There are things you know about a country before you arrive and are looking forward to – food, specific sights, cultural norms that are different from your own and therefore fascinating – but the things that catch you by surprise are the gifts of travel.
Plentiful water. Still a mind bending notion to someone raised in Southern California. The city of Shimabara has a castle, a lovely neighborhood of samurai houses, and so much free flowing water. Water under tea houses where koi appear to float in midair, a visual trick of the crystal clear water. Water running between houses in fern lined canals. Water fountains with ladles handy so you know the water is drinkable. So much water. And yes, some of it hot thanks to Mount Unzen, an active volcano which rises and steams and bubbles a short bus ride away.
After admiring the water in one neighborhood, we had lunch, a lovely set menu which is a wonderfully easy thing to order. Then we headed to a spot on the map marked as public foot bath. So far all the water had been cold and clear. Foot bath? That sounds interesting.
Feet refreshed and ready for more walking we headed off to see the neighborhood of samurai homes. The canal which runs through the neighborhood was a perk for these high ranking, hereditary, military nobility.
We headed back to our hotel, craving a proper onsen soak, but first we had to pass another fountain, and stop for another drink. How could we pass up this lovely landscaped fountain, which seemed to be part of the neighboring house’s garden.
One easy bus ride from our waterfront hotel took us winding up the mountain. The bubbling mud and steam clouds of Obamachounzen quickly let you know this volcano is not playing around. “An eruption in 1991 generated a pyroclastic flow that killed 43 people, including three volcanologists. “ The slopes of the mountain down to the sea will look familiar to anyone who has visited the big island of Hawaii. Lava field slopes.
Even though we hadn’t done much walking yet, just a few kilometers around the steamy and bubbly area of Obamacho Unzen, we headed right to the public foot bath.
We did a lovely hike after the foot bath and enjoyed the views of the volcano while having a picnic on an observation platform – keeping a wary eye on the plumes of steam. Then it was a bus back to the hotel, a lovely relaxing onsen and outdoor rotenburo soak at our hotel, and dinner at a local Izakaya. It was time to move on to Kagoshima, which was a ferry ride and train ride away. But first – foot bath by the ferry terminal!
The blessings of volcanos. Hot springs. There are more than 27,000 hot springs in Japan. The volume of water that flows from them is 2.6 million liters per minute. I was a volcano fan before this trip to Japan, now I’m a volcano fanatic. And we weren’t done yet! Next up, a ferry from Kagoshima to see the slopes of Mount Sakurajima and yes, another foot bath.
We’re in Korea as of today, but still catching up on all the fun we had in Japan. I was struck by the relationship the Japanese have with their volcanos. The idea of the blessings of volcanoes, and the use of the hot spring water, gives the volcanoes a different feel. Yes, potentially deadly, but also useful and part of life. Japan has the potential to harness this geothermal energy, mostly unrealized so far, but what an additional blessing that could be. But our feet were happy to take advantage of the blessings of the volcanoes.