It’s not often that I’ve been asked to get naked in the woods with two men I’ve just met. But as the saying goes: when in Japan, get naked.
Having met Matt, a fellow Brit, in the hostel in Kyoto, we shared an easy rapport debating the hopeful soundproof qualities of the net curtain between our two shikibutons – the rollout mattresses of our single beds. As it was, we didn’t need to worry about potential snoring as the traffic noise exceeded that alarmingly. Win! Together with Matt and his friend, Maurice, a German with a mild manner that belied his No Country for Old Men haircut, we set out on the train north to the countryside. Both turned out to be excellent company, and certainly I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather get nude with than these two chaps. Well, apart from every woman in the world. Then them.
After boarding the train about mid-morning, we arrived at the Kitayama Mountains for a half-day hike. We’d need to walk thirty minutes to the nearest village, Kibune, to start our adventure into the forest, packed with twittering birds on a hot and sultry day. We initially climbed steeply, but settled finally into easy-going slopes and meandering paths, running into shrines ensconced within the mountains. We came out behind and above the main temple, clambering down to see a sign cautioning us against the walk we’d already taken! The warning told of a typhoon had swept through the area months previously, destroying some of the smaller shrines and causing dangerous walking conditions. It’s always good to be on the front foot with these things!
The view from the main hall over the adjacent verdant mountains was beautiful, and the climb down far easier than up. In all honesty, once you’ve seen twenty shrines, you’ve seen a million, so I was eager for some nudity. With legs aching after a few hours walking (I'm out of shape, I tells ya!), the path led us back into the village and into the bosom of an open-air onsen, the famous Japanese hot springs, one of the few positives of being on an active volcanic country. With views of the mountains, it was a serene and peaceful spot to view the world.
Men and women are separated at the entrance, so bathing is single sex. We undressed, placed our belongings into lockers and then took to showering and scrubbing oneself to avoid sullying the waters. You effectively shower whilst sitting down next to your fellow bathing mates, and once clean, amble over to the pool to gently lower yourself into the hot bath. It was wonderful to soak the muscles and relax. We chatted a little but did our best to be respectful (the Japanese are exceptionally quiet and peaceful people), letting the hot water soothe the mind as well as the soles – my feet appreciated the indulgence. I can withstand heat better than your average penguin, but missed the contrasting cold-water plunge-pools that shock the body after the heat which I'd experienced elsewhere. The glacial waters high in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan was one in particular, the water acting as a bracing yet welcome balm to the heat. Admittedly I took some convincing to even try those freezing waters a few years back, but that was the one missing ingredient with this new calming bathing experience: the contrast.
Japan as a whole has been wonderful: the fast-paced, neon-glitz and razzmatazz of the cities, technology, gaming and anime culture, seem a complete imbalance to that of the onsen, countless Buddhist temples and calm state of mind of the people. It's an odd, cognitive dissonance: want to calm the mind? Come to one of the busiest, densely populated countries on the planet. An incredible place to be.
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