What a day. In an effort to totally avoid paying for hotels we have worked out an elaborate system of only taking night trains, where we can sleep as we travel.
Today that landed us in Aomori, a small city in Northern Japan. After spending two hours researching things to do there, I had found only one possibility: eat apples. The city is known for having good apples, and nothing else whatsoever.
With 14 hours before our next train to Sapporo, we had to find something else to do. To fuel our brainstorming we found a little trendy Italian restaurant called Piccolo. Even one-street towns in Japan have restaurants with beautiful interior design. It's important here. We lucked out - they use high quality ingredients, make their own sauces, and use extra virgin olive oil.
Next to us sat a jolly and possibly-drunk Japanese man. Saying that he was Japanese is actually superfluous because there weren't ANY non-Japanese in the city. He joked with us, was overjoyed that we also used Nokia phones, and told us not to forget that we met a funny man in Aomori. We won't, and he really was funny.
"Are there any onsen here?"
Onsen are Japanese public baths, fed by natural hot springs. Visiting them is a popular Japanese activity that probably dates back to about the same time Japanese people were invented.
"Yes. Very good ones. Go to Asamushi."
So we did. An hour and a half later we arrived at a tiny little town right on the Northern coast. A map on the wall of the train station had an icon that looked like a hot spring, so we headed for it.
Things were slightly complicated by the fact that we were expecting something looking like steaming naked waterpark, but didn't encounter anything like that. Still early, we kept walking through cherry blossom tree lined streets. We passed a playground and four little kids shrieked and ran towards us. With a fence separating us they scrambled to climb the jungle gym to get a closer look.
Maybe they'd never seen foreigners before.
Soon we arrived at a huge dammed lake. Seagulls were perched on the dam. All around the lake was a path, and beyond that were huge spectacular hills filled with Japanese cedar trees and the occasional blossoming cherry tree.
If we're going to bathe at the onsen later, we reasoned, we may as well take a hike through the hills. Our first trail led us into someone's backyard. Rows of unidentifiable vegetable sprouts were mixed with bright yellow daffodils. After climbing up a telephone pole we headed to the other side of the lake.
There we fared a lot better. The sign told us that there was a famous tree at the top of the hill. Because I can read very little Japanese I couldn't tell what it was famous for. One hundred of something - branches, years, meters, who knows?
We dropped all of our non-essential gear like laptops and extra clothes a hundred meters up the trail and continued up the steep hill. The trail itself was amazing. It was perfectly cut through the woods and followed a ridge along the top of a valley. The forest below was dotted with blooming cherry blossom trees and mountains loomed in the background.
One part of the trail went through a patch of tall cedar trees. Todd climbed one. From there we could see the entire town below us, bordered by the huge hill we were on as well as another on the other side. Beyond the town was the ocean, with a small green mountain island rising out of it.
We finally reached the 100 something tree, and it was spectacular. Our lucky timing meant that the setting sun hit the tree almost sideways, causing it to glow golden brown. We tried to take pictures, but it was too big to capture without a wide angle lens. A few meters off the ground the thick trunk, which was circled by rope with little white paper ghosts attached, split into many smaller trunks. The tree was very tall, but not 100 meters, so that's not what it's famous for.
We made it back to the beginning of the trail just as the sun was setting and we headed back towards town in search of an onsen.
Apparently people in Japan don't really like bathing in the evening, because most onsen were closed. We finally found a tiny one with just one bath. After paying just $3.50, we went into the locker room.
And the confusion began. We weren't given any towels. Inside the onsen room were a row of showers that appeared to be designed for midgets. The shower head was positioned perfectly to wash my calves. The mirror would have provided a convenient view of my crotch, and nothing else.
Last year I had read about the onsen, but the details were fuzzy now. Were we supposed to go naked? Underwear? Bathing suit? Should we have brought something?
Luckily a Japanese man came in just as we were trying to figure out what to do. He took off all of his clothes and put a bucket upside down in front of the midget shower to use as a seat. That makes sense.
We followed his lead. After a thorough shower I stepped into the onsen. The water was extremely hot, around 105 Fahrenheit, and felt great. It smelled a bit like sulfur and the water was slightly slimy - in a good way.
I could only handle about ten minutes in the inferno of relaxation before I got out, took another shower, and got dressed. I felt fantastic... totally relaxed and clean. I like how these people think.
We got back at the train station of the little onsen town with thirty minutes to spare. Two local kids showed us something amazing - in front of the station was a hot spring fed foot bath. I unzipped the pant legs of my pants and soaked my feet while waiting for the train to come.