New Year’s Day in the Mountains

Originally, I had had grand plans for the week around new year, at some point involving a trip to the Philippines. But then I became sensible again and stayed in Kyoto, opting for a more traditional approach. And when it began to snow on New Year’s day, it became clear to me that I had to go to a hot spring — called Onsen in Japanese — for some outdoor bathing. I had previously compiled a list of worthwhile Onsen and just chose the first one, trusting the judgement of my old self. So the Onsen in Kurama it was, about 45 min away from home by train.


Kurama is a village in the mountains surrounding Kyoto, completely enveloped in forest. (I also read that Kurama is the birthplace of Reiki if you are into this sort of thing.) When I arrived at Kurama station it was snowing quite strongly. I had the option to either take a shuttle bus to the baths or walk the kilometer or so. I picked the walk but immediately got distracted by a small group of people who weren’t interested in either option but instead visited a red temple by the wayside. Since I had enough time I decided to check out the temple, too. As it turned out, the temple was something like the entrance to a huge area of temples covering the side of a small mountain (about 45 m of elevation relative to the temple entrance, so it’s really a hill). A cable car allows people to go up the mountain swiftly but a steep meandering path is also available. I thought that it would be a good idea to take the car up and the path down.

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Near the exit of the cable car was an amazing temple. I snapped a photo of it and started walking towards the top of the mountain along a paved path lined with lanterns. Open wood fires burned in strategic places and filled the air with their smell. I passed many smaller and bigger buildings, some looking like shrines, some looking like temples to my eyes. On the top of the mountain was again a temple. By now you might have gathered that there were really a lot of temples around.

On my way down I met an old man who had walked to the top and was on his descent. I asked for his photograph which made him laugh.

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I walked down the path again, went this way and that, and felt very good about myself. At one fork in the road I took a left turn which would lead me directly back to Kurama. While waiting for the cable car, I had found a model of the mountain and its temples in the waiting area and was absolutely sure that I had correctly memorised how to get down. Nothing could go wrong, really. The forest was beautiful, the weather a marvel, and so I walked on. After some 20-30 min I should have reached Kurama again but it seemed nowhere in sight. When I came upon a small food stall, I asked a guy where the way to Kurama was. He looked at me apologetically, said something of which I only understood “turn back” and “please take good care”. From this I artfully deduced that I had taken the wrong turn somewhere and was on the wrong side of the mountain. Indeed, a look on a map confirmed this. So, I had no option but to turn back, run up the mountain to the top, run down the mountain on the other side and finally get to my Onsen. By now I was pretty wet from all the snow but I gritted my teeth and climbed as fast as I could. I reached the top and went directly towards the cable car. After exiting the cable car, on the last stretch to the gate I met the old man again. By now, he was so weak that two people had to help him walk but he went on, step by step. From the temple gate I went back to the train station and took the shuttle bus.

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The Onsen was not pretty from the outside but once I got inside it was marvellous. A simple changing area where people got undressed, a row of showers and stools where I washed myself. A simple dark grey stone pool with a border made of wood. Steaming thermal water, hot enough that it hurt a little bit at first. One half of the pool covered with a wooden pavilion with the other half being open to the sky. The pool being surrounded by a wooden fence, high enough so that no one could look in but low enough to allow for grand views of the forested peaks around us. Kids running around, collecting snow in wooden bowls from the leaves of bushes. People rubbing themselves with snow when the water became too hot. A guy sitting down in the snow, standing up and then remarking on the form his penis had cast.

After a few minutes I had found a good place in the pool but was already so hot that I nearly passed out. Then, I saw the guy next to me taking his feet and shins out of the water and laying them onto the wooden border. I emulated him, and it really did the trick. The blood flowed back into my body, I cooled off a bit, and was able to stay like this for a while and check out the view.

Later, I saw a foreigner who seemed to have the impression that he was meditating. He was looking out into the forest and had a very strange grin on his face, maybe from thinking that he was having a transcendent experience. I wanted to throw a snowball at him to help in his enlightenment but then decided against it.

When I had entered the bath I had suddenly realised that I was very hungry. The whole getting lost in the forest had distracted me from my hunger, a new experience for me. Usually I am very much in tune with my stomach. Unfortunately, there was no food in the bath, so I just went into the water. But after some time I really needed sugar. I saw that at least they had a vending machine for water and a sports drink and figured that the sports drink would have calories. It had. The drink was called Pocari Sweat and was mildly salty, just as you would expect from the name.

Having been refreshed from drinking some lovely sweat, I went back into the pool and finally found a perfect state. I sat on the side of the pool where a low stone bench was integrated into it and thus my head, shoulders and arms were in the air while the rest was underwater. I rested my arms on the border of the pool. The snow that fell onto my arms melted, but on my head it made a cute cap.

At some point two guys entered the pool and dipped their towels into the water. From what I have learnt you just don’t do that. Towels are either folded and placed on the head as a remedy against passing out or placed by the side of the pool but never do they touch the pool itself. From this I deduced that they could not have been Japanese. Indeed, when they sat down next to me, they started chatting in Chinese, towels leisurely thrown around their necks and touching the water. I saw some Japanese staring at them but no one said anything. I thought, if anyone can say something it’s me, so I bent over and informed them about the custom. They took their towels out of the water and I could relax again. By now, it had become quite dark, and the trees had receded into the darkness. When I was thoroughly cooked, I got out of the pool, dressed and took the shuttle back to the station.

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  1. Joanna says

    Simon, I know I’ve said this before, but you have a real talent for writing. You make the reader feel as if they are there too. Please don’t stop! As one who frequently experiences pangs of nostalgia and homesickness for Japan, I devour every word. Your photos are amazing too, and they complement your words beautifully.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, such scenery porn!

    On another note, I cracked up at the thought of you pelting the foreign dude with a snowball, and simultaneously so did the people behind me. I suspect they may be reading your blog over my shoulder, as this wasn’t the first time our reactions were oddly synchronized.

    Great post, great story and great pictures!!

    Liked by 1 person

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