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August: The Return of Souls

August is peak summer season in Japan.  We can look forward to some of the most spectacular fireworks displays and festivals in the world, ...


"in here, everybody is friends," one of the elderly gentleman said. There was an affinity between me and the old man. He used to golf around my area back in Torrance, so it was a coincidence seeing him there at this onsen, in Japan - small world.

Shikanoyu is an old and venerated hot spring, one that's frequented by people from all over Japan, namely elderly people. The building is maintained in its original form, all wood and bamboo enclosing, six large hot milky white hot springs, each with varying temperatures from 37 degrees centigrade ( 98.6 F ) to 48 degrees centigrade(118.4 F). The atmosphere was full of thick steam and sulfur. There were over 100 people shuffling about trying to squeeze into a tub here, and there. The water was excellent!

I moseyed along to the back trying not to be noticed… In back were the two hottest tubs; 46C~48C! There were four hot water specialist who were capable of sitting in the hottest tub for at least five minutes. I was truly impressed at this feat. I could see their skin turn a bright red as they would slowly climb out of the tub fully composed and dignified. I was humbled. They would continue this repetition ten times. One elderly gentleman sitting in the corner waiting for his turn had his eyes closed tightly from trying to recuperate his energy. I could see the wrinkles along both of his eyes and chin tense up, blood corpuscles showing through the sides of his head. I could see the bulging arteries in his neck starting to take form. A groan here and there and steam all around created a mystical ancient world of old souls enjoying the oldest form of respite.

I sat in the 46C tub and boy was that hot. When I could take no more, I slowly got out of the tub and sat back against the wall, steam vapors coming off my skin. I was in the company of seasoned soakers. A sense of quiet dignity that I had never experienced before came over me. The conviviality was still there, but time froze for me. I was absorbed into their cult of onsen. As I was sitting against the wall almost shoulder to shoulder with a dozen elderly, we sat and watched the onsen master walk along the edges of the two hot tubs checking for water temperature. There was some sort of bond there between us and the hot spring master. He would manipulate the water pipes that fed both of our tubs in order to provide better water distribution.

The best time to visit here is in winter when the cold outside air mixes with the strong sulfur smells of the tubs. The pine, the hot cypress wood, the sulfur and iron all collaged together creating a sense of nostalgia that only winter can deliver on, especially at a rustic hot spring.


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