In Japan, a return to the Land of Fire and Water

Brigid Schulte

THE WASHINGTON POST – In 1984, the day after I graduated from college and was itching to get out of my provincial life in Portland, Oregon, I left to take a job as an English teacher in a place called Kagoshima, Japan, on the country’s volcano-strewn southernmost main island of Kyushu, which calls itself the Land of Fire and Water. I’d never heard of it.

I lived on a bay, off an impossibly narrow street of shops selling enormous daikon radishes, slabs of tofu chilling in tubs of water and sizzling yakitori kebabs. My room was nestled near terraced rice fields and jagged, steep and forested hills, with a perfect view of Sakurajima, the active volcano, which, since 1955, has steamed and roiled and rained black ash most days.

I hadn’t been back to Japan for more than 30 years when I had the chance to spend a summer in Tokyo. And when my then-17-year-old daughter, Tessa, joined me for the last 10 days, even with such limited time, I wanted to find a way to show her some of the best of what draws so many to the Tokyo-Kyoto corridor, but also make our way back to the strange, out-of-the-way and lush place I had once called home. And honestly, after weeks in the crowded, hyped-up urban landscape of Tokyo, I was in desperate need of both slowing down and seeing something green.

Once Tessa landed in Tokyo, I decided to immerse my jet-lagged daughter immediately in one of the unique and, in my mind, one of the best things about Japanese culture – the onsen, or mineral hot springs. The art of public bathing was first extolled in the seventh century in Japan’s oldest history book, the Kojiki. Buddhist monks originated the practice. They believed a meditative soak in bubbling hot water could not only heal the body but cleanse the soul.

I took Tessa not to just any onsen. I took her to a place called Spa LaQua, a kind of super onsen on the top floors of the kitschy Tokyo Dome – a roller coaster runs through a cutout in the building – with sex-segregated outdoor natural pools, and indoor pools of varying temperatures and mineral compositions.

An overview of Kagoshima City with a view of Sakurajima volcano
ABOVE & BELOW: The author’s daughter, Tessa, 17 at the time of the visit, stands under the Shinto torii gates of Hakone Shrine on the shore of Lake Ashi near Mount Fuji; and the Chiran Peace Museum. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST/JUDITH WORKS

Tessa, like any privacy-loving teen, looked stricken as I explained proper onsen etiquette on the elevator ride up to the spa: The first step is to completely disrobe and store everything in a locker. Grab a tiny washcloth, stool and bucket, often made of sweet-smelling Hinoki wood, and head to a bank of low-lying faucets, shower nozzles and mirrors and scrub yourself silly. Then, rinsed and clean, taking care to keep your washcloth on your head, walk to the pools for a good, long soak.

Perhaps it was because she was too jet lagged to put up much of a fuss, but Tessa gamely gave the baths a try. Eyes closed, immersed in bubbling hot water, together and in our own worlds, we fell into the kind of random thoughtful conversation and comfortable silence that doesn’t often happen in a busy, screen-filled Western life. It’s an onsen bonding phenomenon the Japanese call “hadaka no tsukiai” – literally, “without clothes, we are all the same.”

Seeking out these kinds of meditative spaces – in the both the busy and well-travelled Tokyo-Kyoto corridor and in rustic Kagoshima – became a theme for the rest of our trip.

In Tokyo, we mixed a visit to the over-the-top roller-skating neon madness of the Robot Restaurant with a quiet meal in a private tatami mat room at Bon for shojin ryori, the vegetarian fare of Zen Buddhist monks. We ended a busy day of navigating boats, ropeways and trams in search of the perfect view of Mount Fuji in Hakone with a solitary walk through the forest on what remains of the old Tokaido Road, a key thoroughfare in the 17th to 19th centuries, to a 400-year-old teahouse.

And we balanced temple hopping in Kyoto with a tranquil tea ceremony at Yuuhisai Koudoukan, in a historic, elegant building surrounded by a Japanese garden, and a stay in a traditional Machiya house, sleeping on futons on tatami mat floors and soaking in our own wooden tubs.

As we trained our way south to Kagoshima, we made time for the ultimate quiet refuge, a retreat at Ekoin, one of the 100 Shingon Buddhist temples that have lined the sacred Mount Koya since the 9th Century and are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the morning, we joined the monks around an enclosed firepit for the Goma fire ritual where we tossed wooden sticks meant to symbolise the desires and foibles that cause human suffering into the flames for Buddha to cleanse and burn away.

Thirty years ago, it took effort to get to Kagoshima – involving a bullet train that connected to a slow-moving (though beautiful) rickety train ride along the coast. . Back then, few outsiders, or gaijin, managed to make their way there.

