Photo courtesy of http://www.kumano-travel.com
Below is a chapter I'd tried to work into the original manuscript of Six Years, but felt at the time it didn't quite fit. Looking back again, however, I admire some of the passages very much. What do you think? I love how it connects so well with the thermal springs we have so enjoyed here in Colorado; in many ways, it seems, we have brought these experiences home with us.
A few hours south of us, on the other side of the mountains, there was a tropical shift, a whole new shade of green. On every doorstep on the narrow streets of Kumano, the plants signaled this shift – hibiscus, yucca, bromeliads. They seemed to require no care, but grew spontaneously in the terra cotta pots lining every house front. In Matsusaka, on the northern side of the Kii peninsula, the potted plants felt forced, unnaturally colorful and abundant, but on the southern side, the so-called “Japanese Mediterranean”, the green spoke for itself, the only flash of color a periodic azalea. We'd come south in search of one of only two World Heritage Pilgrimages, that stone kodo that traverses some of the most sacred spots in Japan.
It was the rainy season and much of our time in Kumano City was spent under the cozy eaves of houses, the canopies of fanning palms. The locals would pass, smiling from under their umbrellas, and one, so kind-hearted, came back a few minutes later, handing us one to keep, apologizing for not having one for each of us. We laughed at this continued consideration, the constant taking-care of one another with sincere joy, and happily walked, arms around each other, under that one umbrella.
That same afternoon, we stumbled upon a noodle shop on the edge of town, the owner an old man from Kumamoto, with the kind of beard you'd expect to see just off a sacred path. Patrick ordered the suggested specialty of the house – Kumamoto miso udon – and as we waited, I watched the owner's careful hands rolling out each noodle with loving care. His wife, wearing an azalea-covered apron, smiled into the steaming bowls as she lowered them, announcing each as she slid them into place. Throughout the restaurant, there were photos and maps of Kumamoto, a place they both surely loved, but out the window, the view of the sea, a billowing blue, was reason enough for their move to Kumano. Patrick exclaimed his praise of the noodles, amazed at the delicacy of their texture, and slurped with reckless abandon. I, never really able to slurp properly, pulled the long noodles in inch-by-inch with my chopsticks, filling my mouth to its capacity before I could swallow, knowing the bad luck biting into a noodle can bring. As we finished, the old man came over to our table and laughed, watching Patrick spoon several ladles of the miso into his mouth, something, he explained, the Japanese do not usually do. “Oishi!” was Patrick's only response.
A few days later, we began the climb into the mountains, taking to the sacred stone path. That first afternoon, we reached a ryukan famed for its natural springs. Turning the corner into that bend of the river, we saw people of all ages in bath robes and flip-flops, walking along the boardwalks and bridges near and over the river. Looking down-river, there were clumps of mostly men sitting on rocks, rubbing their muscles with their hands. “Isn't it cold?” I asked, the mountain air several degrees below the coast. Patrick shrugged his shoulders. Quite near us, a man approached another point in the river, stripped his robe off, and jumped in, steam visible now above its surface. “Wow,” I said, “It must be a thermal river?” We could see now that above every clump of de-robed bathers, there was steam rising.
We located our hotel and checked in, happily receiving our own robes, slippers, and an afternoon snack of ripe melon and hot green tea. After getting changed, we crossed one of the bridges, its railings covered in colorful flags inviting the spring. Walking out onto the river bank and stepping from stone to stone, we found a pool that had no one in it, hidden by an outcropping of the mountain above. I looked around, somewhat nervous of de-robing, as Patrick lowered himself into the pool, not a second thought. Folding both our robes and placing them on our slippers, I cautiously stepped in, goosebumps forming a mountain chain down every one of my limbs. Sitting in the river, stark naked in the middle of the afternoon, sun shining into the water just around the bend, I was exhilarated, brought back to the environment I've so loved all my life – the forest and the river (and the nakedness) a kind of coming home. The hostess of our ryukan had provided Patrick two beers upon request, and he popped them open, handing one to me. We toasted to the river, the spring, and whatever it was we'd find on this journey and took a long, crisp swig.
That evening, sitting around a communal table, Patrick dutifully on his knees and I, always unable to keep that pose for long, sitting cross-legged, we ate each tender morsel of the keiseki laid before us. Mountain roots pickled to salty perfection. Bites of crispy river eel wrapped upon themselves like sleeping snakes. From imperfect bowls, their thick, green glaze as patchy as moss on a rock-face, we took small mounds of plump, fresh rice onto our chopsticks. Plum wine complemented every course, as if the chef were telling us a secret about the plum blossom itself, the earliest of the flowering trees.
Have you ever swum in a thermal spring? If so, what was your experience like?