Day 3 – Narita to Kamakura’s Cultural Treasures and Atami Hot Springs Onsen
Our automated wakeup call this morning was timely and funny: the heavily accented words “Good Morning” repeated over and over again with the tinny notes of Fur Elise playing gingerly in the background; unexpected, but effective in tickling the funny center of the brain and eliciting our wakeup. We are well rested and anxious to experience the cultural treasures that Kamakura will offer us on today’s walking tour, and the anticipated respite and refreshing soaks into the hot spa resort hotel in Atami. As we prepare for breakfast, Nathan notices that we have two navy patterned robes, in addition to the western terry cloth robes. Japanese style and design can be seen in the little indicative details, such as the H –presumably for Hilton- in the cotton lounging Yukata robes provided by the hotel that Nathan wore this morning.
Breakfast was a delicious table spread of continental and hot American breakfast, with a selection of Miso soup for Japanese breakfast takers; although I’m definitely one for trying new things, I passed on the hot seaweed broth for breakfaast and stuck with the western hot breakfast. On offer were many fruits and grains, yogurt, scrambled and made-to-order eggs, potatoes, sausages and bacon to name just the basics. And pastries were divine, made with true butter, not lard, which was such a pleasant surprise on par with French or Italian pastry chef delicacies. Unbelievably, even after two filling meals onboard Singapore Airlines and the comfort porridge dish last night, we were quite nosh; we enjoyed the opportunity to top-up and recharge our energy for full day ahead.
As we get underway, our tour guide Maiko outlines our trip this week and for today, and also provides a nice concise rundown of Japanese culture. Everything from shoe removal requirements, to basic Japanese expressions, and –for the avid shoppers, department store VAT refunds. Maiko points out current difficulties of the farming industry as we drive through small family-owned farms through the Chiba prefecture; she shares her knowledge about rice cultivation and the challenges that farmers face financially (excuse the alliteration), noting that most need to work second jobs to supplement their income; contrast this with the minimum wage earners working part time at McDonald’s Tokyo making about 1000 Yen an hour ($11). Our background information continues about Japan’s 7000 islands, of which 400 are inhabited and the critical significance of even the smallest uninhabited islands which may be contested with Korea and Russia due to fishing rights and the role that such plays in the economy. In response to a traveler’s question, Maiko announced that Japan has over 100 earthquakes per day… most undetectable by human senses. We learn about the aging population, and the very low birthrate of only 1.2 childbirths, the interminable waiting list (four years!) to put a child in day care which has perhaps discouraged many women from having children, and the detrimental impact on the national economy. We also learn about the archipelago of Japan and its many locales that run very long North to South, from the Northernmost Hokkaido which shares a region similar to Siberia and similar climates; we begin to understand how the dramatic climactic regions impact the regions’ cuisine, linguistic dialect, and even the look of the peoples. Maiko’s narration also offered assistance for independent touring around Tokyo and our upcoming destinations, offering to customize walking tours or provide information for independent explorers wanting to venture out on their own separate from the group in between our scheduled tours.
Today we will journey across the Tokyo Aqua Line, which is a combination underwater tunnel and bridge that I can’t quite get my head around. But, as we commence our journey, I begin to understand. The Aqua Line was planned and conceived for about thirty years from the sixties, with construction taking nine years; however the benefit to the local population is tremendous, cutting the travel time by 70% and saving over an hour’s drive around the bay. Initially, the toll was 3000 ¥ for each crossing of a regular vehicle, over $30 each way; recently, after much controversy, the toll was reduced to 1000 ¥. The Aqua Line starts as a bridge spanning Tokyo Bay, then plunges sixty meters under water to continue as Japan’s ‘Chunnel’ and splits as a Y, veering left to Kamakura. Beneath the waters, the line cost in excess of 1.4 Trillion Yen to build, and was constructed with state of the art rotary drill 40 meters in circumference, which we were able to see and snap photos of on the midpoint island. The island is a large rest area with shops, grocery stores, and nice snack areas. We enjoyed soft serve ice cream, and a nice surprise stuffed pancake treat with red bean or custard sweet filling.
