Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 3 Yunomine Onsen : Where I have a hot and steamy time in centuries-old, World Heritage site Tsuboyu Onsen

On our third night on the Kumano Kodo, we were booked in a ryokan in Yunomine, an onsen 
town close to the Grand Shrine of Hongu Taisha.  
Onsen is a Japanese natural hot spring that contains all sorts of minerals -- depending on what
these are, the water can be good for the skin and for body aches and pains.  
I think one reason why the Japanese have such smooth, lovely skin is their fondness for  onsen
A regular soak in a mineral rich bath would do wonders for anyone's complexion. 

An onsen town is where volcanic activity has resulted in a proliferation of hot springs.  Yunomine, 
a small and quiet village nestled in between the mountains along the Kumano Kodo is  
one of Japan's oldest onsen with over 1,800 years of history (and a lot of bathing) behind it.
It's also home to the only UNESCO World Heritage cited onsen -- Tsuboyu Bath.
This was one onsen I definitely had to try. 

We were booked in Iseya Ryokan, conveniently right in front of the bus stop.   Like the minshuku
the ryokan is a Japanese-style lodging but is bigger and more upmarket.  Minshuku are traditional mom-and-pop family operations. Ryokan are more like small luxury boutique hotels -- it's very much worth the experience to stay in one. 

The ryokan will always have a traditional tatami room and most have a small balcony where you can relax and enjoy the view (and yes, a few ice cold beers). 

All the ryokans and accommodations in Yunomine have their own private baths  for their guests.  
If this is your first time in an onsen, a sign posted outside the bath states the rituals and rules of 
onsen bathing. 

Refreshed after our bath, Jay and I ventured out while there was still some light left in the day.  
You might be thinking ... "How very crass, they're wandering around in their nightgowns!".  
Yes indeed, yukatas provided for each guest in both minshukus and ryokans are worn to bed.
But paired with the happi coat -- the short, broad sleeved jacket that one wears over the yukata,  
these are normal for guests to wear as they stroll outside the ryokan.  People walking around in yukatas and happi coats are a common sight in onsen towns like Yunomine. 

The river Yunotani flows clear and swiftly through the village.  The wooden structure you see on the left is the public "cooking onsen" where you can boil eggs, vegetables, potatoes in water that comes from the underground hot springs of Yunomine.  Right behind it is a statue of a jizo --  the guardian of the hot spring waters.

The light was fading fast and lights were coming on along the main street of Yunomine.  All the buildings on either side of the road are ryokans or minshukus and on this weekday night, things 
were pretty quiet, unlike on week-ends when  crowds fill up all the accommodations.

In the distance are the mountains along the Kumano.  Yunomine is one of the most picturesque and quaint onsen towns I have been to.  

After dinner,  we set out to try Tsuboyu Onsen.  Because this is such a popular site, 
and the only World Heritage onsen, visits are scheduled by 30 minute time slots.  
You are given your time slot at the ticket office which is right by the town's public bath and for 
770 yen,  you get entrance to both.  
Since it was a weeknight with not too many people, we were lucky that we hardly had to wait.   
We were number 21 and number 20 was already in the bath.  The ticket seller told us that during week-ends a two to three hour wait was considered normal. 

Ancient pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo made Tsuboyu a popular stop, purifying themselves in the 
hot  spring waters before visiting the three Kumano Kodo shrines.  
Local legend states that a prince in the 15th century who was near death was miraculously cured 
after a bath at Tsuboyu.  I am sure it will do wonders for me too.  

Tsuboyu  is very small -- good for just 2 people,  three would be a tight squeeze.  Use the 
bamboo dippers to clean yourself with the water from the faucet before you get into the bath.    
Bring your towel from the ryokan to dry yourself after.  
If you find the water too hot (and yes, it is), open the faucet for cold water to run into the bath.  
The wooden pole you see hanging on the wall is to stir the water to cool it down somewhat.  
And of course mind the clock to remind you to leave when your 30 minutes are up.  

Don't worry about someone barging in on you -- the door has a secure lock.  

The pool is small and the waters were extremely hot -- we opened the faucet and let some cold 
water flow but it was still hotter than normal.  It is said that the colour of the water changes depending on the time of day but since we only went once, I have no way to verify this.   
It was a milky blue late at night. 
There was a faint smell of sulphur but it was not unpleasant.  I was told that the waters 
are good for all sorts of diseases like rheumatism and even diabetes. 
I normally like a very hot onsen so Tsuboyu was perfect for me.  Although I did get out a few 
times to cool myself down with a dipperful of cold water before getting back in for a hot soak. 

We faithfully followed our allotted time of 30 minutes.  Tsuboyu is open from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 
and we were one of the last to use the bath.  This tanuki was waiting for us when we stepped out in the cold night air.

Bright and early the next morning, we posed in our yukatas by the Yunotani river.   In an hour, we'd 
be on the bus out of Yunomine.
After that restorative bath in Tsuboyu, I felt purified and ready to continue on my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. 

Lessons Learned:

1.  I was so sleepy after soaking in Tsuboyu that I missed using the public bath.  If you go, you can use the public bath first while waiting for your turn at Tsuboyu.
2.  If you plan to go to Tsuboyu in the morning,  you'll have to be an early riser.   The ticket seller said that people start to queue as early as 4:30 or 5  in the morning. 

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