Sunday, June 19, 2011

Greatest. Thing. Ever.

Closing in on the end of our 3 week tour of (bits of) Japan, and inspired by this newspaper article that basically described an experience of watching an active volcano while lying in hot volcanic sand, we just HAD to make sure to have a suna-yu in Ibusuki. The Toronto Star article indicated that this tradition began some 350 years ago and originated in Ibusuki, but Beppu seems to have quite a history with this type of "sand bath" as well, possibly even back to the Nara period (~700). Anyway, I can't find anything verifiable on the interwebs at present, so I just need to get to the good stuff.

The. Greatest. Thing. Ever.

By the time we got to Kagoshima, nearly a week ago, it was clear that the rainy season had begun. Forecasts ranged from "light rain" to "rain" to "moderate rain" to "heavy rain" to "thunderstorms", and mostly seemed to settle on "heavy rain". Figuring that rain wouldn't greatly interrupt our sand bath experience, we got on the train to Ibusuki to seek THIS. Since we were practically there already, we also decided to "hike" out to the small island of Chiringashima, which is accessible at low tide via a tombolo! Yay! Tomobolo! (This is one of my favourite geology jargon words). We sought shelter for about 5 minutes from the torrential downpour, once it lessened to "moderate rain" we set off down the tombolo. Then the weather dramatically changed to "thunderstorm"... we figured we were half way there, so we just got soaked and made it to the island. Eventually, sopping, we made it to Yunohama beach and picked up our rental yukata for the sand bath. While getting changed I learned that my rain jacket is no longer waterproof (which I suspected during the walk earlier, but really couldn't tell while outside in a thunderstorm), AND my "waterproof" backpack wasn't even remotely close to waterproof.

At this point, nothing could possibly feel better than ridding myself of all my soggy possessions and getting buried in wet "sand" (really it's lapilli, but I can't imagine the Japanese translation for that) that is heated naturally from below by steam from a hot spring. It was amazing! I was snug and warm and the lapilli are coarse enough that it's a rough texture, but not scratchy or itchy somehow, and I could literally feel my own pulse everywhere in my body, like it was giving me a massage via the weight of the wet and steamy lapilli. Greatest. Thing. Ever.

We had been lead to believe that Ibusuki was THE place, the ONLY place, one could experience a sand bath. Then, yesterday, we arrived in Beppu. It's been raining pretty steadily (mostly of the "heavy rain" variety), which has seriously limited our sightseeing (especially after having learned of the ineffectiveness of my "rain gear"). Our ryokan, miraculously, has wifi and I have spent far too long trying to dredge up the history of sand baths, which may, in fact, have originated here.

Thirteen women dressed in yukata are enjoying a hot sand bath in Beppu, one of Japan’s most famous onsen (hot spring) resorts.

Barely a few blocks walk from our ryokan is Takegawara Onsen, a Meiji period bath house that also boasts sand baths. Given the torrential downpours, going to Beppu Beach (like the Geisha Girls above) was not an option, but escaping the monsoon inside while getting buried in hot and steamy lapilli again? I had to make it happen.

Takegawara Onsen, Meiji period bath house, home to indoor sand bath.

"Sand ladies" burying some sand bathers and prepping new "graves" for us to settle into. Let me tell you, these ladies are PROS! As much as I left Ibusuki feeling like that sand bath was amazing, this one at Takegawara was out(ofthisworld)standing. Not only do they dig you a little grave to lie in and bury you with shovels like the Ibusuki people do, but they also tuck your feet in properly and wedge lapilli up under your shoulders and back and neck to make a cozy little pillow too.

I'm settled. It sure was steamy in there! This suna-yu was significantly hotter than the one at Ibusuki, which I reluctantly left after about 25 minutes (they recommend 15), at Takegawara I was disappointed that they make you extract yourself after a mere 10 minutes! But, considering that I nearly fainted in the bath house while rinsing the rogue lapilli off, I can see that the 10 minute limit is important. I'm sure that fainting in an onsen is even more taboo than bathing with a tattoo.

After each set of "bathers" has gone through the burial-extraction ritual, the "sand ladies" sluice more hot spring water through the sand to "cleanse" it before allowing a new set of "bathers" to enter. I find this a little weird, granted you sweat A LOT in there, but a) it's lapilli - which is essentially gravel-sized particles of volcanic DIRT; b) one must shower thoroughly upon exiting, otherwise one would be exiting wearing a layer of lapilli glued by sweat to one's skin; and c) the hot spring water is loaded with all kinds of dissolved mineral solids, often including lovely things like arsenic that one tends to want to wash off.

