In Ao-no-domon in the heart of the Yabakei region, a series of tunnels carved by hand over 30 years by Zenkai, a Buddhist monk (the statue behind the group). He wanted to aid travelers who had to traverse a dangerous — sometimes fatal — path to Rakkan-ji, a temple built on the side of Mt. Rakkan. (From left) Author Cecilia Licauco, Mitto Licauco, Corlu and Vic Caparas, Mardes and Blugs Nicandro, Cecile and Bong Recio
Hopelessly, Happily hooked on Onsen
WALK THE TALK - Cecilia Licauco (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2018 - 12:00am

Life is simple in this area of Japan. The land is fertile and productive. The people are always pleasant, polite and helpful.

Oita Prefecture could well be the onsen capital of Japan. It has the largest concentration of hot springs, fed by the greatest volume of spring water. A Buddhist ritual of purification, bathing in a 40? pool of water is unquestionably a most soothing, therapeutic, addicting indulgence after a hard day’s work or walk.

In 2014, our group of friends followed the ancient trading trails of Nakasendo, walking on mountain paths and through serene forests. This time, we thankfully went through a more gentle countryside terrain, reminding the same guide we had before, Miwa Fujimoto, to handle us with kindness.  Now, saddled with the reality of being four years older, we held on to our walking sticks more tightly than ever and were assured that there was a vehicle waiting for us in case we needed one.

In Bungo Ono, the Takakiya Sake Brewery is owned by Hamashima-San, a fifth-generation sake master brewer.

Both then and now, friendship was our energy source; the onsen was our carrot and each night’s kaiseki dinner our reward.

For five days, we practiced our routine: in each ryokan (local inn), we showered (no showers in the room) and soaked in the onsen in the morning. We had a breakfast of local fish, seasonal vegetables and fruits, soup, rice porridge and pickles. After a day of walking, we showered and soaked in the onsen. Wearing a haori (jacket) over a yukata (a cotton kimono), we consumed the full kaiseki (traditional multi-course) dinner served by the elderly, but agile, ladies of the ryokan.

Bright canary yellow gingko leaves stand out against the evergreens. The gingko fruit has a strong, not-too-pleasant odor, but the nut, when roasted, boiled or grilled, is delicious.

Bathing etiquette must be followed in onsens, which are normally divided between male and female guests. Wear a yukata robe, bring a bath towel and the tiny modesty towel (the size is similar to the familiar “good morning” towel). The changing and shower rooms are completely stocked with disposable brushes, shampoo and other bathing amenities.

Strip completely. (Don’t be shy, even if there are other people — friends or strangers — in the pool. Really, no one cares.) Sit on the small stool and use the shower to shampoo and scrub thoroughly. Rinse completely. Walk slowly towards the pool (it could be slippery) and enter the water carefully — it is very hot!

Soak (no hair on the water, please) and enjoy. Stay for as long as your body will allow. Enter and exit as often as you want.

Impressive water gorges along the mountain pathway, each more beautiful than the last.

You may choose to rinse after the soak. Wipe with the modesty towel. If the towel drips, squeeze and reuse to remove excess water. Do not enter the locker room dripping wet.

The practice is absolutely habit-forming.

From Yabakei, we went to Ao-no domon, a series of hand-carved tunnels, built over a period of 30 years by Zenkai, a Buddhist monk. A kindness: instead of walking up the mountain, we rode individual chairlifts to Raman-ji, a temple perched on the side of Mt. Rakkan, whose main buildings are interwoven into caves. Another chairlift ride brought us to the top for a panoramic view.

At Konairu Sansou ryokan: A beautiful autumn landscape displays different shades of orange and red maple leaves. Bright yellow canary leaves of their gingko trees stand out against a background of evergreens.

Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, busily spews smoke that can be seen from Hita, the geographical heart of Kyushu Island. It is a town that once was the shogun’s important stronghold. Because of its commercial past, the locals are merchants, selling homegrown delicacies, different soy sauces, ginkgo nuts and chestnuts.

The road from Asaji to Taketa is an autumn landscape, with shades of orange and red maple leaves. Bright canary yellow leaves of the ginkgo trees stand out in the forest, much of it covering the ground on which we walk. (One can forgive the not-too-pleasant odor of the ginkgo fruit because the nut, grilled, roasted or boiled, is delicious.) The evergreen pine trees, standing erect, deck the hills, like proper samurai.

Hita, a town at the geographical center of Kyushu island, once served as the shogun’s most important stronghold. Because of its political and commercial past, the locals are merchants who sell traditional sets, different soy sauces, robes and slippers. Corlu poses in front of what this store claims to be the largest geta or traditional Japanese slipper in the world.

Orange persimmons are left unharvested on leafless trees. (Miwa tells us that if the persimmon is oblong, it is not ripe and not sweet. When it becomes round, the persimmon is ready for picking.) Yuzu and kabosu trees are loaded with fruit, free for anyone who wants to pick them. These tart and fragrant citrus fruit are used to enhance the taste of Japanese dishes. Farmhouses have their small vegetable plots of lusty lettuce, daikon radish, spring onions; and, of course, productive plots of rice, with seedlings all in a disciplined row.

Bungo Ono is a rural district with a precious commodity: water that is perfect for making sake. The Takakiya Sake Brewery is owned by Hamashima-San, a fifth-generation master brewer. His family grows their own rice themselves, ferment and press the ingredients by hand, using traditional methods. The result is a small quantity of excellent sake.

The old quarter of Kanawa in Beppu offers places to steam one’s food and soak one’s tired feet for free.

The steam from the buildings and streets of Beppu is visible from afar. It has more hot springs than any other place in Japan, producing 137,000 liters of onsen water each day. The old quarter of Kanawa is a quaint area with each inn offering an onsen bath. Still, they have so much steaming and water to spare, visitors are free to dip their tired feet in hot water in the town square! Restaurants offer selections of seafood, meat and vegetables to be steamed by diners themselves.

Life is simple in this area of Japan. The land is fertile and productive. We didn’t see many people, though. In fact, we only saw old people — strong, able-bodied, whose average age is 69. Apparently, their children do not want to be farmers. They leave to work in the city.

From an agricultural perspective: A scarecrow-making contest. Miwa and Bong join the cheering crowd of scarecrows.

When the owner of the property dies, the children do not want to take over the farm. On the other hand, they will not sell it, since this has been in their family for generations. The property is either rented out inexpensively to people who do not like to live in the city (like our guide, Miwa) or it is just left empty.

Again, we leave the Oita Prefecture countryside with added respect and admiration for the people of Japan. They are always pleasant, polite and helpful to visitors. They live actively in the present, but continuously respect, preserve and protect their past.

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Please email me: cecilialicauco2@gmail.com.

Instagram: cecilialicauco2

JAPAN OITA PREFECTURE ONSEN
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