01.09.23 — Travel


I pick up the tales from my Japan trip on my second bullet train, this time out of Kyoto. After a relatively short journey, I hopped off in Kobe, the city famed for its supposedly delicious beef. I’ve not been eating red meat for a while, so I didn’t go searching for a burger, though. Besides, I had other plans, involving taking a couple of local trains up the mountains and to Arima.

The Kobe metro left me with one last train to catch, or so I thought. As this pretty old train trundled up the mountains, Google Maps informed me that I should switch trains to what looked like the train I was already on. I was surprised, as Google Maps had up until this point been unbelievably accurate in Japan: telling me which entrances to use, how much everything would cost, and even the carriage number to get on in order to get off at a convenient spot on the destination platform.

It turns out I should have paid it heed, as the train I was on forked off in a completely different direction just after leaving the station. It reminded me of the exact same thing I did in New York last year on my way back to the airport.

I’d wondered why everyone had suddenly got off the train.

Even after I had ignored it, Google Maps swooped in to save me, and I rerouted myself back to the line I should have been on and on to Arima Onsen. The clue for my plans for the next 24 hours was in the name, as onsen is the name for thermal baths in Japan. It was time for an evening and morning of relaxation up in the mountains of Japan!

From now on, though, I wouldn’t be alone on my explorations. Inés, my formed colleague who is currently living in Japan, would be coming along for the experience. Inés is the reason I really made the whole trip in the first place: I’d been wanting to visit Japan for a while, so when she announced that she would be moving there for the year, I jumped on the chance to visit her there!

We’d arranged to meet at the hotel, so I opened Google Maps once again and it informed me that my destination was a mere seven minutes away on foot. What it didn’t mention is that this entire journey was up a deceptively steep gradient, a task made even more unbearable by the stifling heat and my heavy suitcase.

Google Maps was getting its own back for my earlier lack of faith.

I arrived at the entrance to the hotel just to discover that the driveway up to the doors was yet another series of uphill sections. I genuinely tried seeing if someone would stop to give me a lift up, but no cars came by for a while and so I had to decide whether to roast in the sun, find some shade and cry for a while, or power through and drag my case up the hill.

Naturally I went with the latter, but I didn’t have to undertake the entire climb in the end. One of the doormen saw me struggling and came hurdling towards me with a baggage cart, insisting that he’d push the thing for the rest of the journey. Thanking him profusely, I dragged myself inside and into the glorious air conditioning of the lobby.

In one of the bathrooms, I did my best to freshen up with some wet wipes, before sitting down in the rather grand and ostentatious room as I waited for Inés. When she arrived, we had a great laugh about how sweaty we both were after the horrendous climb, as well as how bizarre it was that the two of us were now first seeing each other again after half a year not only in Japan, but up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere.

Whilst we waited for our room to be ready, we sat and enjoyed some sandwiches in the lobby café, looking out to the lawns and the pool area as you can see above. Eventually we were able to check in, whereupon a lady took us up to our snazzy room and used Google Translate to explain the huge list of offerings that the hotel provided. Me and Inés’ priority was cooling off, though, so we grabbed our swimming attire and headed straight for the pool.

The two of us spent a good couple of hours around the pool, having a lovely catch up in the water before moving over to the jacuzzi as the sun set and the air began to cool a little. Just before leaving, we asked the lifeguard if the two of us were too big to go on the waterslide, but she indicated that we could. We ended our time down there with a splash!

We then headed back to the room to get changed before our evening meal, which we’d scouted out a location for in the form of one of the hotel’s fancy little restaurants. Glad rags on, we went exploring the hotel a little more, discovering a lovely lounge area, amazing views over the valley, and a multitude of other little details that dotted the traditional wood-clad interior. We felt like emperor and empress!

As you can see, the hotel and location were just stunning.

Inés said the lobby was representative of Japanese luxury tastes.

We arrived at the restaurant to discover that it was only very small and fully booked, so we made a reservation for an hour later and set about finding something to do to kill the time. Inés suggested we look for their games room, which we found to be full of arcade games, music, and flashing neon lights. As if my yen were Monopoly money, I set about trying out all the games and the two of us had a great laugh. I discovered that my destiny does not lie in playing the drums, however…

Back at the restaurant, we were seated and then treated to an absolutely delicious meal. With the component ingredients being served on small plates, I was shown how to mix meat, stock, vegetables, and egg to create a rich pot of noodles. Inés had something similar, and we shared a bit of everything before paying up and heading back to the hotel room.

This wasn’t the end of our night though – far from it! As the thermal baths on the rooftop of the hotel were open until midnight, Inés had smartly suggested that we head up there to make the very most of our one and only evening in this swanky hotel. To do this, we donned a traditional kind of robe and headed up to the onsen.

We’d no idea how to tie the sashes but I think we pulled it off.

On the way, Inés ran me through how I should navigate the baths, which are split by sex due to the fact that you have to use them whilst stark naked. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this, but regardless I headed in, disrobed, and moved into the washing area. There, I’d to sit on a little wooden stool and give myself a thorough clean. There was all kinds of soaps, a shower head, and my favourite contraption of all in the form of a wooden bucket. This filled rapidly via a huge tap and I used it to drain all the suds off me with generous splashes of hot water before advancing further.

Feeling very clean, relaxed, and surprisingly not self-conscious at all, I lowered myself into the first of the steaming hot pools and took in the nighttime views over the mountains. I spent the next couple of hours changing between the different baths, the sauna, and a cold plunge pool. When not immersed in the water, I leaned over the balcony and took in the views of the valley, allowing myself to be buffeted by the cool night air.

Now feeling extremely zen and even more tired, I popped my robe back on and headed back down to the room. Inés arrived shortly after, and we finally headed off to sleep at around 1am. What a fabulous day it had been, with the highlight being the tranquil bodily experience of the onsen.

Our alarms went off early as we wanted to once again squeeze every last once out of the morning before we’d to check out. First up was breakfast, which was a huge buffet affair that we had to wait to go in due to the sheer size of the place. This was nothing like your typical European breakfast buffet though; it had all sorts of novel stuff on offer. From fresh omelette balls to noodles and soups, there was a true smorgasbord of delights to try.

Inés and I did just this, managing two rounds of the buffet before giving up and plodding back to the hotel room to be sure to vacate the room on time. In a moment of cheekiness, we then left our bags with the doormen and headed downstairs to spend a couple of hours in the outdoor onsen even after we’d checked out.

This second onsen was equally as delightful as that of the night before, albeit with a different vibe as it was daytime and the pools lay between between tall trees and jagged rocks. I watched a bird taking its own bath in a little water feature within the neighbouring forest and I was at peace with the world for a while.

I think the onsen were one of my favourite aspects about being in Japan.

As the time we’d agreed upon came around, I hauled myself out of the water, got dressed, and met back up with Inés. The two of us sat in a lovely little lounge for a while longer, discussing our thoughts on all kinds of things before we got up and headed back to reception to see if there was any way of heading back down to the train station without having to head down the horrific hill that had tried to kill us just 24 hours previously.

It turns out that there was a shuttle bus from the hotel to Arima and back every twenty minutes, something we wished we had known the day before as we hopped on board. We eventually made it on to our train and onward to my next destination, somewhere Inés knew rather well and would help me to explore as I entered the second week of my Japanese adventure…