Oh well, weird = yes, but it is still the. GREATEST. THING. EVER!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

but what does that MEAN???

With a complete an utter lack of language comprehension or means of communication, some parts of Japan are easier to get around in than others. Most recently we were in one of those nearly-impossible-to-successfully-communicate places, and to add insult to injury, the Lonely Planet book basically left that part out (that should've been a hint) and there was no internet to be found to supplement our extremely poor knowledge of where we were. We fumbled our way around and made all kinds of transportation errors (taking bus 32-1 is easy enough IF 32-1 is NOT written in Japanese characters...), basically throwing our yen out the window trying to get from train station to hotel and back again (and failing frequently), and were incredibly frustrated.

I decided that since all I could understand were pictures in signs, many less obvious than others, my solution for all future communication issues would be drawings, either prepped in advance if I knew what I would be asking, or done on-the-fly with the hopes that someone would grasp the meaning. I had lots of practice interpreting Japanese signs, so I figured I'd do just fine... Today we figured out our train to get to Beppu with the help of little drawings of trains and tracks with circles and numbers and things. Most effective.

"Below this sign you will find singing she-male cyclists in races" (though I was unable to find any)

"Slipping beneath gymnastics rings will result in explosion" (It's been quite rainy, so there've been lots of opportunities for slipping, but luckily, very few gymnastic rings)

"Ninja pig and samurai cow are guarding the chicken, onigiri, milk and sweet pototaes, do not attempt to pass or you will regret it! Eat mochi and sardines instead"

My way of ordering food that will not kill me, it has garnered chortles from waiters/chefs, and so far I haven't died, so it's obviously working. I'm going to expand by having a double sided happy face/dead face sign so that when I point at random stuff in the menu with the no crustacean sign, there's an answer "ok/dead" that can also be pointed to - this will be most helpful. Unfortunately, as I experienced tonight, it can also result in safe-but-extremely-weird foods that get brought your way. See photo below with the following caption "what the crap did I just order???"

For all previous dinners, I've gotten along just fine with chopsticks. Suddenly I have tongs and scissors... And chopsticks... anyway, I'm pretty sure I ate pig intestine or uterus or something, the sauce was delicious and - obviously - it didn't kill me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

rowing Japan

Tomorrow we will row the last of the 180 km route around Lake Biwa that is the 2011 FISA World Rowing Tour, so far the people have been great, some of the food has been awesome (some has been incredibly disappointing - but none has killed me yet), the rowing conditions have been excellent... in the mornings, and sometimes treacherous in the afternoons. Here's a taste:

The start of day one, at the south end of the lake, Seta Rowing Club & flags of most of the nations present (and some that were not, and some present nations' flags missing...)

The Swiss boat on day 6 (with 2 Aussies, a Dutchman and a Norwegian... only 1 Swiss) rowing by Takeshima island (the island of many views) in lake Biwa.

A delicious lunch for us on Mt Hiei... note the sign for us, please, I was dying of laughter for an hour I swear.

A silly photo I took of myself and Anne (Norway), in bow, during a water break... on day 3???

We were so famous in lake Biwa that the local paper in Moriyama (where we are stationed) had an article on the front page the morning of our second day rowing! That's my crew from day 1 pictured too - I bet you can figure out which one is me...

We rowed through this gate/shrine also, and this time Ursel (Dutch/Swiss) was in bow. Same day as the silly Anne picture, but apparently I can't remember which day we went through the gate. We have lots of seating changes in the boats on the water, and crew changes daily so that we interact with all the people from all over the world! FUN!

This was quite possibly the best tuna sashimi on the planet. It will be pretty much impossible to top this lunch.

Everyone warned that there would be vending machines everywhere, but no one warned what would be in them. This one clearly features the strangely named beverage "Pocari Sweat". I don't know what a Pocari is, but I picture something like the Alot and I was extremely skeptical about drinking its sweat. Naturally, with the prevalence of the product my curiosity took over, and it's actually pretty good! Sort of like the lemonade flavour vitamin water, only with more flavour, and possibly less high fructose corn syrup (I'm only assuming that since there's basically NO corn here that I can see, that sugar is cheaper to use in Japan...)

Finally, I couldn't resist snapping this before leaving this shop with my green tea soft serve ice cream, which was delicious by the way. The green tea stuff is everywhere, and I know from Kingston days that green tea mousse pocky is pretty fantastic. I'm not so sure that replacing the chocolate in Kit Kats with green tea is a great idea; and I could NOT identify what green tea "treat" was being sold under the hilarious name "Collon"... but it did give me the giggles.