Our arrival in Kamakura passes by the industrial city and shores of Yokahama, lauded as the import/export capital for exotic goods brought in and introduced from outside Japan. Arriving to the Kamakura proper, we wind our way through a narrow one way street hugged closely on both sides by hillsides covered in greenery and bamboo. Winding through, the closely hugging hills very reminiscent of Japanese natural landscapes give way to small traditional wooden homes spreading out on the hilly landscape of Kamakura. The first stop is the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto shrine. This typical example of the Shinto religious sites is flanked by many red gates that are iconic of Japan’s architectural elements and evocative of the spiritualism of a peoples that follow two paths, Shinto and Buddhism. In walking around the grounds, one cannot help but notice the white paper tress that dot one corner of the shrine. In Shinto, fortune and luck play an integral role; for a small donation of about a dollar, you shake one of several rectangular boxes until a stick comes out of a small hole and is read by a priest who gives you a fortune scroll, sometimes on different colored paper strips. If your fortune is good, you can carry the paper in your wallet or around with you. A bad fortune is delivered on a white strip of paper, and is left on the shrine’s holy grounds, tied to branches of an artificial wire tree for the good spirits to cleanse and keep away from you.
After meandering through the shrine, we are lead down to the nearby ponds where the most surprising of lotus flowers were in full bloom. In our years of travel, through many countries and regions where we’ve seen this plant, never had we witnessed a variety with stalks that rise over a dozen and a half feet up from the pond’s surface, like earth’s fingertips gracefully reaching up to heaven with lilac white fingertips of lotus. Maiko leads us down the walking paths, turning off the main thoroughfare Wakamiya Oji which leads up to the shrine. This street is lined with cherry blossom trees on both sides of a pedestrian median cutting through town from the top of the hillside down to the ocean. In spring, the pink and rose blossoms form a canopy so thick and surreal it is world-renowned for its beauty and grandeur. We walk to nearby and parallel Komachi street, which is the epitome of a small Japanese “alley” street of shops and restaurant. Meandering down, we pass many small shops featuring various small goods, restaurants and cafés, and noodle and curry houses. Not very hungry but wanting to take shelter from the hanging humidity and heat, we wind our way to Dankazura Konsuzu restaurant, a famous soba noodle shop featuring cold buckwheat noodles as the main course. After a mild wait when we learn that the shop makes its own noodles from scratch, we are escorted inside. We are seated at an unusual table, a mixture half traditional floor mat design and table and chair where the raised flooring has a sunken floor under the table; after taking off your shoes, you climb onto the floor and slip your feet under the table down to the hole. Refreshingly simple and light, our soba noodle dish is complemented by cold sake and even colder water. Upon finishing, we sample the house’s famous mochi desert consisting of a sticky gooey square gelatinous sweet that defies further description other than ‘Yummie’.
On the opposite side of Kamakura city sits the serene Daibutsu, a giant bronze Buddha statue world renowned for the peaceful expression it holds on its face, beautiful beyond description. I had read that the pose and expression on the Buddha was very evocative of peace and tranquility, and seen several photos. None of this prepared me for the personal manifestation of calm and resolve that sitting on a bench looking at the statue elicited. I was quite awestruck at the serenity I began to feel; a cynic might point out that I may have been experiencing mild euphoric heat exhaustion or dehydration, as I was hot and mildly dehydrated. I like to think of it as mild or temporary enlightenment. Flanking the Buddha on each side were two intricate flower stalks that caught my eye and Nathan’s camera lens. Around the statue, arranged in a gigantic square, remnants of the columns that held the gigantic roof of the housing structure remain, the building itself washed away twice in tsunamis or extreme weather. Nathan is transfixed by huge rope sandals hanging on the side wall, snapping away photos of this odd item of worship sure to tickle the fancies of foot fetishers everywhere.
