When I was younger I had the opportunity to travel with my family and stay in different hotels around the world. More recently (the past 30 years) I rarely go anywhere and the few times Tetsu and I have stayed overnight someplace it has been at a business hotel. My view of hotels, no matter how nice, were places to sleep. Or places to touch down after a day of sight-seeing and activities, or at the very most places where some entertainment was provided on the grounds. Not so this one night with my friends.
First of all, Nobuko-san drove us to the onsen (spa) town and after passing many brightly lit and very modern hotels we drove up a narrow road to a gravel driveway and a large wooden gate. Just in front of the gate, the small "pool" was emitting steam from the natural hot spring and there was a faint smell of sulfur in the air.
"Where on earth has Nobuko-san brought us? It looks interesting if not particularly exciting."
A woman dressed in kimono trousers (the top is like a kimono jacket, but it is worn with trousers of the same fabric that are gathered at the ankles) was outside sweeping the gravel driveway when we arrived and she welcomed us and took hold of the largest piece of baggage we had and directed us through the gate and to the low wooden building beyond. Once in the entry we were greeted by another traditionally dressed woman who seated us near a traditional charcoal-like hibachi with water boiling in an iron kettle. Nobuko-san signed us in and then the woman showed us along a very long wooden corridor to our rooms.
The rooms themselves were very simple traditional Japanese rooms without any chairs or beds and as we settled in with the tea that was provided we were brought warm wet towels and little sweet cakes to enjoy.
We had decided to forgo the fancy dinner that the spa offered just because Dick and Martha aren't big eaters and we'd feasted earlier in the day at a pot luck party, so instead we checked out the baths. The inn provided cotton kimonos for guests so we changed into those and meandered along the hallways to the bathing areas, one side for men, one side for women. Actually there was an inside bath and an outside bath and after washing off at the inside bath, Nobuko-san, Martha and I went exploring and followed an outdoor corridor to another bathhouse. Baskets lined the shelves in the changing room area and after shedding our cotton kimonos we went outside in the nude to the hot spring pool that was surrounded by boulders and an artistically arranged garden. We had a fantastic view of the moon resting just out of reach!
The day was winding down and after our baths we let Martha and Dick go to bed while Nobuko-san and I sat out on a deck overlooking the nearby lake and chatted. Our futon had been laid out while we were in the bath but even though they looked inviting Nobuko-san and I did a little more exploring and found a glass pitcher of ice tea and cups sitting in a corner for anyone who was thirsty and even a little platter of rice balls for guests who might get a hankering for something to eat in the middle of the night! We enjoyed a cup of tea but I just took pictures of the rice balls. The handwritten sign says: "Please help yourself if you feel hungry. If the platter is empty and you'd like something, please don't hesitate to ask our staff to make you some more." (I guess they expect someone on the staff to be ready to make rice balls for guests' beck and call.)
Finally Nobuko-san and I called it a night and settled into our comfy futon.
Morning came too soon and I decided to go exploring out and around the grounds. Just opening the curtains to the room was breathtaking! The night before I hadn't realized how beautiful the grounds were and was greeted with a lovely Japanese garden!
On the other side of the corridor the windows opened out on the lake (where Nobuko-san and I had chatted the night before) and this too was a perfectly manicured garden with rocks and foliage placed just so, but still looking perfectly natural. Martha and Dick emerged from their room dressed again in their cotton kimonos and I got them to pose for me in front of the lake. Even though the Lammers are American, they looked very Japanese to me attired in their kimonos and heading out for a morning bath!
Nobuko-san and I opted to go to the foot bath garden and that was another wonderful experience. Later when the Lammers joined us they too were very impressed with this luxury. The hot pond had little benches scattered around and it was artistically arranged with boulders again so that the nearby building was hidden. There, people can just relax their feet in the healing warmth without having to go into the bath. For people whose health isn't up to getting completely into the very hot water (or people who don't like public nudity!) the foot baths are a welcome way to enjoy the hot spring atmosphere.
Breakfast was another wonderful experience but VERY Japanese (so you'd have to be able to appreciate Japanese food or else you might go hungry!) We gathered in the dining room but here again, everyone was down on the floor and eating at low tables. Let's see. There was a candied fish, bites of mushrooms and vegetables, pickles and cold tofu. There was also brown rice and miso soup and fermented soybeans plus hotspring cooked eggs served cold. (They lowered a basket of eggs into the hotspring... not the part we were bathing in.) That candied fish, by the way, was eaten head, tail, bones and everything! Very tender but still it takes a bit of courage to pop the head into your mouth. Delicious!
Nobuko-san and I made one more stop into yet another bath, this time smelling highly of sulfur and hotter than the others and then we packed up our few things plus a small towel and also a pair of Japanese split-toed socks that the inn had provided. The staff came to the entryway to bid us farewell and wish us a happy return if we should ever come their way again and we were each given a pair of wooden chopsticks.
Let me tell you. This is an experience you should have if you ever get to Japan! Nothing planned, just sheer hospitality by the staff to make your time with them as relaxed and enjoyable as possible! I wish we lived closer because I surely would like to make a regular visit there!
Thank you for joining us on our trip to a Japanese inn!