Yamagata, Part 3

Presenting the last episode of the Yamagata Adventures!

First, the story of the search for a hot spring! As I mentioned in my previous post, Kaminoyama Onsen, the town we visited on our second day in Yamagata, is known for having hot springs, and we were hoping to visit a hot spring bath while we were there. We had a map featuring the location of several bath houses in town, so after we were done exploring the castle and other historic sites, we started wandering the town looking for a bath.

Before we started our search, though, we took time to enjoy one of the free foot baths that were scattered throughout town. These are large basins filled with piping hot water, with seating around the sides so all you have to do is whip off your shoes, have a seat, and relax your tired feet! The foot bath we chose was at the top of the hill right near the castle, so we had a fabulous view!

Next, we tried hunting down a good bath house. The first place we went to looked promising – but we were confused by the fact that it looked like a fancy inn. There was even a woman in a yukata standing near the doors, waiting to welcome people! We thought that maybe there was a bath house inside that we could use, so I walked to the door and asked about it. The lady that we talked to, with very typical Japanese elegance and graciousness, said something to us and pointed outside, then proceeded to walk down part of the road with us even though she was wearing the precarious traditional Japanese shoes! We thanked her and continued down the road in the direction she had pointed. We stopped and looked around. No sign of anything that looked like a bath house. Hmmm. Well, our map said that it was here, and we didn’t dare to go back and ask again, so we set off in a different direction.

After some walking, we discovered bath house number two. It was tucked down a side street, and the building looked very old and unimpressive. In my head I had visions of the wonderful hot spring we had visited at the Hawaiians resort earlier in the summer, with the beautiful baths that included an outdoor bathing area. No, I decided, this rickety old place wasn’t going to cut it. So we kept walking.

Bath house number three probably would have been a great possibility if we had decided to go there. As we were walking down one of the main roads, I saw a building with a sign that identified it as an inn, but with public access baths. A Japanese man saw me looking at the sign and happily informed me that we could bathe there. It looked promising, but I still had some idealistic visions of resort-style baths in my head, plus the price was a bit more than I wanted to pay. (In retrospect, it was very reasonable, especially if the quality of the bath house was decent. Sigh for me and my skinflinty ways).

By the time we got to bath house number four, we were quite tired of walking. “Is this it?” We looked at the building. It looked just like bath house number two, the same one that had given me the creeps earlier. Just a nondescript old building, definitely with no outdoor bathing area.  I figured we didn’t really have much stamina left to look for a new place. As we were trying to figure out what to do, a lady walked out. She saw us standing there uncertainly. “Douzo,” she said. “Go ahead.”

We ended up deciding to go in. In the building was a little vending machine, where you buy a ticket for the bath. There was another button that said something about hair, so I figured it was for shampoo. Happily for my stingy little heart, the bathing fee was very cheap. But was this really where we wanted to go? Everything looked sad and tired – the worn-down shoe cubbies, the dusty old pay phone. Hesitantly, we bought our tickets.

Into the main building we walked. We looked in the window of the ticket counter, which was right in the middle of the building, strategically placed so that the person inside could collect tickets from both the women’s side and the men’s side. (We were on the women’s side, in case you were wondering.) We handed our tickets to the old guy behind the counter and walked into the undressing area. Shabby. Very, very shabby. There were wooden cubbies (no lockers) and an old vinyl couch mended with duct tape. The bathing area looked old, too, and only had one bath. “Do you really think we should do this?” my friend said.

Of course we should! When else will we have the experience of visiting an authentic Japanese bath house that probably hasn’t been updated since the sixties? Nobody else was there, and we could have it all to ourselves! I was a little nervous, though, about the guy at the ticket counter. I checked to make sure that he wasn’t actually able to see us from the counter. Nope. We were safe! But first…”I don’t see any soap in there!” Since we didn’t bring soap, that meant we’d have to buy it. Oh well. I took a 100 yen coin and went back out to the ticket machine, then gave my ticket to the guy at the counter. I expected him to hand me some soap. No. He gave me…a faucet handle. I must have shown my confusion because he explained something to me about putting it on the faucet. I carried it back into the dressing room. Maybe it was to turn on the hot water, my friend suggested.

Anyway…time to undress. We took our washcloths and our faucet handle into the bathing room. My friend was still apprehensive, but I was determined to get my money’s worth out of the experience. She looked at something on the floor. “That’s a cockroach!” she said. I looked. Well, I didn’t have my glasses on, but I did see a bug. Hmm. We looked at the faucets. Yes, the handle we had procured did turn on the hot water. That didn’t solve the soap problem. Oh well. We rinsed off without soap, then got into the steaming hot bath. Ahhhh. Nothing beats a relaxing soak in a dingy, bug-infested bath house. In all seriousness, it wasn’t that bad, but we were both kind of weirded out by the decrepit conditions, so our relaxing soak soon came to an end. We got dressed, got our things, and gave back our faucet handle, deciding that a shower was high on our priority list when we got back to the hotel.

Thus ended our not-so-glamorous experience looking for onsen. Which brings me to a happier topic: food! Yonezawa, the city that we stayed in overnight, is famous for beef, so we made sure to visit an upscale beef restaurant so we could try some high-quality beef. That in itself was an experience; the menu items were so pricey that we ended up buying a full-course meal and splitting it between the two of us. We also had some nice meals at the hotel; breakfast was included in the cost of our stay, and we got a really large meal each morning! Since we were there for two days, we tried the Japanese-style breakfast one morning, and the Western-style breakfast the next. They were delicious!

To cap off this final post about Yamagata, here are some pictures and videos illustrating today’s stories. Enjoy!

Ye olde bath house
“Are we really going into that tub?” “Yep!”
Hotel breakfast, Japanese style! Rice (of course), soup, egg, pickles, fish, and nattou!
Hotel breakfast, “Western” style – eggs with ketchup, semi-cooked bacon, broth, very thick toast, fruit, yogurt, and salad.
Different beef cuts at the gourmet beef restaurant.
Yakiniku – grill-your-own beef!

And two videos of the beef delicacies we tried at the fancy restaurant. We took these with my phone, so I apologize for the questionable audio quality.

Thus ends the lengthy account of our vacation in Yamagata. Although not everything went as planned, I felt like we got to experience a lot of authentic cultural activities, and it was a great way to spend our long weekend!

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