Tuesday 3 September 2013

Day 10 -Yokote to Kakunodate (30 miles)

We reassembled the bikes outside the hotel and set off in search of Samurai houses. Leaving along Route 13 towards Akita gave horrible flashbacks from yesterday, but the weather remained dry for now if very overcast. Temperature read 24 degrees on a sign leaving town.

We passed the turn off for Hotta Fortress and carried on about 5 more miles until signs for Kakunodate directed us right. A later sign for the Hotta Fortress took us into flat rice fields with jagged mountains along the skyline disappearing into cloud.

At Hotta Fortress we walked around the reconstruction of the huge timber entrance gate and up to the hill fort area with views across the fields.
The remains of the fort looked like one of those Danel Buren sculptures.

Back in the car park a lovely lady selling food and gifts directed us to the information centre where the gentleman in the office helped give us directions and called a friend Chiaki who spoke excellent English and offered to be help if we needed assistance later on our journey through Japan.

As we came out, an enormous bank of black cloud swept over us followed by torrential rain driving horizontally across the car park. The lady from the shop beckoned us inside and fed us biscuits and green tea until it stopped raining, and an origami sculpture she was in the process of making when we arrived.

Another lady on a moped, Yuuko, invited us across the road to an unassuming building opposite the information centre which turned out to be the archaeological centre for all the excavations in the area. The director vey kindly showed us the collection dating back to prehistory with some amazing 10-11th century swords and arrowheads, the result of 30 years work in the field.

Everybody was incredibly kind and hospitable, waving us off as the clouds cleared and the sun shone long enough for us to cycle on to Kakunodate and the 350 year old Samurai Houses.

Bathing with the Yakuza

The Onsen experience is part of Japanese culture and you will find woodcuts showing men with hair in topknots sharing communal baths.

When I first read about this I imagined childhood experience of chlorinated swimming pools with plasters floating on the bottom or forced saunas in Boy Scouts, but Japanese onsen is much more cultured.

Arriving at a public onsen you pay ¥500 or so and ¥200 more if you need towels. (Towels play an important part and there are rules to follow.)

Men and women are usually separated and there are entrances within the reception with drapes hanging to midway down in red/pink for women and blue or green for men. The hieroglyph on the drape says men or women for those who can actually read Japanese.

You may need to remove your shoes here or even before the reception area, but you will be barefoot from when you enter till you leave the onsen. Some provide plastic slippers but I have yet to find men's size 10 or above.

Behind the drape is a standing space before a sliding door into the changing area. Closing this behind you, you enter a recognisable, if surprisingly clean, changing room with lockers, basins, mirrors and benches. Some have open shelves with baskets for you to put your clothes and big towel in. Valuables in the locker and a wrist strap key leaves you naked and ready for the next stage. Remember your towel etiquette now.

You have a big towel and a little towel. The big towel is for drying off in the changing area only. Under no circumstances should it go into the bathing area. This would be 'bad'*

Taking your little towel with you through the next sliding door, you enter the bath house proper. A row of showers with taps sit at knee height off the floor with a shelf and mirror suitable only for small children. A number of very low plastic stools the size of buckets explain this, as you are now supposed to squat down on your bucket stool and lather up with the bottles of soap and shampoo sitting on the shelf in front of you. You then wash this off sitting, NOT standing, in order to avoid splashing your fellow bathers, and then towel off with your little towel to remove excess water and remaining soap before getting in the pool.

The onsen itself is a naturally heated spring and depending where you go it may be clear, rust coloured or milky, and be warm to unbearably hot. I also heard of one famous onsen with a pH level close to pure acid! Doze off at your peril...

Some pools are only big enough for 5 or 6 people but some could accommodate both home and away teams plus the ref. The pools are about bath depth so you can sit on the bottom with your shoulders just above the water. There's also a step along one side so you can cook just your legs, or even sit on the side and poach your feet pink.

Counting to 100 you lie in the pool, then towel off with the little towel before repeating or showering or plunging into an icy cold bath to one side. Each time you dry off with the small towel. I've seen men shaving and cleaning their teeth while sitting naked on their little upturned bucket. Some men wear the little towel round their head whilst in the bath. Think of Rambo or the Deerhunter.

Many onsen which also advertise in English warn that tattoos are not allowed and you should cover the offending body art with a large sticking plaster. The link between tattoos and yakuza gangsters is still strong in some areas.

However some public onsen seem less concerned and I saw men with MA-husive tats across their shoulders and backs. Important not to keep eye contact with people too long in Japanese onsen.

Some onsen provide a steam room but I haven't tried this out yet.

Apparently soap was very expensive in the 1600s, so people used bran or rice husks. Also bath houses were considered dodgy (possibly doubling up with brothels) until 1800s when they became popular and acceptable in polite society.

So you are now squeaky clean and lightly boiled. You want to go and change but WAIT! You must remember to dry off with your little towel (now pretty wet) before heading out to the changing room.

Only now can you use your big towel to dry properly and get dressed.

*This is unless it is a mixed bath in which case it appears women should wear the towel even in the water to cover their modesty. Not sure about how this works as you then need two big towels.

Clean and happy we finished the day with a shioyake fish dinner, delicious ..

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