The last stop for the day is Odawara castle, in the quaint small town of Odawara, smaller even than quaint Kamakura. Odawara’s local industry specializes in paper lanterns and fish cakes, both of which are apparently on a rapid decline according to our guide, Maiko. The most amazing thing about imperial architecture is the steep perspective and angles; buildings, although majestic, appear smaller and closer than they really are and much shorter. Consequently, walking up to Odawara castle lasts much longer than you anticipate and the castle is much taller than it looks. This said, the steep stairs and climb to the top are certainly worth the effort for the view that you are rewarded at its conclusion. The castle itself has been converted to a museum, and is only a shadow of its former glory, having been reconstructed in the sixties after internal political conflict and turmoil and fires claimed their toll on the original structure. Sadly, only three original castles in Japan remain standing in their full glory; Odawara castle is not one of them, yet still a great living example of the architecture and feudal landholdings of the Tokagawa and Edo Shogunate period.
Our day’s explorations concluded, we begin our drive to our Onsen Japanese hot spa hotel. As we enter the modest lobby of this oceanfront resort spa brimming with Japanese locals, we are welcomed by Lyre music played gracefully by one of the hotel staff’s ladies dressed in her family’s resplendent Kimono, and offered a refreshing grape juice cocktail to wet our parched road-weary throats. A brisk walk around the grounds allows us to discover the many walking paths and lovely overlooks that dot the resort’s grounds, offering independent low-level hiking and panoramic picture opportunities of the sea and craggy rocks that dot the seaside. After check in, we decide to freshen up in our room prior to dinner, since we will not have adequate time to head to the bath. Although a standard room and sized for Japanese sense of space (ie small), the room itself is quite adequate since there is not a bed taking up half the room. Instead, you arrive at a vestibule which is level with the floor outside your door. Here, you are expected and directed to remove your outside shoes, don the inside slippers, and make your way across the main room’s tatami matt flooring. Should you need the bathroom, you step out of the indoor slippers, into the deep green WC labeled bathroom slippers, and keep both separate from each other, the idea being not to contaminate the home with the bath room or outside. It’s worth mentioning that the toilet is in its own separate ‘closet’, with the sink and bathtub forming the second small room adjoining. The sink and bath tub are molded plastic resin that forms parts of the walls and flooring, with panels completing the very efficient yet wholly unimpressive design. I believe the budget for the room’s bathroom was spent on the fully automated full functional toilet, this time one with integrated music controls and speakers built in. We noticed that the bath towels were rather small and thin, very similar to ones at the Hilton Narita… it seems that even deluxe and luxury hotels catering to westerners will be challenged to provide ‘jumbo’ towels. Not surprisingly, you can expect the towels and bathrobes to be sized smaller that the average you are used to, although luckily the cotton kimino styled robe, the Yukata, is amply cut and long enough to feel as though it was indeed sized for bigger folk. The tradition of wearing the Yukata, which began with imperial court nobles using them as lounge wear, has progressed to daily use in homes as P-Jays and at traditional inns and baths as the acceptable clothing for lounging around the grounds and even for dinner.
