Nakagawa-san drives a little turbocharged ute. I can tell it’s turbo’d because there’s an aftermarket boost gauge stuck on the dashboard whose needle flaps around every time he shifts gears. For what’s clearly an old and well-worn vehicle, there’s a surprisingly large number of addons. The radar detector on the dashboard blares momentarily as we drive along an anonymous stretch of backroad, and Mizuki Nana is playing from an SD card in the stereo unit.
He asks me if I’d like to go visit the local onsen while I’m unpacking my things, and I’d love to, given that my body is covered in a weird mixture of aircon-dried sweatiness. It’s dark so I can’t tell exactly where we are, but it looks like a hotel, except that the carport at the front opens straight into the foyer for the baths. I’m a little thrown off when I realise that he’s not coming to bathe as well, he’ll come to pick me up in an hour or so; crap, I’m on my own again. I’ve done onsens before, just not in the public bath style. He helps me buy one of the requisite modesty towels from the front desk and then he’s off.
I’ve got this, I’ve got this. I *think I’ve got this… I’ve seen enough anime before, I can figure out the little details by watching what other people do. I mean I know roughly how this works, but every time I’ve used an onsen it’s been attached to a hotel, or had less context around it; it’s just a hot tub. This is the whole kit and caboodle.*
Okay, take my shoes off and put them in a coin locker with 100yen deposit, it’s a good thing I prepared a stack of 100yen coins. Take the shoe locker key to the front desk and pay my 500yen for use of the bath, exchange the shoe locker key for an elastic wristband. Buy my modesty towel for 200yen (I only have a full-sized towel, and that’s for drying off after you’re done), head to the changerooms. Pick an empty clothing locker, take the key from it. Aha, the clothing locker key snaps into the wristband so I don’t lose it.
Great now what, I should probably start getting changed so I don’t look weird. Meanwhile I’m fumbling around in the locker, actually using my phone to try and find some confirmation on how the modesty towel is actually used. You use it to cover your crotch while walking around? That’s it? It’s not like you can keep yourself covered 100% of the time so I’m not sure why you bother. Well, okay, whatever… I’m not overly fussed about my body. And how does this work for women anyway? I seem to recall Love Hina suggesting that the towel is big enough to cover the chest and groin when you wrap it around you, and this one assuredly isn’t. Do women get larger modesty towels? It’ll definitely be large enough if you just hold it flat over the front of your torso, maybe that’s it. Oh thank God some other patrons are heading in, I’ll do what they do and try to look like I know what I’m doing.
Washing, I’ve got this. It doesn’t take very long, and I’m pretty thorough, hey what are those other guys doing ‘cause they’re taking a while. Have I washed thoroughly enough? It’s seriously frowned upon to not be clean before getting in the bath, I hope this is okay. Stuff it, I soaped up and put several buckets of water over myself like a boss. This is *fine. Hm so it’s fine to get the modesty towel wet? Hrm I guess it’s not really for drying yourself off at all so you don’t need to keep it dry. Good, I can wipe my face off, I guess they figured that toweling is much comfier than plain cotton drill. Hey this is pretty good, getting into the swing now.*
I don’t wanna scare anyone off, I’ll just saunter over to an ordinary-looking bit of the bath, not too close to anyone. There we go just ease in gently, bugger me it’s hot, pull the towel up, fold it a few times, sit it on my head. I bet I look like a pro at this, heh. I wonder what time it is, there’s no clocks in here, only a thermometer telling me the temperature is in the low-mid 40’s, but boy it feels much hotter than that.
The baths are fairly modest in size with the usual familiar sections. The usual indoor pool, with attached massage chair things (think of spa bath jets), the outdoor rotenburo area (covered from the elements and screened for privacy) and a separate, smaller pool indoors. The separate pool is more interesting.
Thinking this would be like the main indoor pool but at a different temperature, I wandered over and stepped in, one leg at a time. The first leg went in fine, then the second went in and I was hit by what felt like a crippling spasming in my calf muscle. A faint buzzing sound accompanied the sensation, and I wrenched the leg away before even managing a conscious reaction. Woah, what the hell is this!?
The signage on the wall is mostly in dense Japanese, but what little English is present labels this as an electromagnetic pulse bath. Apparently this is really a legit thing, but I can tell you it’s also really uncomfortable. The field is emitted from plates in the wall, and has an effective range of about 20cm, after which it drops off sharply.
Flexing a muscle in the field is even more uncomfortable, maybe you’re not meant to do that. The sensation is like being paralysed, as though your muscles won’t move when commanded. Still freaky. If you’ve ever wanted to feel really chuu2, this is the way to do it. 「くっ！ ぐをおぉぉ！ がまん。。。できなああぁぁ！！！」 This works best if you make a claw with one hand, tense all the muscles in that arm, then use your other hand to grab the wrist tightly.
Okay that’s fun, but I don’t have any ailments that a chuu2 field is going to help with, and this is getting real uncomfortable so I think I’ll just get out. How am I meant to dry myself anyway? I’m dripping wet and the little towel isn’t going to soak any of that up. Maybe I can sort of wipe myself down, I’ll do that as best I can.
