Japan: Out of the comfort zone

By Regan Schoultz

Regan Schoultz braves a couple of challenging new experiences in Japan.
Steam rises from Beppu's hot spring bath houses. Photo / 123RF
Steam rises from Beppu's hot spring bath houses. Photo / 123RF

Hot sand presses down on my chest and legs causing a tingling hot sensation to pulse through my legs, arms and back.

The women working the sand come round occasionally to dump more fresh hot sand on top of my already covered body. They work contentedly and without rush.

This "hot sand bath" is disconcerting. The sand is heavy, and initially it is hard to know whether I am suffocating under the weight or enjoying the warmth.

I am in Beppu, which has been Rotorua's sister city since 1987. As in Rotorua, natural thermal waters run beneath the city, bursting as hot steam from cracks in the earth.

Of the four stops in my short trip to Japan - Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kumamoto and Beppu - this city nestled between the ocean and the mountains is perhaps the most relaxing - there are not so many people and it is quiet.

Beppu is a mecca for all things hot and steamy - hot water baths, mud baths, sand baths and steam baths - the only catch is that most of these activities require you to be naked.

Am I nervous? Yes, the idea of bathing with a group of strangers in the altogether is strange, and it rattles me a bit..

At least with the sand bath, we were able to wear robes. But that definitely isn't the case in the onsen baths at the hotel.

The Hanabishi has separate baths for men and women on the eighth floor rooftop.

After dinner I nervously enter the bathrooms and make my way through a small room full of lockers, mirrors and towels. There I de-robe, breathe in deep for confidence and head to an outdoor area.

I encounter two baths, both of which are fairly hot, and a shower room hidden by a wall. Unaware of the requirement to shower before entering the water, I slide into the first bath as quickly as possible.

A group of Japanese women watch me as I scramble to cover myself with my hands. I feel really self-conscious being naked in front of them. None of them, however, seem remotely worried about their bodies.

As I sit and soak in the bath I begin to relax a bit and feel more comfortable. The heat of the baths and the cool outdoor temperatures makes for a seriously pleasant experience.

When the bath gets too hot, I head for the shower block where I am surprised to find several stools on the floor with shower heads sitting on the wall in front.

A few others are showering so, paying attention to what they are doing, I take a seat and begin to do as they do.

In the hotel, guests walk around in the kimonos and clog-like sandals provided in each of the rooms. Even the younger ones are relaxed and calm. No one I encounter seems to be in any particular rush to get anywhere.

The hotel rooms are in traditional Japanese style. A small corridor leads to a bathroom and shower on the left and straight ahead is a boxy bedroom, the floor covered with a straw mat. On the floor is a low table with two seats and not much else. There is a TV on the wall and cupboards.

Past a paper screen door is a small room with another table and chair - and the most magnificent view of the city. Mountains and sea fill the frame, in the dusky almost magical light of the evening.

I am initially confused by the lack of a bed in the room - our tour guide had warned us we would be sleeping on the ground - but I search the cupboards and find a folded thin mattress, blanket and pillow - I have discovered the bedding at least. In the next cupboard is a white kimono, black belt and dark blue overcoat. It takes a few tries to work out how to wear these but I get there, and with my clog sandals on make my way to to the dining hall.

The food in Japan is amazing, and I am determined to make the most of my visit.

On day one in Kyoto, I get up early in the morning and head to a local restaurant for my first taste.

At first I walk straight into the restaurant, just as I would at home, not realising others are sitting outside the restaurant waiting to be seated.

Embarrassed I head back out and sit next to two Japanese women. Although they cannot speak English, nor I Japanese, we begin a conversation using hand movements and a few slow words to understand each other.

The women are curious to know where I am from. Do I like shopping? What are my interests, they ask - or at least I think that is what they are asking. I ask whether I can join them for breakfast, and both seem quite happy to let me tag along.

After a 15-minute wait we are seated in a small cubicle. The decor is subtle and the sound of running water plays in the background.

With help from the women I select my first breakfast and am delighted to be handed a wooden box with small compartments inside containing servings of fish, ginger, seaweed, pickle and a variety of other things I am unable to name. With the box come bowls of rice and miso soup.

The Japanese women watch me with bemusement as I begin to mix the assortment of food with my rice.

Then I watch as they slowly and thoughtfully select small helpings of each dish with their chopsticks and eat it with rice. Both take their time, sipping on green tea in between mouthfuls and chatting. I on the other hand have eaten half my food in about five minutes. I have to consciously force myself to slow down with my meal and enjoy each mouthful as the women are doing.

It is the first of many delicious meals in Japan.

On a night out with a group of mostly female travel agents in Kumamoto, in the south, we visit a sophisticated traditional restaurant.

We are led to a private room filled with low-lying tables and seats on the floor, take off our shoes and jackets and are seated.

Waitresses serve drinks, then begin to bring out small portions of food. The restaurant also has tasting trays of sake: we select three that are potato-based and three with a rice base. All are wickedly strong. We are given several dishes of fish, rice and accompaniments, along with what looks to me like fried chicken. I am informed by a waitress that it is pufferfish, or fugu.

Fugu, which contains the poison tetrodotoxin in its skin, skeleton, ovaries, intestines and particularly its liver, can kill the diner if it is not prepared properly.

Because the delicacy is so dangerous, chefs must have a special licence to prepare it.

Slightly nervous, I take a bite and am pleasantly surprised by the crispy, salty goodness.

Not only is the food in Japan fantastic - so is the manner in which its cities are kept.

Most noticeable is the cleanliness of the streets and green spaces. There's not a scrap of rubbish or a cigarette butt anywhere - and I think to myself that this is a custom we would do well to adopt.


Getting there

Korean Air flies from Auckland to Tokyo, with return Economy Class fares starting from $2500.



- Spy.co.nz

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