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From Akita to Yamagata and another deadly bath!

On a scale of importance from one to ten, baths rank the highest at ten, with a nice green tent site close behind at nine. Finding one or the other is usually enough to make our day a great one, but finding both, is the thing of dreams. So rarely does such an occurrence happen that it becomes an event that is forever cherished, like a wedding or the birth of your first child. Unfortunately for me however, hitting the jackpot came with a rude reminder of just how closely sweet can often be followed by bitter; the culprit once again, the Japanese bathhouse.

We arrived at Nikaho much earlier than expected and stumbled across one of the nicest parks we had seen. Despite differences in layout and appearance, the parks we had come across up till now could generally be classified into two broad categories; parks plonked down haphazardly in response to an official need to satisfy a town’s requirement for a park, or parks that had obviously been made to enhance the lives of the residents around it, designed with the care and attention that made them such an important part of a town. Luckily for us the park at Nikaho was of the latter kind, situated thoughtfully next to the rolling swells of the ocean and filled with green spaces, play spaces and walk spaces for everyone to enjoy. It was a perfect place to spend a night.

The location had an added bonus. Situated right next door was a hot spring that, we were told, contained water of the blackest ilk, filled with healing minerals perfect for relieving the kinds of aches and pains brought on from days on hard stilts. We had never been in a hot spring with black water before, nor had we been in one whose healing properties were designed specifically to remedy stilt induced aches and pains. As such we wasted no time in gathering our gear and heading over to what would be, at this early hour of the day, a granny free bath.

Entering through rickety sliding glass doors, we were confronted by a bath house that time had forgotten. A small resting area adorned with a brown leather couch of the kind that you always found when visiting grandad’s hairdresser, lay between ourselves and the front desk. Behind it sat the owner, a frail woman who looked as old and as weary as the peeling paint on the walls. With sad droopy eyes surrounded by two big purplish bags, she was the human incarnation of Fred Basset. Our cheerful greeting failed to bring any cheer to her day and as she took our money, she lapsed in to a frightful fit of coughing that looked certain to cut short our stay. As such, we decided to hustle and make the most of the black water’s healing properties before the paramedics arrived to take her away.

As I entered the bathing area, I could still hear her splutters through the ‘bandai’ or viewing window that linked each bath with the front desk. Common in many older style baths, the Bandai was like Foucalt’s panopticon in the way it allowed the owner to see all and fix all from their perch out the front. Now, as she spat the contents of her coughing fit into her handkerchief, I wondered if this bath’s bandai was more for her benefit than ours.

Because of the early hour, the bath was empty leaving me free to try all of its offerings. Having learnt my lesson about the effect of electricity and water in Aomori, I decided to give the electric bath here a miss and decided instead to focus on the other option, ‘the Turbo Jet’ bath. While most hot springs have some form of jet enhanced bath, it was the first time I had seen one advertised with a Turbo and wasted little time jumping in to see just what it could do. Despite the black water, it was possible to make out the shape of an enormous bubbler mounted to the end of the bath and for all I knew, the other side of an F-18 fighter engine. It was obviously from a time before health and safety standards had banished such installments to the ‘too risky’ category. While common sense would normally prevail in such situations, there are times when it is overshadowed by a stronger sense; that childhood sense that teaches boys to press any button within arm’s reach regardless of the consequences. And so it was, with the press of a button, that I discovered what it is like to receive a full frontal blast of water from an F-18 jet engine propelled bubbler. Those few seconds from when I was thrust back against the bath wall to when I edged my way back toward the button, taught me what life might have been like had I come out into this world minus an appendage. As it was, I was still having trouble finding where it had gone when my search was interrupted by a fellow bather who, by the expression on his face, seemed to know exactly what I was going through. As we traded sympathetic nods on my way out, I noticed the water from the black bath still streaming over its edges, pooling on the floor beside him. His ability to turn a blind eye to what was obviously my gaffe was more than could be said for the elderly owner who, having recovered somewhat from her earlier convulsions was now peering in through her window at me with disapproving, but still droopy eyes. I was on another walk of shame that was taking me once again from the suds and bubbles of Japanese hot spring land back to the study table where I might once and for all learn my lesson that nudity and stupidity should never be mixed in public.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:36 PM,

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