Well this is kinda awkward. I mean there’s only room on the mat here for like 2 people to wipe themselves down, and there’s three people wanting to get out of the baths. Kinda feeling dry-ish now, I’ll get out of the way and head to the locker, oh bloody hell I’m making wet footprints everywhere. I hope this is okay, I can’t really tell what other people do to get dry enough to put clothes on.
Ooer, what’s going on over there? Dude that walked past definitely had a bit of a swagger on him, and was that a *tattoo? That’s pretty verboten when it comes to onsen. Shit he even sounds like a yakuza. Can’t tell what he’s saying, but he’s talking to someone and he’s got that really rough don’t-give-a-fuck mode of speech going. Is it a stereotype when it’s just accurate?*
Heartbeat’s just gone way up, I can feel the jitters as my adrenals surge. Geez, just relax. He’s not going to start anything. I know that, but it’s uncomfortable as hell. He can’t see me from where he is over at the grooming tables, I’ll get changed and get out of here. Grab the towel, keep drying off. Phew, is it hot in here? Ahh that’s good, just keep fanning yourself, you’ll cool off soon. Eugh, hair’s still a mess from washing it earlier, the Japanese really need to learn about conditioner. I’m sure there’s some oil over in the grooming section too, but like hell I want to deal with maybe-yakuza-dude. No way bro, I’m done I’m outta here.
I can see Nakagawa-san waiting in the carpark while I’m at the lockers retrieving my shoes. I managed to time it pretty well, I’m maybe five minutes later than expected. Not that I want to keep him waiting, but I just noticed that there’s a flavoured milk vending machine here. You’re meant to do that after visiting the onsen, right?
Stuff it, this won’t take long, it’s milk o’clock! There’s no strawberry here so I settle for coffee. How’s this go again? One hand on the hip, down it all in one go. Slide the empty bottle into the collection tray, and I’m gone.
We try to hit up a little place in town for gyoza, but it looks like they’re closed. That’d be just my luck, the one day of the week that they’re not open. There’s not many places open at this hour and I don’t really want to be a pain in the arse about getting dinner, but at least there’s fast food. KFC, McDonalds, Sukiya - Sukiya it is (it’s cheap).
Over dinner and coffee (Mein Gott, he knows about real coffee, ground and brewed himself!) we talk about this part of the country, various attractions, what he does, that sort of thing. Wikitravel mentioned that his English is pretty limited, but it’s an understatement. I’m not disappointed, just surprised. I’m having to look up a lot of words, particularly ones relating to jobs and employment, but it’s really fulfilling to have an extended conversation exclusively in Japanese and just doing my best at it.
Shimokita, while not heavily populated, has a good amount of things to see and do. Osorezan is obviously the main attraction, but there’s a lot of forest and a few hot springs tucked away in there. The northeastern corner of the peninsula has horses, and all around the coastline are little fishing towns that do good seafood. He’s got a photo album with lots of pictures of visitors that have stayed at Muu and been out to experience the attractions, it’s pretty cool.
Caption: Shimokita landmarks and the route to Mutsu.
On the way up to Shimokita from Aomori, along the the “axe handle” of the peninsula, I spotted a wind turbine farm (this won’t make any sense unless you’ve seen Raildex, but I really wanted to get out and have a closer look, but didn’t have time). I mention this to Nakagawa-san, and he tells me that there’s also nuclear facilities on the peninsula as well. He thinks the wind stuff is propaganda for the nuclear stuff, and being in Japan I don’t blame him. Three nuclear facilities and three wind farms, if I understood him correctly. Higashidouri on the eastern side, Ouma up in the northwest corner, and a fuel processing plant in Rokkasho near the base of the peninsula. I’m still gonna see one of the wind farms, one way or another.
Osorezan really isn’t a long way from Mutsu, so I’ll have plenty of time to drive around. If I’m stuck for ideas, I’m told I should go drive around the northern coastline. He recommends a little place with good food, and I pick up my first bit of new terminology. I should look out for intersection with traffic lights, the restaurant is on the corner next to a GS - a Gasoline Stand.
Caption: In true Japanese style, a hand drawn map with readily identifiable markers as waypoints. Distances are measured in driving time rather than kilometres, because that’s apparently how they roll.
Muu is a peaceful place, moreso after I switch off the gently humming fan. The only noise in the bedroom comes from the insects, kept safely outside by a flyscreen.
It’s cooled off somewhat into the high twenties, and still humid enough to tickle the skin, but it’s definitely pleasant now. Having just switched off the gently humming fan, I shut my eyes and take it all in. The insects, kept firmly outside by the flyscreen, are the only source of noise at Muu. That and my own breathing, which I’m now acutely aware of as I slow down and absorb the rich smell of the timber. If I strain really hard I can just make out the faint clicking of the air ioniser over next to the doorway, but with that thought I let go and slip into sleep.