Today I have decided to take a break from city life. I have booked a night at a Japanese inn, known as a ryokan. It is situated in the middle of some mountains in a place called, Nikkō, in Tochigi Prefecture. My plan for the next few days, to get a sense of a more traditional side of Japan.
From Asakusa, I pay ¥2390 for an express train taking 140 minutes. At Shimo-imaichi Station I have to change to a dreaded local train. At the platform I am wearing a short sleeved shirt. A Japanese man says to his friend, “Look at that guy, he must he freezing!” I admit, it is a little cooler than Tokyo, but I only have to wait two minutes at the cold station platform. I eventually get on the local train. It sounds like a roller coaster as it claws its way up the mountainous tracks. The trains only luxury are its heated seats; they make the whole train smells like the inside of a giant hairdryer. Five minutes later, I arrive at Tōbu-Nikkō Station.
I head out of the station and onto an old bus; the transport on this trip getting progressively worse. The place I am staying tonight is at Yumoto Onsen; ninety minutes from Nikkō Station, and some 185 kilometres north of Tokyo. It’s just gone five but the sun is no longer visible. The bus crawls through the darkness. A warning says, “Hold onto the handrail as the bus will sway from side to side as it makes its ascent.”
The bus eventually arrives at my stop, the last stop. I pay ¥1700. This is also the last bus. I am trapped up here now; no coming back. Outside it is freezing cold; the coldest I have been since leaving England. Luckily, at the bus stop I am greeted by warm smiles. A Japanese woman with a sign is waiting for me. We head to her car and she drives me thirty seconds to the place I will spend the night.
Inside the ryokan, she takes me to my room; the biggest room I have stayed in since being in Japan; spacious and warm. It has a massive double futon laid out, and a table of equal size. The woman starts by preparing me a hot cup of green tea, before leaving to prepare my dinner. I get dressed into my yukata, carefully ensuring to cross it left over right; crossing it the other way is how the dead are dressed at funerals, and I am not dead. I also make sure to tie the bow behind me; a bow at the front is how prostitutes dress.
At 7pm, the woman comes back into my room to serve me dinner.
My food consists of buttered trout, salmon, vegetable tempura with natural salt, radish, simmered sesame tofu, lotus root, miso gratin with cabbage, yuzu pepper salad, grilled eggplant, fried tofu, boiled tofu in a soy milk pot with mushroom, rice, a selection of vegetables, a selection of pickles, and a couple of things I can’t identify. The entire meal is pescetarian, and all the food is of the highest standard. I don’t usually like tofu, but up here, it is made from the cleanest of mountain water, and tastes phenomenal.
After a while, the woman comes back into my room to clear and clean the table, before bringing me dessert. In comparison to the huge dinner, my dessert is somewhat anti-climatic.
I help myself to a couple of the complimentary bottles of Autumn edition beer, before deciding to take a dip in the hot springs. I book the outdoor Onsen for forty-five minutes. Outside there is not a single sound. The stars are out. Mountains loom in the distance. The contrast of boiling hot water marrying the cold winter air is wonderful and relaxing. After my time is up, I head indoors to Onsen number two.
The indoor Onsen doesn’t offer a window, so there isn’t much of a view. It is a rather lonely experience. After I get out, I take a shower. It is etiquette in Japan to shower before and after getting into a hot spring bath, so this is actually my fourth shower this evening. I notice weighing scales in the changing room; I haven’t weighed myself since before I came to Japan. After a massive meal and a not so massive dessert, I am surprised to discover that I am 7kg lighter than when I arrived in this country.
Back in my room, and with kilograms to gain, I decide that the perfect way to cool off is with a delicious tub of homemade cream cheese and alcohol flavoured ice cream. Sulphur from the Onsen taints the experience slightly, the smell of rotten eggs lingering in the room.
I sip quietly on complimentary beers with the window wide open, wrapped up in my traditional Japanese clothing. The clean cold air nothing more than a fresh distraction to the silence that engulfs me. Outside the only thing I can see is hot smoke bellowing from the many hot spring baths, and the dark outline of mountains in the distance.