Our highlight for tonight’s evening is the Kaiseki dinner banquet and Karaoke. We are beckoned to arrive at the banquet room, wearing our Yukatas, and seated on tatami matted floors with individual low tables, a cushion with light back support, positioned such to accommodate those sitting lotus position. The experience of sitting itself, and the ensuing repositioning of one’s legs is a comedy in and of itself to take home as a souvenir. Once seated, we scan our tray: the appetizer consists of tiny morsels of pure pleasure, ranging from a nameless large seeded fruit reminiscent of the best raspberry, to a small sea snail, baked fish, and a variety of delectable lightly pickled vegetables. On the top left and right corners are two large pots with their own mini burners that our server turns on individually, as our Karaoke hostess (Maiko, of course) makes her initial comments. As our hot pots cooking, we enjoy our first course of sashimi, featuring slices of intricately presented raw tuna, halibut, salmon and crawfish; I opted to throw the little shrimpy critter into my hotpot rather than eat it raw. The hot pot on my left featured a seafood stew with rice and savory ingredients, while the hot pot on my right contained possibly the best chicken I’ve ever had in my life: juicy, flavorful, and savory wrapped in a soft crumbling texture without being mushy. Additional main courses followed: mushroom sauce drowned baked cod, pumpkin dumpling, soba noodles, and our palette cleanser cantaloupe melon slices. Seating will definitely be painful or at best challenging for most westerners as our bodies are simply not conditioned to sitting on the flat tatami mats. The delectable cuisine, however, makes the minor aches worthwhile, and you can always shift to a sideways ‘side saddle’ seating or put your legs out under the small table. Our meal concludes with much frivolity and karaoke, to the blissful sounds of satiated stomachs…. I could fly out to Atami just for the amazing food!
But wait, there’s more: the main attraction at an Onsen hot springs bath resort is the Onsen hot spring bath! As with everything in Japan, there is a process, nay a ritual, to using the hot springs bath and for bathing. In traditional Japanese baths, men and women bathe separately. At this Onsen, the two sections are quite unique, each with its own outside ocean-adjacent section, and are swapped overnight to allow both men and women to experience both sides of the baths in even one overnight’s stay.
[Nathan] There are many types of hot springs in Japan, with each spring purported to help with different health conditions, all sharing a few basic rules since the purity laws for hot springs in Japan are very strict. When you enter the baths, you remove your shoes or slippers then enter the changing area. Clothing of any kind is not permitted in or near the water so you strip down to your birthday suit, placing all of your belongings (including the bath towel to dry with) in either a locker or reed basket. The hotel provides one sanitized shrink-wrapped small wash cloth specifically for usage in your pre-spring shower, but that’s it.
The “shower” is in a small area where you will sit on a stool and wash thoroughly. The main goal of this exercise is to scrub, scrub, and scrub some more, removing dirt and exfoliating dead skin lightly off your body. It is highly recommended that you make grunting sounds while scrubbing yourself down as this communicates to your watchful neighbors that you are indeed earnestly cleaning yourself; done correctly, you will receive smiles or nods of acknowledgement as a non-Japanese who actually knows how to clean themselves, something westerners have a bad reputation of not doing properly. Don’t forget to thoroughly rinse all the soap at least two additional times after you believe you’ve already rinsed all the soap off of you and then rinse the bowl and stool, placing them back as they were for the next person to use…. Showing you are extra clean will keep your hard earned reputation of cleanliness while even one bubble of soap brought into the natural hot spring will label you more unclean than carriers of the plague. Once you have completed this obstacle course of propriety you can finally enter the springs, and relax; this particular Onsen’s qualities are for relaxing muscles and aches which is perfectly suited for weary travelers. Lounging in the hot water, melting the pains of the day’s aches and pains, you can float into peaceful bliss. Upon exiting the Onsen, repeat the bathing process and any remaining spectators will soon become life-long friends who respect your overly zealous scrubbing and cleansing, and spread legend about the white man/women who came to Atami Japan and properly used an Onsen.
[Marc, resuming] Tonight’s sleeping setup may well be disagreeable to some as it was for me, the one-inch flat mattress placed atop the tatami thrush mats being insufficient to provide any cushioning and resulting in my being awakened by discomfort half a dozen times throughout the night and unable to get full nights rest. I could not envision sleeping more than two nights at this traditional inn. That said, though, I would gladly come back to the Inn to experience the ocean, nearby hiking, the baths, and the unique atmosphere (coupled with excellent Japanese cuisine!) that an Onsen has to offer.
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