Earlier in October, my daughter Eve and I spent a blissful few weeks in Japan. I lived there after I graduated from University, but I haven’t been back since. Waiting so long was a mistake. There are few destinations where I’ve experienced such pure joy. Not the fleeting kind that disappears after you’ve hiked down a mountain, but the kind that stays with you for days. I found this joy again in Okunikko.
Amazingly, when I lived in Japan (without the guidance of any woman’s magazines!), I learned how to appreciate the beauty in fleeting moments. What’s different about travelling in Japan than perhaps anywhere else in the world is that it can be quite relaxing, allowing you to tap into the kind of bliss that comes from being mindful.
It wasn’t hard in Okunikko to concentrate on my senses. Less than a two-hour train journey from Tokyo, I was surrounded by scent of cedar, felt the tingle of a light rain on my bare arms and was never more than a meal away from the tang of a pickled plum.
Yes, you’ll be probably be temple hopping in the Nikko region, and likely on some crazy down to the minute oh-so Japanese itinerary. Yet within all the hustle and bustle are moments ripe for reflection. These moments of peace can easily be found over tea, at a temple and my favourite spot – the onsen.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, Okunikko is still a part of Nikko. It’s about a 20-minute drive from the city centre and is part of Nikko National Park. When folks talk about all the hiking and waterfall viewing they’re doing in Nikko, they’re talking about Okunikko.
Even if you’re not travelling to Nikko or Okunikko, at the end of every day in Japan, you’ll have an onsen AKA Japanese hot spring bath to look forward to. If there’s no hot springs around, there are public baths in every community.
If you’re lucky you’ll find a tricked out super sento (pubic bath house – not at all dodgy) or at least a very deep tub in your hotel room. Purchase a packet of onset powder (20 sachets for $4 at any grocery or drug store) and you’ll emerge with the softest skin.
One of best onsen baths in Nikko is found at the Chuzenju Kanaya Hotel in Okunikko. Amazingly, you don’t have to be a guest to access it. It’s open from 5:30 am to 9:30 a.m., and then from 1 p.m. until midnight. (It’s free for guests, but others will have to pay a small amount to use it.)
At this onsen, called Sora-Buro, they have both an indoor and outdoor bath, plus all those sit down individual shower stalls where you thoroughly clean yourself before bathing.
Tip: Nobody wears a bathing suit and you shouldn’t either. It wrecks the feeling of equality when you do. Plus it’s not culturally appropriate. Fret not, there’s a separate men and women’s section, so you’ll be bathing with the same sex.
When I went, the rain was driving down with a spring-like intensity. It turned the sulphur water in the outdoor pool milky, like an ethereal pearl with a sheen of pale jade.
Eventually, the rain became too much. Chucking down so fast, it was a struggle to keep my eyelids open. Then an oba-san (Japanese grandma) showed me the way. Taking a small umbrella provided at the door, she propped it up between the rocks and sheltered herself underneath it.
Rain surrounded us, yet our heads and shoulders remained dry under the umbrella. It was a surreal experience – being both wet and dry. The clean rain. The smell of cedar mingled in with the sulphur from the hot spring. It was perfectly peaceful. There was nowhere else I needed to be.
But there’s more hot springs to explore in this region. The Japanese have been enjoying foot baths in Okunikko since 789. Yeah, you read that right. For like, over a thousand years, they’ve been dipping their tootsies into these thermal waters located in Yumoto, the hot spring area of Okunikko.
It’s the same hot spring, so the water at the Yumoto foot bath is mainly sulphur based. There’s also traces of hydrogen sulfide, calcium, natrium (sodium). Before you step into the foot bath, there’s a warning sign instruction you to pretend wash your feet with cold water from the garden hose. Another sign warns not to use the pools if you have a fever or tuberculosis. Noted.
There’s three different pools rest your legs in, heated at 40°C, 42°C and a piping hot 47°C. When standing, the water goes up to about your mid calf, so wear loose pants.. Be sure to take any rings or jewelry off that might get into the water as these strong minerals could tarnish it.
Then you sit at one of the wooden benches along these shallow pools and enjoy a soak – ideally for 10 minutes or so. If I was hitting this at the end of the day, I would’ve brought in some drinks. You can, but it was too early for us. Despite going in with perky 10 a.m. feet, it was still worth it. Afterwards I felt like I was walking air. (Almost as good as my CBD oil foot massage.) Most importantly, there’s a public toilet on site.
Entry is free if you bring your own towel, or you can purchase one for the bargain price 200 yen (approximately 2 USD). There’s also a tip box if you’re feeling up to it.
There are lots of lovely restaurant to try in Nikko. Many of them will have English menus or at least an employee who can help translate. The region is famous for yuba the outer skin of the tofu, so expect to see a lot of that on menus. The stand out restaurant for me in Nikko was situated in Okunikko, on the main drag, across from the Kegon Falls parking lot.
It’s called Kiribana and the specialty at this organic restaurant is yuba and homemade soba noodles, which you might see them making in their front window.
Take off your shoes and sit at a low Japanese table on tatami mats or pull up a chair beside the locals at a regular table to sample a variety of soba and udon noodles. There’s an English menu with a good explanations of all their main menu items, but I recommend going for either their tendon (rice topped with tempura) or katsudon (deep fried pork tenderloin and egg over rice).
If watercress in on offer, go for that too, as it grows wild along the shores of Lake Chuzenji. Large portions you will leave stuffed and each dish comes with the obligatory pickley things.
Have you ever travelled to Japan? If you went, what would you like to do there?
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