Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nozawa Onsen: Part II

After skiing a full day I was ready to come down from the mountain, but anxious about what was coming. Nozawa Onsen is famous for it’s natural hot springs. An onsen is typically used to describe the bathing facilities, like a bath house, around the hot springs. The preferred way of bathing here is at one of these onsens, and as our hotel would have it, it was the only way. The onsens are divided into male and female baths. There is a slate of rules and etiquette to follow at an onsen so I was glad to have Nicci there to be my guide.

After coming in from skiing, we decided it best to have a couple beers from the vending machine downstairs to take the edge off before my first plunge in the onsen. The reason, you see, I’m feeling a little anxious is that the only way to enter the onset is completely naked...exploitingly naked, as you see by examining the onsen bathing procedure described below.

First, you enter the changing room , like a locker room, where there are shelves lined with baskets. You claim a basket and strip down to nothing placing all your clothes inside that basket. At this point you open the door to the onsen, or bathing room. The tiled tub with the circulating hot spring water is in the middle of the room while a few faucets about 18” off the ground or “showers” are placed along the surrounding walls. The proper etiquette is to wash your body off before entering the onsen. However, this is not exactly like taking a shower before you get into the pool at the Y (except that there are lots of naked old women). At an onsen, you will find in front of each faucet is a stool. Not a bar stool, a plastic stool that, I kid you not, sits six inches off the ground. This stool is not made for American butts. It had the stability of one of those plastic delivery pizza inserts. Squatting on a stool made for toddlers is definitely bad-naked. Not only do you feel ugly but you get to look at yourself too. Yes! They place mirrors on the wall at each faucet reflecting in the most horrible of angles. Enough said.

Next to the stool was a bowl. You are to fill the bowl with water and dump it over your body rinsing yourself before getting into the tub. Once you are ready to get in the hot spring itself, you raise yourself from the stool, turn around, and prepare to enter the large, sunken tub in the center of the room. At this point I learn that the water is too hot to enter all at once. Great, so now after I’ve been squatting facing away from all these people in the onsen, I get to sit on the edge of the tub facing forward. At this point I decided that boiling skin would be more comfortable than sitting on the wall any longer, so I quickly slid in the tub. The water in the tub was filled right to brim and as I got in, I saw the wave of the water displaced. It was like a middle school science experiment come to life. Finally I’m in and can enjoy the hot spring! All onsets are different. You can try public ones for free, or pay for fancier privately own ones. These are not pictures of the onsens I went to, but they do look somewhat similar so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Here’s a funny poster they have outside the onsen describing the etiquette in more detail. Notice "It is our culture to bathe nacked."

Once in the water, you do find it very relaxing and you realize no one really is looking at you. I stayed in for about 10 minutes until I felt cooked, and got out much more comfortable than I got in. In fact I enjoyed the hot spring part enough that I went back to do it all again on Sunday. I don’t think I’ll make a habit of bathing in onsens and I'm happy to check that one off my Japan to-do list.

Nozawa Onsen: Part I

Since I moved to Japan, I have been anxioius for winter and the chance to go skiing. Not knowing many people outside of work, I found a group called the Tokyo Gaijins (slang word for foreigner) to go on a ski trip with. They organize a different trip each weekend, primarily skiing during the winter and hiking and camping during the other seasons.

A few weeks ago, not knowing any one else going on the trip, I signed up deciding it would be a great way to go skiing with all the logisitcs already planned and would also be a chance to meet new people in Tokyo.

Friday after work, I met the bus at Shinjuku station. I saw a group of people who looked like me standing outside the station and correctly assumed them part of my tour group. We boarded the bus, and at 8pm we were off on our four hour journey to Nozawa Onsen. It was obvious that many of the 50 people on board were regular “gainjins.” They came prepared for the bus ride with dinner, snacks, games, beer and even vodka soaked fruit. As the beverages kept flowing so did the bathroom stops. Finally, around 12:30 we reached the resort village of Nozawa Onsen.

