Few things in life are more calming than a nice stroll through a quiet beachfront town in Southern Japan. Thankfully, after several weeks of intense travel, this is exactly what Ibusuki had to offer. A short 45-minute ride on the one-car diesel train from Kagoshima and I was soon making my way on foot through the tiny town of only 30,000.
You may be asking why I decided to spend my free day before meeting up with Dean in such a seemingly random spot. Well, it’s tough to explain, but those of you who’ve played the old Dreamcast game “Shenmue” will probably have a better idea of the type of vibe I’m talking about.
And if that’s not enough, there’s always the volcanic beachfront sand baths to draw in the crowds.
Even though I was hauling my huge backpack halfway across town, I really enjoyed the walk from the station to the baths. The sun was shining, the ocean breeze just the right temperature, and virtually none of the noises of a big city were around to ruin the feeling. I was enjoying myself so much that I didn’t even remember that I hadn’t eaten anything all day � until the sound of the waves was interrupted by my rumbling stomach.
So I picked up the pace and worked my way to the huge Onsen complex, immediately heading upstairs for a hot bowl of Curry Udon. Which brings me to the wacky event of the day: getting hit on by a 50+ year-old Japanese woman.
And I’m not saying “getting hit on” to mean “being approached and talked to.” I’m talking more along the lines of “oh my gosh, look at handsome foreigner! Isn’t foreigner-san handsome? And Japanese so good! Where come from? California! So nice! Where live now? Kyoto! Can tell phone number? Can call if go to Kyoto?” …and so on and so forth.
I told her that I’d be returning to America in less than a week and my cell phone would therefore be deactivated in a matter of days, but with her false teeth flapping loosely in her mouth she told me that she’d still like to know my number.
Whatever. Time to hurry downstairs towards the baths.
The process of using a Sand Onsen is predictably similar to that of a regular one – with just one extra step added. The sand.
First I head down to the locker room to change into a traditional cotton yukata (robe). Trying to observe as few naked old men as possible, I proceed through the locker room and exit the building right onto a sandy beach. Here, a number of old women wait with shovels. They indicate to a smoking shallow grave. I hop right in.
Seconds later the steaming sand is piled up to my neck and a small umbrella placed over my head. And there I lie, praying for someone to scratch the itch on my nose. No one does.
Now, personally I’ve never been a fan of hot temperatures – I’ve never liked steam rooms or saunas, and I can only take a jaccuzzi for so long. But somehow I found this steaming sandbath to be quite soothing � listening to the sound of the waves (and sand being shoveled onto a number of other bodies), watching the clouds slowly cross a blue sky, and just…relaxing.
Once I’d had my fill I stood up and brushed off the excess sand from my yukata – they bury you fully dressed – and headed back inside. From this point on it was the standard Onsen procedure. I sat on a small bucket and washed myself with a hand-shower, accidentally spraying the old man to my left, and entered the large volcanically-heated communal bath to soak for a few minutes. I then showered again (although some say that you shouldn’t shower after an onsen, but keep the natural minerals on your body for as long as possible), got dressed, and hit the road.
By the time I made my way back to the little train station and into Kagoshima City, the main (and only) transport hub in the area, it was well after dark and I was once again faced with the decision of where to spend the night.
Rather than taking the safe bet – ferrying back to Sakurajima and staying at the nearby hostel I’d found on the previous night – I decided to try to make it to the next volcano town, Kirishima, part way between Kagoshima and Miyazaki. The idea was to wake up at sunrise already at my destination so that I could do as much hiking as possible until Dean called to pick me up on his way to Miyazaki.
It wasn’t until I actually arrived at Kirishima that I learned that this plan was going to be a no-go. Outside the small train station was a (very out-of-place) tour bus. You know, the kind with TV’s and huge reclining seats and a bathroom. I popped my head in just to ask the driver when the local bus was going to come, and his response was “Where do you need to go?”
“Um, Kirishima Youth Hostel”
A luxury bus all to myself. I can hang with that.
While chatting with the driver, I learned that there was to be a blizzard tomorrow morning. The second I got off the bus I could see that he wasn’t lying. So much for that morning hike. I stepped through the bus doors and into high-speed winds that made it difficult even to keep my eyes opened. I hurried into the hostel and set the gas heater on “inferno.” Then I did my usual walk-through of the place.
My first thought was “This is no hostel, this is a Ryokan!” The rooms were floored with tatami, everything was made of wood, traditional wall scrolls and flower arrangements decorated every room, and two little old ladies sat in the downstairs livingroom knitting and reading magazines. In the hallway was a bookshelf with free leisure reading, and in the kitchen a number of public-use refrigerators. Actually, now that I think about it, it felt more like I was staying in somebody’s spare room.
I layed out my small futon on the floor and fell asleep to the sound of a howling wind and a street sign swinging back and forth just outside my window.