Monday, 18 November 2013

Onsen Dream


Kurokawa (Black river) is a beautiful onsen (hot spring) town nestled within the breathtaking scenery of Kumamoto Prefecture. The Yokaro bus, whose faded-ceiling-chandelier-glory added a touch of old elegance to the journey, smoothly navigated us through the freshest mountain air on a two hour jaunt from Fukuoka. We were deposited outside the picturesque spa town amongst our exclusively well turned out female fellow day-trippers . There are twenty four onsen scattered around the town, specialising in rotenburo (outdoor spas), a fact I heard repeated as if a mantra at the disbelief of the scale of tiny Kurokawa. Our host was the seventh generation run Okyakuya Ryokan, where, immediately welcomed, we clad ourselves in orange yukata, with matching toe-finger socks and the licence for relaxation was granted. 

Shuffling about the winding sleepy streets in borrowed sandals, armed with creams and scrubs, we tiptoed out from the chilly dusk into an onsen tucked within a cave. Tentatively exposed and shivering, we performed the simple bathing ritual, acclimatising the goose bumps with cups of soft warmth. A certain mischief crept through my hesitation at kon'yoku (mixed bathing). The thrill of being submerged in hot natural pools while spying on unsuspecting clothed passers-by through the maple trees quickly doused any anxiety of being naked outdoors. With those first feelings of awkwardness dissolved in the geothermal waters, we continued to explore more onsen, together and apart, alone and with fellow bathers, by rivers or waterfalls, in the woods, and in secret. Our skin became supple, our heads sleepy, bodies melted and pores yearning for yet more warm soothing waters. Lolling from one decadence to the next, I found serenity in examining the tiny nuances in natures' palate. Drunk on mindfulness, lost to autumn, it was all too beautiful

I drank in the ambers of koyo (autumn leaves) and was satiated. With my eyes fed after longing to connect to home via those familiar giving leaves, I was fulfilled. My full mind now comforted, yet more nurture came from the bounty of food riches presented. Sashimi, tofu, tempura, daikon, natto, mountain potato, yamame river fish, rabbit-shaped quails egg, stuffed lotus root, steamed egg custard, shitake broth, macha chiffon cake. Treks up hills in search of soba fuelled views. Teapots silently replenished with sencha. Futon feasts and onsen dipped breakfasts. This is Japan and it keeps giving.