Nozawa Onsen is a hot spring village located at the foot of Kenashi-yama Mountain which is home to around 5000 people. Nozawa Onsen is said to date back to 8th century…. More on the onsens later.

When the bus came to a stop, we walked stepped off the bus into a winter wonderland. Not only was it snowing heavily as we made our way to our hotel, but a wall of snow stood on each side of the road at least eight feet tall. As the walk got steeper and the snow deeper, I was really regretting bringing my rolling suitcase and my choice of dress, tights, and suede boots. Finally, covered in snow, we arrived to the hotel, pictured below, where the Japanese mom-and-pop owners greeted us. They spoke no English but one thing was clear, you were not to step into their hotel with one flake of snow on you. They were each armed with a straw broom and furiously started sweeping at our snow covered heads, coats, pants, shoes, and bags. The mom would be working on clearing off one person and as someone would try to pass her she start whapping them in the back of the head with the broom where some snow was left behind.

After making it through this decontamination process, I blindly followed a girl up the stairs where she introduced herself to me as Nicci, I learned she was from New Zealand, she told me her room assignment, and we also learned we were roommates for the weekend. Not only was she a regular on these trips, but she also spoke fluent Japanese thoroughly impressed me.

She found our room, slid open the pocked rice paper paneled pocket door and there it was. Our very humble four walled, bamboo floored, 10’ x 15’ room to share among three girls for the weekend. I was not sure of any of the customs or norms, so I relied on the monkey-see, monkey do technique. Nicci, went over to the closet, opened the door and pulled out a thin upholstered mat and laid it on the floor. I did the same. Nicci pulled out a big fluffy comforter and layed it on top of her mat. I did the same. Nicci reached on the top shelf of the closet and pulled out a small airplane-sized pillow and placed it at one end of her bed. I did the…"What the heck is this?!" This unfortunate excuse for a pillow was not only really small and limp, but filled with what seemed to be a mixture of gravel and pointy corn kernels. Both Nicci and our other roommate who had now entered the room swore I would find it comfortable but I was skeptical. I sucked it up and made an attempt to sleep on it, but after I was sure they were asleep I pulled out my bath towel and wrapped it around the pillow and slept comfortably the next of the night.

The next day, Saturday, we woke up early at 7:30am when the hotel “mom“ got on the intercom system and loudly announced that breakfast was ready. Breakfast and dinner were served in a dining room on the first floor. Traditional Japanese meals were served. Here’s a picture of breakfast. Japanese hash brown like patty with shredded cabbage, seaweed, smoked fish, miso soup, radish, and green tea. It was all tasty and really kept your energy up while skiing.

We hit the mountain after breakfast. We had so much fresh powder and it was a beautiful day. The skiing experience was pretty similar to what I have experienced in Colorado.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Shabu shabu

My fav type of restaurant to go to so far is shabu shabu. You get two hours and can include the all you can drink option for a bit more but definitely worth it. Usually two drinks and it pays for itself. I'm excited to take Ashley and Bryce here when they come next month because I know there will be enough veggies and tofu to fill vegetarian Ashley up. It can be hard to find vegetarian dishes at japanese restaurants, so Ashley, you better eat a lot here, and bring lots of granola bars.

Here's a pic from a big group dinner we had last month with people from work. This is the Chinese version, but the Japanese version works the same. You simply drop the meat and veggies in the boiling pots of seasoned broth, let it cook, fish it out with your chop sticks and enjoy!


I went skiing this weekend in Nozawa which deserves more time to blog as I am currently on the train home from work. Anyway here's an great example of engrish from the ski resort. They didn't make this mistake once, but on every door which was supposed to say "Staff Only." Spell it like you say it :)

Happy Valentines Day

Valentine's Day is celebrated in Japan but with a twist. On Feb 14, girls give boys gifts of chocolate or other sweets. However on March 14, called White Day, boys give girls gifts in excess of 4-5x more of what the girl spends. *cough* Loom *cough*

I love brining treats to the office for holidays and I didn't let the train commute scare me off from this tradition. Here's a pic of what I brought. Pinterest worthy, I think :)