know. I had already bought, and swigged, a couple of drinks from the changing rooms machines, but I was super thirsty, and it was going down very well. Stocked up, I went to the restaurant (the buffet had shut) and had a big bowl of Udon with some rice parcels and fish as a side. Oh and as much water as I could get away with.

Expecting the worst, I paid at the counter, and was surprised it only came to 1800yen (about £15) all in including the meal - a pretty good bargain. I walked with some wobbliness to the awaiting bus and headed back to the station, got a tram, and reached the hostel once more.

When I arrived back, I was surprised to see Adenata, the Czech woman from Aso, who had got the same idea as me and had come to stay. We talked for a bit in the communal area, including the excellent Fukuno-yu, which piqued her interest as she was a bit of an onsen addict. I let her know what I had learned about getting there while checking my emails, and then went up to the room. Adenata hit the third bed with me and Dave on the other bunk.

I have never slept so soundly in my entire life. Go to Japan, and try the onsen. DO IT NOW. RIGHT NOW.

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