All that changed in 2011, when the high-speed bullet train was extended directly to Kagoshima. Now trains leave every hour. And, in recent years, with more competition from domestic low-cost airlines, travelers can find a relatively cheap flight from Tokyo and be there in under two hours. So Tessa and I did both – took the train south and flew back to Tokyo to catch our international flight home.

When we arrived at the train station in Kagoshima, I didn’t recognise anything. Gone were the squat, 1950s-era wooden buildings where I’d hung out with my Aikido teachers. Instead, the station was part of a gleaming new mall, with a plaza, a Ferris wheel and modern shops and restaurants. Though, I did thankfully, recognise my former student, Yasuko, who picked us up. She took us to the Shiroyama Hotel, which sits high atop a hill overlooking the city and across Kinko Bay to the volcano Sakurajima, which smoked and chuffed against the evening sky.

Years ago, on hot summer evenings, living in a dorm with students and no air conditioning, I would ride the ferry back and forth across the bay just to catch a breeze. This night, Tessa and I made our way to the hotel’s large gleaming onsen and sat outside in the swirling pool of water under the stars, lost in our thoughts, watching the brightly lit ferries crisscross the bay far below.

Kyushu and the scattering of islands to the south have always been a place apart in Japan. Legend, myth, history and war run deep – the sun deity was said to have taken refuge in a cave for a time in Miyazaki, along the island’s east coast, until a bawdy dance lured her out. The dialect, Kagomaben, is incomprehensible to many Japanese farther north. Even at the Paris World’s Fair in 1867, Satsuma Province – which encompasses much of present-day Kagoshima prefecture – exhibited its own pavilion, separate from the then-all powerful Tokugawa shogunate, leading many confused Europeans to think there were two countries in Japan. That internal tension that would later erupt when Satsuma’s last samurai, Saigo Takamori, helped overthrow the shogunate, and a few years later, revolted against the imperial government he’d helped install; he worried it was losing its soul to the West. Takamori made his failed last stand in 1877 on Shiroyama in Kagoshima, not far from our hotel.

And there is simply nothing quite as intensely green as the landscape south of Kagoshima on what’s called the Satsuma Peninsula. I spent a few days showing Tessa some of my favourite Kagoshima haunts, the downtown Tenmonkan area, where another former student runs a wine bar and took us to lunch at cozy Sushi Kan, the junior college where I taught and distinctively Kagoshimian places like the 17th-century gardens of Sengan-en, where guests of the Shimizu clan lords would gather for poetry parties along the banks of the stream.

Then, with Yasuko as our guide, we headed south. Driving through the verdant tea fields of Chiran, we stopped at the sobering Peace Museum, on the site of a former air base, dedicated to the 1,036 young tokkotai, or kamikaze pilots, who were sent on suicide missions in the waning days of World War II. The museum is much bigger than it was in the early 1980s when I last visited, and now includes remnants of a crumpled Mitsubishi Zero aircraft recovered from the bottom of the ocean, and more English translations of some of the letters home the doomed young men wrote. “I feel that my 28 years of life was like a dream,” wrote one young lieutenant before his first and final mission. It is only fitting, Tessa noted, that Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, stands watch at the entrance. The old runways are now planted with sweet potatoes.

In need of a spiritual lift, we wandered as if back in time through Chiran’s samurai district, a near perfectly preserved street of seven 250-year-old samurai houses and gardens. Then, to buoy our spirits further, for lunch, we stopped for somen nagashi – or flowing somen noodles – at Tosenkyo in the Tosen Gorge. One of my first memories of Japan was a trip here on a blisteringly hot day. I remember how cool and hushed it became as we descended steep stone steps into the gorge, and how refreshing the delicate noodles tasted as I inexpertly used chopsticks to fish them out of the ice-cold water spinning in a circular contraption on the table, like a swirling Lazy Susan, and dunked them in tsuyu sauce of soy, ginger and scallions. Yasuko and I hoped Tessa would be similarly mesmerised.

After lunch, I asked Yasuko if we could go to Kohan no Yado Midori So, the tranquil onsen overlooking a lake at a secluded inn that had been a much-loved refuge for me decades before.

At that, Yasuko smiled and said she had a better idea. We pulled up to the unassuming Tamatebako, or “Healthy Land” onsen on a bluff along the coast.

I was skeptical at first. The interior bathhouse had a decidedly utilitarian air. But once the three of us, scrubbed and rinsed clean, stepped outside and plunged into the natural stone outdoor hot springs, it was as if we were transported to one of the most magical places on Earth.

With sweeping views of towering cliffs, the East China Sea lapping black sand beaches, the perfect cone of Mount Kaimon, or “Satsuma Fuji” as locals call it, and in the distance, the ancient cedar forests on the island of Yakushima, the onsen is, truly, an idyllic oasis. Time slowed.

