In Japan’s volcanic ranges, man and monkey share the ultimate hot tub. Waldemar Januszczak takes a dip
I have in front of me a clump of keys attached to which is one of those dangly thingumajigs that young girls these days append to their stuff: mobile phones, satchels, fleece zips. The larger the array of thingumajigs, the cooler you are.
I’m very uncool because I only have one, a cute little plastic chap in glasses, chubby and naked except for the tiny white towel he clutches to his privates. My 12-year-old bought him for me in the hot-spring heaven of Nikko, two hours north of Tokyo, because she says he looks just like me.
And he does. Particularly that gormless grin spread across his plump little plastic face as he prepares to take another dip in the boiling waters. That’s definitely me.
The Japanese hot spring, or onsen, is a psycho-spiritual pleasure I discovered too late in life. I wish I had been one of those happy nippers you see at onsens being instructed gently by their fathers in the correct way of doing things: this is where you wash, this is how you wash it, this is where it gets deep, this is where it gets hot.
In particular, I wish I knew how to handle those little white cloths that the skilled matadors of the Japanese onsen system are so expert at wielding. Shampooing your head, neck, legs, back and bits, while squatting on your haunches, without compromising the covering power of the modesty-endowing little white cloth, is a furiously difficult business. How do they do that?
My approach is to sit on the floor, gazing at the wall in a mysterious zen fashion until it gets too steamy for anyone to see anything, then a quick one-handed splash of the tackle, and into the volcanic briny I plunge. Wherever you are, in whatever Japanese bathhouse, the hot communal immersion offers a remarkable range of experiences. But it all grows super-special, and seriously addictive, when you do it outdoors, in the snow, on the top of a mountain, at somewhere such as Nikko.
Nikko is one of Japan’s holiest sites, a sacred temple complex in the coastal mountains, founded by a voyaging Buddhist hermit in the 8th century. It’s the first spot north of Tokyo at which the land stops looking cute and tame, and rears up suddenly into daunting ruggedness. Nature is so tall and symphonic around here that in the 17th century, the most ruthless of the Tokugawa shoguns decided he wanted to be buried in Nikko, and arranged for the town to be generously endowed with gorgeous architecture.
It’s a 30-minute walk from the station to the main sights, or there’s a bus. I suggest the bus, because the route to the temples is lined with crazy souvenir stalls peddling all manner of irresistible Japanese goodies – dangling thingumajigs are a speciality – and you’ll definitely end up gaining weight.
So bus there, and walk back.
The temple complex itself is exceptionally colourful, and on most occasions I would pause happily in here to describe the sacred delights – you know the three famous monkeys that hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil?
Well, they come from Nikko and are carved cheekily under the gable of the first temple on the left – but in this instance, my id and my bod are both being consumed by uncontrollable onsen fevers, and I really have to tell you what happens if you don’t get off at the temple, but stay on the bus all the way to the top of the mountain, till you reach the Yumoto Hot Springs, where I recommend you search out the Astraea Hotel – pronounced “Astoria” – and book yourself in for some serious psycho-spiritual boiling.
STAYING IN a traditional Japanese country inn, a ryokan, is a hugely amusing experience. You sleep on the floor. You eat strange things. You wear strange things. And much excess mental energy is used up puzzling over the many on-site oriental mysteries, such as how the paper walls manage to keep the room so warm when there’s five feet of snow out there, and the icicles hanging from the roof could skewer an elephant.
In the morning, before breakfast, you have an onsen. Then there’s the lunchtime dip, the teatime dip, the one before dinner, the one after dinner, and if you haven’t yet wrestled off your jet lag, a particularly relaxing plunge can be enjoyed in the middle of the night. The baths are open 24 hours, except for a short mid-morning break when they’re cleaned.
There are actually two baths, an indoor and an outdoor, and it’s in the one under the trees that these endemic Japanese pleasures can occasionally reach a truly wondrous climax. It’s only happened to me once. There I was immersed to the neck in volcano water, with snow falling on my head, and an impossibly beautiful landscape of pointy pines and eccentric rock formations stretching up the mountain before me, when who should decide to join me at the hot springs but a monkey.
Down he strolled from the trees, perched himself on a rock, and watched. Deep into my eyes he stared, beyond the retina, into the prehistoric stuff, and from across our minuscule genetic divide, the Nikko monkey made absolutely clear to me exactly how ancient were the origins of my onsen urges. I only wish I’d had a camera, but for obvious reasons they’re not allowed.
They play music in onsens, usually the traditional plinkety-plinking of spare string instruments that drives occidentals mad with its annoying lack of climaxes. But at the Astoria they favour Mozart, and the hot springs provide a superb setting in which to familiarise yourself with the lesser-known flute concertos. Mozart, the soothing inner waters of a volcano, a stupendous view, the return to the womb, and a monkey: what a unique constellation of transportative experiences.
I ALSO learnt to ski on this mountaintop, or at least began the process. The skiing on offer at the Astoria is a set of Nordic courses of different lengths that loop you around the fantastic landscape up here. Past rivers, pagodas, lakes, mists and mini Mount Fujis you glide, swishing along in almost complete silence, stopping whenever you choose to admire the utter perfection of a Japanese snow scene.
The birdlife you glide past is amazing, with a particular preponderance of exotic woodpeckers. Having never previously had any appetite whatsoever for the subzero descent into hell that passes for an annual skiing holiday in the Chamonixes of this world – an oik in expensive après-ski is still an oik – I delight totally in the gentle, persuasive, harmonious relationship of the Japanese to their snow. And of course as soon as you get back, you have a bath.
Staying in a Nikko ryokan involves spectacular levels of adaptation for us gaijins. When you leave your room for dinner it’s a living room, with a table in the middle, but when you return it’s a beautiful bedroom with the futons laid out in sweet white rows. Indoors, everyone wears their yukatas, their happy coats, and traipses around all day in Sunday-morning slippers. The food is crazily inventive, and in the 15 courses that constitute your supper you are unlikely to encounter many shapes or substances you’ve seen before. “What are these brown spiky things under here?” you ask.
“Quite crunchy fish egg with seaweed,” they reply. What the hell. They’re delicious.
One morning, the plinky-plinky music started up bright and early and we were all summoned to a mochi-making ceremony in the hotel foyer. Mochi, a speciality at new year, is weird blobby stuff made from beating the hell out of heaps of rice for a very long time. It’s chewy but tasty. One of the by-products of mochi-making is a milky saké that gets passed to you before breakfast at the Astoria hotel. For some reason, it makes the rest of the day feel like a wedding day.