It’s hard to believe we’ve been here over a month now. The lazy days of orientation have melted into late nights studying and busy afternoons of school and internships. The shining beacon of hope, beginning for me every Friday at 3:40, is the weekend, which promises adventures in the form of field trips, museums, parks, and nights on the town. Weekend before last we attended one of our first Temple Japan-sponsored day trips. Waking bright and early on Saturday morning at the lovely hour of 5:30am, some of the other girls and I were out the door at 6:00 sharp, heading to TUJ to hop on a bus. This bus carried us out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and into the countryside, where we white-water rafted on the Arakawa River, were treated to a sumptuous barbecue of meat and vegetables, and spent the afternoon relaxing in an onsen. Though I was initially nervous about rafting, as I’d never done it before, the hour-plus we spent in the water was a burst of energy, adrenaline, and laughter which I sorely needed. Though the river may have bored more experienced rafters, the freezing water and rush of the rapids, as well as the healthy competition between the groups, left me wanting to hop on a plane to Colorado, New Zealand, or anywhere really, so I could raft all day. All in all, it was an excellent adventure and I ended the day excited for what the next weekend would bring.
This past weekend, we once again boarded a 6:50am bus from TUJ. This time, however, we brought our overnight bags in preparation for a stay in Gunma Prefecture in the northwest of the main island of Japan not far from Nagano. We took a historic steam train that cut through mountains and past rivers, rice beds, and small, increasingly rural communities. Unfortunately, our first day was somewhat dampened (pun maybe intended) due to rain and once we arrived at our hotel, a massive, modern take on a traditional Japanese ryokan, I spent the next two hours relaxing in the onsen and napping on my comfortable futon.
Onsens are traditional Japanese bathhouses located near hot springs. They are most often gender-separated facilities consisting of an indoor and outdoor “bath,” full of steaming-hot mineral water where one can soak and relax. The process of going to an onsen can at first seem quite ritualized and a little strange to the unsuspecting foreigner. First things first: NO tattoos. Large, bright yellow signs adorning the walls, both at the entrance and in the changing rooms, highlight this fact loud and clear. That being said, it is overwhelmingly possible to wear a sweatshirt, long pants, or otherwise cover oneself up and sneak by the watchful eyes of the proprietors. However, if another customer is made uncomfortable by the presence of ink, it is best to leave. Once inside, there are two changing areas: one for men and one for women, in which you strip down completely before showering off. As this is done in the company of whoever else happens to be at the onsen that day, I was exceedingly glad that years of changing for plays and dance competitions cured me of any embarrassment regarding the female form. After showering, including washing hair and body, it is permissible to enter the healing waters. We sat first in a steaming indoor bath which quickly became unbearably hot, before moving outside. At our ryokan, the onsen also offered a steam room and a sauna which we took full advantage of before plunging into the cold water also on offer. As counterintuitive as it seems, there is nothing more exhausting than sitting in hot water. Relaxing, yes, but in the way that causes an entire busload of college students to fall fast asleep until dinner time.
The next day, markedly improved weather set the stage for a trip to the Temple of Daruma, in Takasaki, and then to the daruma factory, where we painted our own. The daruma doll is a traditional Japanese symbol of perseverance and good luck and can be given as a gift or kept for personal wish-fulfillment. At the time of painting, only one eye of the doll is colored in. On fulfillment of the wish or dream, the other eye is then colored. Of all the activities I’ve done here and all the sights I’ve seen, onsen and painting darumas have to be two of my favorites. These traditional parts of Japanese life are quite different from anything we have in the States. Darumas are spiritual symbols of the common idea of hope, and onsen are the best way to relax I’ve ever experienced. These past two weekend trips were necessary diversions from studying, a much-needed break, and adventures full of laughter, relaxation, spirituality, and entertainment—something that, with my nose to the grindstone most of the time, I sometimes forget is absolutely vital. In school it is unfortunately all too easy to forget that I am in Japan and on the weekends, coordinating plans with friends is fun but sometimes exhausting. Although I normally despise feeling like a tourist, here I know that I stand out as one regardless. And you know what? My camera and I are having a great time.
Ryokan: Type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways (Wikipedia).