And we fell in and out of the easy silence and thoughtful conversation of people who know that, despite the distance of language, or age, culture, geography or years apart, underneath it all, we are all the same.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Niwa

A midsize boutique hotel with Eastern and Western touches near the Tokyo Dome. We opted for a superior twin room, with shoji rice paper screens on the window, and the large weekend breakfast buffet at its restaurant, Yukuri, which offers both Japanese and Western fare. Superior twin room about USD112 per night in winter, about USD250 per night in summer, plus tax.

Odakyu Hotel de Yama

A picturesque hotel surrounded by Japanese flower gardens, trees and stunning Lake Ashi. Standard twin room with lake view, with breakfast for two included, from about USD165 per night in summer. Prices vary depending on weekend or weekday.

Machiya Residence Inn

Through a company offering more than 40 traditional two-story Machiya houses in the Gion district, we rented one called the Koyuan Machiya. About USD266 per night.

Ekoin Buddhist Temple

Hotel offering Japanese-style economy rooms, with a bath down the hall and breakfast and dinner. Rooms from about USD225 per night; prices vary depending on time of year and week.

Shiroyama Hotel

We splurged and booked a room with a view of the bay and Sakurajima volcano. Non-smoking twin with an ocean view, including an enormous East-West buffet breakfast, from about USD250 a night plus tax in the summer.

WHERE TO EAT

Bon

A quiet refuge serving delicate and tasty Zen Buddhist vegetarian shojin ryori, with small, private tatami mat rooms, shoji rice paper doors and view of a small Japanese garden. Open weekdays for lunch noon to 3pm and dinner from 5.30 to 9pm, closes Sunday 8pm. Closed Wednesdays and holidays. Weekday set lunch about USD46 per person, plus tax. Reservations required.

Saganoyu

In keeping with our onsen-themed trip, though purely by accident, we sought refuge from the hot crowds the Arashiyama Bamboo forest at this whitewashed cafe set in a converted public bath.

It serves a variety of coffee and teas, including matcha lattes and chai tea; food includes ice cream, pancakes, pastas and curries. Open daily 11am to 8pm. Drinks from about USD5; lunch set from around USD10.

Sushi Kan

In Kagoshima’s Tenmonkan area, we ate some of the best omakase, chef’s choice of fresh sushi and sashimi, sitting at the counter for lunch. Open 11am to 2.30pm; Omakase sushi lunch about USD28.

Tosenkyo Somen Nagashi

Clear, cool spring water gushing through the Tosenkyo Gorge is funneled directly to a host of tables where it spins around a circular contraption. Affordable meal seats include a big basket of delicate white somen noodles (about USD5 per basket) that are dumped into the swirling water and scooped out with chopsticks. Menu sets from about USD12 include salted, grilled trout or carp, miso soup, and onigiri rice balls. Open 10am to 3pm from November to February, until 5pm from March to June, until 7pm in July and September, and until 8pm in August.

WHERE TO GO

Spa LaQua

Three floors at the top of the Tokyo Dome of indoor and outdoor sex-segregated hot springs pools, treatment rooms, “relax” rooms, shops and restaurants overlook the city, with a roller coaster twisting in and around the building.

Remember, many onsen and public baths bar entry to anyone with tattoos, a move designed to keep yakuza mobsters out.

Open daily from 11am to 9am next day. Adults about USD27 per person, about USD19 for children ages 6-17.

Yuuhisai Koudoukan

Have a quiet, deeply authentic experience away from touristy crowds with a traditional tea ceremony. This cultural centre is housed in a historic, elegant sukiya zukuri-style building surrounded by a tranquil Japanese garden. We observed a master, and her English-speaking student gave us a deeply informed explanation of the history, art and significance of the ceremony. Ceremonies arranged by appointment, in advance. Two-person 45-minute Chakai, or basic tea ceremony with foamy green matcha and seasonal confections, about USD270; about USD110 per additional guest.

Tamatebako Outdoor Hot Springs

Outdoor hot springs with stunning views of Mount Kaimon, black sand beaches, cliffs and the East China seat. The sex-segregated Western and Japanese-style baths are open to men and women on alternating days. Managed by Healthy Land, the resort also includes entry to the Sayuri Natural Sand Bath. Open daily 9.30am to 5.30pm; closed Thursdays. Admission about USD5.

Chiran Peace Museum

With thousands of artefacts, including letters, photographs, flags, personal effects and four intact fighter aircraft, the museum is dedicated to the young men who died in ill-fated kamikaze missions and is designed, according to translated museum material, to “expose the tragic loss of their lives so that we may understand the need for everlasting peace and ensure such incidents are never repeated.” Open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission about USD5 for adults, about USD3 for children.