Spontaneous Travels in Holy Mie: Part One
With no plans other than to spend a night at an unusual hot spring resort that I had briefly read about on the Internet, I drove into Mie Prefecture, where I unexpectedly found a huge rock formation in the shape of a lion, awe-inspiring waterfalls, and unique cultural traditions that are over twelve hundred years old.
Mie has maintained much of its ancient heritage due to its relative isolation - Mie Prefecture does not have its own airport, and Japanese high-speed Bullet Train lines do not extend to Mie.
With miles to go before reaching my goal of a "hidden" Japanese onsen with its own miniature train station, I impulsively turned my car around to get a better look at a strange rock formation standing between the coastal road and a rocky beach that I had glimpsed from the corner of my eye. And what a great decision that was. By pure chance I had arrived at Shishiiwa, called Lion Rock in English, just before a miraculous event that happens only once a year.
I got out of my car to peer at a rock formation resembling a carnivorous animal. Another person was also staring at it. Wherever I go, I politely greet the strangers I meet, and the Japanese man, in his sixties, holding an expensive camera with a long lens, informed me that a full moon would soon rise and that the lion would eat it. We waited and then took photographs of this natural phenomenon. The white moon rose slowly above the hills behind Shishiiwa, and it moved directly into the maw of the lion, which consumed the moon.
My new friend and I continued taking pictures until the moon was eaten. Then, with his digital camera, he showed me photographs he had taken of colorfully garbed children at Mie shrine festivals, Japanese fisherwomen grasping silvery fish, immense typhoon-driven waves exploding onto shore, and other images that captivated my interest. Night, though, was descending, and my wife and I were far from our destination, so we said goodbye and continued southward.
Shishiiwa is located on the coastline of southern Mie, a remote area with clean beaches and cliffs that have been shaped by typhoons, winds, waves, and time. These powerful forces carved unusual shapes and caves. Local myths tell of demons that live in an area of nearby caves, called Onigajo, or Demon Castle. Shishiiwa and Onigajo are just two of numerous natural and cultural treasures of the Kumano Kodo.
The Kumano Kodo is a network of walking routes that cross the mountainous Kii Peninsula. Buddhist and Shinto pilgrims have been walking these rural trails since the 10th century. In 2004, UNESCO included these routes, local traditions, and other cultural aspects on the World Heritage List as "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range."
Today we can also walk many of those trails, pray at the same temples and shrines, and enjoy hot springs and waterfalls in the same locations as pilgrims did in the Heian Period.
Our goal that night was Yunokuchi Onsen, a hot spring that onsen aficionados on the Internet had categorized as a "hidden hot spring." Hidden hot springs are springs that are in remote areas and whose visitors are mostly locals. We drove on silent roads alongside rice fields and through forests near the tiny town of Kiwa, Mie. The night air was startlingly chilly. The black-ink sky was pierced by bluish-white stars. These were perfect conditions for outdoor bathing at night.
Immediately after checking in, I headed straight for the outdoor bath, but first cleaned my body in the steamy washing area. A sign barely visible in the moist air read that every minute 1,200 liters of 45 degree Celsius unfiltered hot spring water flows into the baths.
The outdoor bath was about five meters above a river's edge. I sat underneath a wide bamboo pipe from which spring water dropped at high pressure. The powerful flow of hot water kneaded my muscles. Steam spiraled off the water's surface like whirling Dervishes and spun with the wind toward the stars.
Soon afterwards, a grandfather, his son, and his grandson, slowly entered the rock-lined bath. The grandson, in his early teens, supported his tottering grandfather. They told me that visiting this bath was a family custom. After bathing, the grandfather soaped and washed the boy's back. To have witnessed, however briefly, their family tradition and loving intimacy was very moving. Glimpses, like this one, into Japanese culture are of the high points of hot spring adventuring.
My wife and I spent the night in the Japanese-style, detached hut we had rented from Yunokuchi Onsen for six thousand yen, which was simple and cozy. It came with a TV, a Japanese kotatsu, and enough futon to cover the worn tatami mats on the floor. Meals are not served at Yunokuchi Onsen. While peering through the back window at a small clean stream, forested hill, and rustic buildings, we breakfasted on fruit, bread, and cheese we had prepared in advance. After another bath, we walked around the onsen, looked at the forest, enjoyed wild flowers, and breathed fresh air.
The author of this article blogs about Japanese hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.
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