Present existence/Three hundred year tradition/Aoni Onsen
Shortly after leaving Mikako and Soma’s house, we pull over and take a look at the maps. Jason found Aoni Onsen through internet research. It turns out it is one of the last truly traditional ryokans in Japan. A ryokan is a Japanese inn for travelers that typically features tatami-matted rooms with sliding shoji screens for doors. They are usually situated along hot springs or scenic sites. Aoni Onsen, where we are staying, has hot spring baths by a waterfall on top of a mountain. It is unique in that it uses only kerosene lamp lighting, as was originally done 300 years ago, and does not supply outlets or wi-fi in the guest rooms. This truly creates a sense of peace and relaxation that constant access to electronics doesn’t allow for me.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Most of the ride to Aoni Onsen is gradual ups and downs, as Soma suggested. We pass through fields of rice, orchards, agriculture. My eyes are pleased and refreshed in all 360 degrees. We enter a small town and decide to pull over at a rice field. It is Norman’s birthday (Jason’s dad) in our current time zone and Jason is hoping to have cell service. We spot one of the first cranes of many and Jason pulls out his binoculars. The sun is bright and joyful. Happy birthday to Norman, 14 hours in advance.
We continue on and through a tunnel. We arrive at a park which includes jungle gyms, food stands, shops, benches, fields. We are surrounded by mountains. From here Aoni is just six miles away. Just six. However the road to the Onsen itself is straight up. It is a one destination road that doesn’t take into account being a thoroughfare just the same. It feels like one of the toughest climbs yet. We begin to notice a pattern over the course of the whole trip of these “one last climb”‘s before arriving at a destination. These are the tests and rewards of Japan. I take two or three breaks, at one point seeing a man and a woman on the side of the road foraging. Their presence feels unexpected. I thought I was alone.
I continue to climb past pine trees. Finally I crest and I am going downhill. It should feel glorious but instead I am worried that I have missed the Onsen and that now I am covering distance I will have to climb back up. I continue until I come across a turnaround with a shed. A man in a truck is there.
“Sumimasen [excuse me] ” I say and point to the driveway across the street “Aoni Onsen?”
He nods his head yes and I rejoice. He offers to put my bike in his pickup and drive me down to the Onsen but I let him know that I am waiting for someone.
Once Jason and I are reunited and begin to traverse the Onsen driveway, I realize the offer I had turned down. The way in is incredibly steep downhill and covered in large, dark gray, loose gravel, sometimes on top of asphalt, sometimes on top of dirt. We get off of our bikes to walk them. It is precarious either way, the tediousness and caution weigh significantly. We make it to the family of buildings nestled into a mountainside that is Aoni Onsen. We lean our bikes against sloping ground. We tentatively enter through the front doors. We are greeted and encouraged to take off our shoes and put on slippers. Jason gives our name and the front desk staff shows us our paperwork. We have arrived a day late. Now, I know google calendar thinks it’s doing you a favor by switching over to the computer’s current time zone, but it is not always the helpful thing. We had been using this revised calendar to stay on schedule. With a 14-hour time difference to Chicago, this error had a significant effect. Thankfully there was still room at the ryokan for this night. We were out a two-nights stay in fees but would avoid any future scheduling follies.
There are worse things. We are in Japan in the most relaxing setting. Once at our room, the shoji screen opens to a square space with tatami mat floor, a low square wooden table, two pillows for sitting, and a small shelf. A kerosene lantern hangs in the center of the room unlit. There are no adornments but the simplicity is pleasing. It is very still in this room. I want to whisper and tip toe. We put our panniers into the closet and change out of our bike gear into yukata (light, cotton robes). It is time to take an onsen. This particular location offers one co-ed bath, which is rare, and 2 or 3 men and women only baths. Jason and I head to the co-ed bath which is outdoors. We remove our guesthouse slippers at the door and exchange them for the slippers provided for use outside.
(All of the photos at Aoni are taken by Jason. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a camera, a phone, any technology. I am thankful that Jason did).
(Jason insisted on bathing in the barrel in the background despite my skepticism and refusal to follow suit. Usually you pour water over yourself with a bucket, yellow here, to rinse before entering the bath. Later we are told that entering the barrel, which is in fact meant as a sink, was probably “not good manners”. Jason still wants to know why you would have a bathtub-sized sink if you were not meant to bathe in it.)
After bathing, we return to our room and get ready for dinner. We comb our hair and readjust our yukata. It is not uncommon to spend your entire stay at an onsen or ryokan in this robe. Dinner is served to all of the guests at the same time. There is a feeling of sacred ritual but also a casual familiarity like being at camp. Everyone is presented with the same meal which comes on individual trays of dishes filled with traditional Japanese dinner fare. Guests serve themselves rice and miso soup from large pots in the middle of the room. Tea and water is served the same way, sake and beer and wine is ordered from a counter but included in the price of our stay which also covers the meal.
The kerosene lantern light casts a dim glow over the dining room. There is a natural sepia to the scene. We all sit on well-used square pillows on the floor. Some people kneel on their heels, off to one side, or with legs outstretched; few, if any, sit cross-legged. One at a time, sometimes two, diners from each table approach the rice and miso pots and fill small bowls. It is quiet. Then the meal, which is already in front of us, is announced. Jason and I couldn’t understand the Japanese but it was clear by the moments of laughter around the room that, in addition to describing the food, the host was encouraging a festive atmosphere. Afterward, the room feels more vibrant, more relaxed. There is laughter between old friends. Jason and I share in our delight.
(Most of these photos are from breakfast when there was natural light available).
(one decent photo from dinner)
(at the morning meal there are less yukata than at dinner as many people are leaving the onsen after breakfast)
(Here I am wearing the yukata the proper way, with the left side crossed over the right. At dinner had it the other way and was told that crossing from right to left is how you dress the dead.)
The presentation of the food and the small portions makes going through the meal like opening so many gifts. It is a thoughtful experience. The room begins to empty and we are some of the last few, holding on to every moment. Finally we exit, switching from the meal room sandals into our original sandals, and begin to head down the hall. We hear loud laughter coming from a shared space and Jason pokes his head in. Four men in yukata sit on the floor around a table with bottles of whiskey and sake accompanied by plates of snacks. The man at the head of the table, Noi, shouts for us to come join them. We insert ourselves into their celebration and are welcomed with shots of Japanese whiskey. The four are retired co-workers who now live in different parts of Japan and are reuniting as old friends. They have warm smiles. I am sitting next to Matsuma who is strongest in English and he translates the things we say for the rest of the group. All of the men are jovial but also sensitive. We tell them about our trip. Matsuma asks why we chose Japan and we talk about respect for craftsmanship, harmony, intention. He is touched. The six of us talk about the dynamic of opposites attract, about the earthquake in Fukushima, about bikes and food and friendship. Eventually the Aoni staff let us know quiet hours have begun and we disperse.
(where we sat on the floor huddled around the hearth in the middle of the room with new friends)
Jason and I cross a wooden bridge to the outdoor bath and briefly soak under the stars before bedtime. We are buzzed on the meal and sake and whiskey and conversation. I feel completely content as we drift back to our room and collapse onto the futons we set up with foresight before dinner.