Our bodies are veiled by steam rising from the deliciously scalding pool of a cave onsen (hot spring) in the volcanic caldera of Mount Aso. My guide Junko and I share the mellow quiet of “hadaka no tsukiai” (naked communion) with other bathers in this women’s onsen.
Perhaps it’s the deeply absorbing sensory experience of warmly baking in the earth’s fiery grasp. Perhaps it’s the rituals that envelop this traditional strip and dip—only a face towel is permitted in the onsen to partially shield yourself until you get into the waters, when the cloth is folded and placed on your head. We may be strangers, but in that pool, it just feels like we have stripped down to the essential experience of being human.
It’s been so quiet and meditative since I landed in Kyushu island, the southwesternmost of Japan’s four main islands, that I just want to sit back and take it all in. Every day, we drive through rusty red and deep green forests of cypress, cedar and pine. When we return to our ryokan, I can’t go to bed just yet. I slip into the open-air hotel onsen until I am the only person steeping in the mineral-rich waters under a full moon.
For all its volcanic fire, the caldera’s five central peaks resemble a sleeping Buddha, an auspicious sign. Mount Aso is a popular “power spot”—a place considered to be naturally therapeutic. The rich communion with nature and intensely lived inner landscape is finely expressed in Japanese. “Shinrin-yoku” names the healing quality of a walk in the woods. “Komorebi” is sunlight dappling through leaves; “kawaakari” is the gleam of a river in the dark. “Mono no aware” is the sensitive awareness of the transience of life.
I remember the wholehearted pursuit of one’s “ikigai”, or reason for being, when I meet young artisans choosing to work in the last surviving craft shops; it also shines in those following a path that isn’t conventionally Japanese. One evening in Kumamoto city, Junko is offduty but accompanies me out of concern as I hunt for a bar set up by a Japanese cowboy in 1976. I wouldn’t have found the nondescript bar without her. That night, we meet Charlie Nagatani, a country music legend in his early 80s.
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August - September 2020