Saturday, June 23, 2012

Murasugiyu Outdoor Hot Spring / A Window into Japanese Culture

Welcome to Murasugiyu, a Bucolic Hot Spring Village

I discovered a bare-to-the-basics outdoor hot spring bath (露天風呂) in Niigata Prefecture today. At the start of my bath, I was alone, which was perfect for being able to absorb the heat, to dissipate stress, and to space out with my back against a warm rock while enjoying patterns in the cedar and maple branches and leaves above. Soon afterwards, though, another man entered the hot spring. We exchanged short polite greetings. Then, we withdrew into our private thoughts. 


Murasugi Community Outdoor Bath
The man's back, shoulders, and wide swaths of his legs were covered with colorful Japanese tattoos of dragons, warriors, and other Japanese designs, types that are  associated with members of the Yacuza. However,  he spoke politely; he was friendly without invading my privacy, and he graciously accepted my request to take a photograph of me with my camera. Before leaving, he said "Osaki ni shitsuri shimase," which roughly translates as "Excuse my rudeness in leaving before you." His  courteous manner left a good impression. 

In contrast, shortly after the Yakuza member departed, one of three men who came into the hot spring bath stared at me in surprise, didn't greet me, and roughly asked where I was from. I politely answered and then submerged myself in the healing warmth of the clear water and greenery surrounding the outdoor bath. Their conversation, though, was rather loud, so I learned that they were government officials visiting from another prefecture.

The contrast in the manners of the four men that I met in the outdoor bath was remarkable, considering the stereotypes of Yakuza and how certain Japanese public officials are reacting to people with tattoos. A Japanese newspaper on May 23, 2012 reported that the mayor of Osaka said, "Citizens feel uneasy or intimidated if they see see tattoos (on workers) in services and it undermines trust in the city. Click to read another article about tattoos in Japan.
Remove Geta Before Entering Changing Room
This bathing experience was for me another fascinating window into the world of Japanese culture. You will meet people from all walks of life in hot springs. This observation took place in Murasugiyu, (村杉湯),a small, pleasant, bucolic village in the Niigata hinterlands near Mt. Gozusan (五頭山), a mountain that is renowned for gorgeous hiking trails, wild animals, and delicious mountain vegetables.  Murasugiyu has traditional ryokans and hotels with hot springs on the premises for guests. Some might allow visitors to use their baths for limited periods of time. Luckily, for day trippers like me, the local community manages a public bath for anyone to use from seven in the morning until eight at night. This bath, called Murasugikyodorotenburo, (村杉共同露天風呂), is the wonderful bath that you just read about.

To enter the bath, you must purchase a three hundred yen ticket from an automatic vending machine at a gate before the spring and place that ticket in a wooden box next to the vending machine. Remember to your shoes off before walking into the tiny wooden shed-like building which has a changing room and small lockers for each sex.  The bath is enclosed within wooden fences, but you can still enjoy views of trees and bamboo from within. The sides of the bath were built from rocks that the locals had collected from the nearby mountain. The rocks were positioned to form comfortable backrests or seats in the hot spring.

There is little development in the area, so the hot water rising from the bowels of the earth, and the cool water running through gurgling streams, are crystal clean. In addition to enjoying the  healing hot spring waters, many visitors fill up containers with fresh spring water and take those back home. 
Collecting Fresh Spring Water for Drinking

A local tofu shop called Kawakami Tofu (川上とうふ)uses this mountain water to make tofu, and the shop is very popular.  I was so impressed by the free samples of five varieties of tofu, that I purchased some for dinner.

Listen, Then Taste the Fresh Dripping Water
 Walking through the village and along some trails nearby were pleasant experiences. Taking into consideration the price, the ambiance, and the quality of the water, I conclude that I will definitely visit again to explore more of this quaint and relaxing village. There are other hot springs waiting for me!

Click to find this bucolic village on a map.

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