August 5, 2008

Summer. Japanese Summer. Great heat if you’re lucky, overwhelming humidity if you aren’t. The brain gets mushy, and concentrating is nearly impossible, especially in a lab room surrounded by 12 heat-producing computers. As a way to escape all of this, if only for a few days, the whole institute made a 4-days-trip to Kusatsu, where the yearly symposium took place – at an altitude of 1200 meters above sea level (thus pleasing us with refreshing temperatures). Long hours of presentations, nice food, followed by parties all night, every night. After 4 days, you’re nearly dead. ^_^

I won’t go into detail about the symposium. Instead, there are lots of things to say about Kusatsu itself. It’s maybe the most famous hot spring resort in Japan, and is built around Yubatake (湯畑), lit. “hot water field”, a spring that produces an amazing 5000 liters of boiling hot water per minute. The water is then lead through a system of wooden, open conduits (also being denoted by the same name), to cool down a little, before being distributed to various onsen (public baths) in town.

Actually, there are much too many onsen in this place to try them all during our short trip. However, the most interesting onsen experience of these 4 days (well, really of my time in Japan so far) was an “river onsen” by the funny name of Shiriyaki (尻焼, lit. “cooked buttocks”): It’s simply a normal, public river, which is heated by a natural hot spring. Actually, it’s free of charge, since you just enter the river for taking a bath. Now, the problem was to chose the correct timing. Some of us went during the day (while I joined a hike to an active volcano, see below). They said later that it was nice, yet somehow embarrassing, getting into the river naked, with whole families around and most people in swim suits. Now, I’d’ve liked to experience the whole setting, if not only to be able to say “been there, done that”. However, going there in the night was a fantastic and quite exceptional experience: Arriving there, we just saw a rather stony river, and couldn’t imagine this would be the right place. After walking along the river for a bit, though, we found a designated spot where you can strip off your clothes and get into a more “tame, tidy” part of the river bed. The whole area was illuminated by one small lamp only, thus we were largely blind. Finding your way through slippery stones and the steaming water, then lying there, looking up into the sky which was full of stars (I can’t recall ever seeing so many before) … definitely an activity to remember. A rather wild experience, and one that you nearly won’t be able to have elsewhere in Japan. Thus, while I would have liked to see it during the day, too, coming there at night was surely the right decision, if you ask me.

Another special place, not as spectacular, yet also enjoyable and also “open air”, was a very large outdoor bath called Sainokawara (西の河原) with a size of about 500 m². While good onsen often have a small outdoor section of some few square meters, it was a grand feeling to wade freely through this large area, lying relaxedly in the hot, steaming water, just enjoying the view. [Click here for some additional pictures of these two places.]

On the other side of the spectrum there were several tiny onsen, nothing more than a small underground room where you can get into a tiny basin with usually very hot water, for free: Picture #13 shows such an onsen, with just enough space for 3 people at most; the water was so freaking hot (people were estimating 46°C), we flinched away from the overflowing water. After testing it with my hand, I decided that I will not be able to enter that. However, peer pressure worked wonders, and soon I found myself sitting inside, being slowly cooked, but actually withstand longer than the others. Later that evening, we went to another one, which was even hotter! No kidding! Most of the other people from my group didn’t even enter, and I came out totally red and burning. But it was fun.

Last but not least, there is a still active volcano by the name of Mount Shirane (白根山). Hiking there was fun, yielding fantastic views of the surrounding area and its crater (which we were even able to enter).

A short funny story to finish this entry: During the first evening, we used the onsen-style bath inside the Seminar House. After spending a relaxing hour in the hot water, we finally decided to go out again … when one of the students got a bit frisky and lay down flat on the floor beside the bath, for whatever reason. Thus, I did the only thing I could do: taking the douche and spraying him with ice cold water. The reaction was better than expected: He shrieked and slid sideways back into the hot water, like being pushed by the pure force of the water jet. I was rolling on the floor laughing (nearly literally). Later, in bed, I found it really difficult to meditate, because this picture always found its way back into my thoughts, forcing me to snicker again.



  1. […] reminds me of another story (I know I digress again, but so what?): During the symposium in Kusatsu, we sometimes used the gym for playing a bit of basketball. As I already explained in the […]

  2. […] two shots from the symposium (cf. the Kusatsu entry): As typical for Japanese events, attendance is obligational, but sleeping through it is totally […]

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