Thursday, April 22, 2010

Isawa Onsen

Rushing to Shinjuku station we filled out our paper work, grabbed our rail pass, and then headed off to catch our train from Tokyo to the Isawa-Onsen.

That process was far more hectic than those lines make it out to be, but never mind that – we had our rail passes, the magic cardboard booklets that would let us go pretty much anywhere in the country we wanted to without further payment. These are gems to be held and loved. Only available to foreign tourists, the JR pass is a wonderful investment for anyone looking to see Japan. I'll never travel without.

Well – I will if they screw it up. I hear the EuroRail pass used to be like this, just get on the train and go. But now you need to pay booking fees, and all that. Not so with the JR pass. You want to reserve a seat? Free. Say you miss that train, free to book a new one. Want to book every train for the next three hours? Go ahead. Just hope no one else needed those seats. Still – it's not costing you a dime, and you'll be prepared to travel just about anywhere and anywhen you want.

Booking our tickets so late, we were split up amongst three different cars. But that was alright, it gave me an excuse to walk around when my legs needed stretching. It was also discovered that on Japanese trains seats can be swiveled into friendship mode, having two rows face each other. I'm sure this is probably so they don't need to turn the train around, just move the seats and start going the other direction. But I prefer to think of it as Japan's way of suggesting people get to know each other.

When we finally arrived at our new digs it seemed rather lovely, too lovely, though the town was somewhat of a drag.

Never mind that, we were just a fifteen minute train away from Kofu. There was a castle in Kofu! I'd never seen a Japanese castle before. Yawn. There's reason for that. It' just a wooden hut on a hill. Lord of the Rings this was not. Still, it was lovely, and there was a cherry blossom tree. I just needed to move a garbage can behind some bushes to clear it from my shot.

Also, I discovered that rolling down hills is all sorts of fun, save for when you stop on the gravel below. I wonder if the previous owners of the castle ever rolled down the hill for kicks.

A few kilometers from the castle was a shrine. That was our next destination, after a quick refueling on Mackers. Yeah, we'd been eating a lot of McDonald's lately, but my god those Shaka Shaka! You don't understand!

The magic of memory has removed the painfully long hike – more than just a few kilometers – from the castle. Curse you map.

Still, seeing the arching gates and exploring inside was still a fantastic experience. There were, of course, more blossom (or blu-somes as I'd, for reasons I can't quite understand or recall, taken to calling them.) There were math questions all over this shrine. There also happened to be chickens walking around, leading one of our illustrious companions to cry out, “this place is just like Waterloo – math and cocks everywhere.”


Once Kofu was behind us, and we'd made our way back to our far too nice hotel, diner was ready to be served. Kneeling on the ground in front of our low tables we were served by a Japanese woman. Dish after dish was brought to us. And it was wonderful, and quite a treat. This meal alone seemed to have been worth the price of entry to the hotel. And all things being equal, it probably was the main part of the price – as our room was a simple floor with mattresses down. Yeah, it's a traditional Japanese sleeping space, and while I liked it quite a lot, it's not what others would call five starts. For me? Fantastic – and, you know, the meal... The meal!

Japanese food – I love it. Are there Japanese restaurants in Toronto? I've never seen any that I recall – and no, Sushi places do not count.

After dinner we went to the onsens. For those who don't know, these are traditional Japanese group baths. You shower and clean yourself before going into the bath, and then place your modesty towel on your head, once you're submerged. Then you're sitting in a warm bath – in our case, an outside rocky pool that was far better than the one inside (as the heat was just far too much in there) with a large number of people. The two onsens were divided by gender. Hmm by gender or by sex? They probably would have been divided by sex, now that I think better of my word choice.

So as it was, a number of us were in one, while the two girls were in the other (apparently taking pictures. I don't question these things, but I tell you what – we all left our cameras back in the room. And it was, no doubt, for the best!)

We also dubbed the type of crouched moving done in army video games as wang walking. Confused? Go to an onsen, it will make a lot of sense very quickly.

After an hour or so, it was back to our room, watch some tv, wonder where the girls are as they should have been back (one fell asleep – ai ya – that's nearly a death sentence. Considering she had already slipped between the train and the tracks – such a thing should not be humanly possible... both feet/legs wedged between track and train. She was pulled out and saved, but really – Japan is trying to kill her.), put on our fantastic yukata, and then have a ninja dance party.

There was also a Taiko drum show – but how could that ever compare to Ninja dance party? It was like regressing back to high school, or even the pre-high school days.

Fantastic! Then to sleep – there was a breakfast buffet the next day that probably shouldn't be missed, even if breakfast in Japan is normally just fish and rice.

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