Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nothing to see here.. Just a bunch of guys taking a bath together..

(Photos not included)

Hello everyone!
I made it back from the ski trip alive, but bruised and mangled. I want you all to know that.

The Scenery
The great thing about Japan is that there are mountains everywhere. I took a ton of pictures as we were driving up into the resort town of Karuizawa (near Nagano, where the 1998 winter Olympics were held) to our cabin. I was like a child in a candy store.. remind me, again, why my state doesn't have mountains..

The drive was breathtaking. The Japanese interstate system is, at least, a little bit familiar.. it sort of looks like the states, except that everyone is driving on the left, but that's nothing new. Oh, and there's tour buses everywhere.. full of tour guides dressed like flight attendants.

Did I mention I saw an active volcano? Asama Volcano (not with an "O".. sorry US Forces) is basically over the mountains and through the woods from our cabin on the way to the ski resort. It is an incredible sight that commands the entire area. I was staring at it for the whole drive. Photo engage in 3..2..1..

It hasn't had a MAJOR eruption in 120 years, but it sometimes will dump ash on the countryside. And later in the day I saw smoke pluming from the top. Sleeping giants...

Bathing with Strangers
Our cabin was very comfortable. Once we got settled in, I experienced something I never would have guessed I'd enjoy so much.. taking a bath in the nude with a bunch of other men. (no, I don't have pictures for this entry) It's not weird. It's Japanese style. It's called an onsen.

Okay, to be fair, it's not really a bath.. you shower outside the pool, sitting down, at one of a dozen or so shower stations, and it's rude not to fully bathe beforehand (or worse, to get soap in the pool water). It's also generally considered dishonorable to "cover" yourself (according to my travel book), but lots of people still do it.

The funny thing is, nothing is weird about it. Just a bunch of guys sitting around enjoying a pool together. Most, if not all, onsen are separated so there's not interaction between men and women (unless it's "European Style?"). First, you undress in locker rooms. Then you shower next to the pool. Then you relax and soak in the steaming hot water. It's really cathartic.

The best part is the feel of the water at a good onsen. The one we went to was a natural mountain spring. I may never sit in a hot tub again (or wear swim trunks?). The feeling of non-chlorinated, natural mineral water without chemicals is truly wonderful and healing. It's hard to describe, but you can definitely tell the difference, and you don't feel like you just walked out of a radiation scrub afterward.

The onsen we attended in Karuizawa was incredibly nice. It was rustic looking, with a "mountain cabin" feel, but very clean and classy. There was an outside area with large boulders to recline against, and even a small waterfall. A sauna was at the far end of the outdoor walkway, and there was a cold pool separated by rocks to use as a cool-down area. One old, scrawny, but astute looking guy spent 15-20 minutes in the sauna, then promptly walked out into the cold and plunged himself into the (near freezing) cold pool. He then proceeded to hop up and down on one foot, tilting his head side-to-side, to get the water out of his ears. He must know several things I don't know.

One unusual event that happened while I was there is that one of the double doors separating the inner and outer pools were broken by someone who slipped. That is extremely unusual. There was broken glass everywhere, and I had to wait for them to clean it up (since I was outside at the time) to meet up with Paul. Oh well. More pool time for Michael.

Onsen are a really significant, and ancient aspect of Japanese culture. These natural springs are all over the island (though not all onsen are natural, some are artificially heated), with heat fueled by volcanoes (has anyone tried harnessing THOSE for energy yet?). The various minerals are advertised for their different healing properties, so if you need sulfur for your skin condition, you know which onsen to find. Business deals are conducted at onsen. Friendships are made, and broken. Laughter can often ring forth among friends. Or just quiet relaxation after work (with 12 hour work days quite common, I can definitely understand).

It would be super awkward if I tried to do this in the states. "Hey! Guys! After work, want to go over to the YMCA and shower together and chat!?" ... good thing I'm not in the states.

My travel book mentions that tattoos are a public taboo in Japan because they are often a sign of Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Generally, this can make problems for many westerners who try to attend onsen and have tats. Fortunately, yours truly doesn't have to worry about that.. but, if you're planning on going to Japan, you might want to hold off on that mega-siiick butterfly tattoo until your next birthday.

Okay.. I've never skied before. Unfortunately, we weren't really on a beginner's slope.. and let's just say I didn't have any ski lessons. But, I'm a good sport! Paul and I rode the lift up the mountain.. When I got to the top and awkwardly shuffled off the lift, I saw this:
THAT'S skiing!? Isn't this supposed to be fun..

Yikes.. That doesn't look good.

It didn't feel good either. Turns out most people can't just "pick up" skiing on the first try. Oh well. I got down the mountain by skiing back and forth across the slope and turning myself by jamming my canes into the ground (never did figure out that whole "turning" thing..). Note how Paul is totally "Aspen Extreme."

Hooray for life!
In the end, both Naomi and I made it safely down our harrowing mountain rides without dying. We each had bowls of ramen and took a photo to celebrate (life's too short, guys).

This photo was taken in the so-called-lodge-cafeteria-whatever you call something that is uncomfortable and reminds you of sitting in the airport.

In the end, I'm more about the image than the sport.

Soon after, we took a long gondola ride up another side of the mountain, and it was quite a sight..

After the gondolas, Naomi and I made the mistake of "trying" snowboarding. The lady at the lodge was "kind" enough to switch out our skis for snowboards. She then even went the extra mile and had a friend of hers "teach" us how to board down a tiny snow mound by the lifts. This was difficult since we didn't speak the same language. In the end, I think we got the idea.. snowboarding involves falling down a lot for fun.

So we took it to the bunny hill. After three or four bruising attempts, I quietly succeeded in making it all the way down without falling.. (until I had to stop, then I fell). No one witnessed, no one cheered, but I walked away vindicated and empowered and bruised.

All in all, it was a successful trip. I think I did surprisingly catch the winter sports fever. I see a trip to Colorado in my 365 day calendar right now.. It would be fun to be able to actually snowboard. I know it.

Today, I'm sore, exhausted, and back to the rat race. But what a great weekend with my Japan-family! Thanks so much to Paul, Nancy, and Naomi for having me on your family vacation..

I'm just getting warmed up, kids! More stories to come..

Michael out.


  1. This might sound strange, but after reading all about active volcanoes, skiing, group-bathing in the nude, and gondolas, the thing I'm most curious about is the ramen. :) How does it compare to its barely edible mostly styrofoam counterpart here in the United States?

  2. Haha, great question Simon! I'm actually getting some ramen later with my uncle..

    Not to make you feel bad, but it's really good here! It's a great, reasonably-priced lunch! A lot of times it comes with chicken, pork, or fish, possibly some seaweed, greens, or any number of other healthy additives. The noodles themselves are of higher quality, and the broth is delicious!

    You get a big bowl of it, and you eat it with chopsticks. There is a ladle to help you out if you need the noodles to be closer to your face.

    In general.. I will probably never eat styrofoam-packed ramen again. =)