The trees close around us, hugging the sides of the road. The car jolts into a rut dug by water, hops back up onto the trail.
I say, “I can’t believe I took Penelope through this.”
Tony says, “You took Penelope through this?”
I say, “Yeah, in winter.”
A laugh. “How?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I can’t believe I took Penelope through this.”
The rain hangs in the air. It might not even be raining anymore, but the wipers are going, and moisture hits the windows.The air has the quality of rain, heavy with wetness and heat. The woods around us are topographically schizoid, rising and falling in sharp angles. The road lurches the way that only roads laid before the age of cars can. It looks like an attempt at pavement was made many years ago, but in the intervening time traffic and nature have wrecked the concrete into plates of rock and rubble.
We arrive at the onsen. It consists of a family of small wooden buildings huddled on a little level ground. All around are tall bushes and reeds. The platonic form of a brook babbles by on the left. The ground rises steeply behind the onsen, up into the clouds somewhere in a wall of green.
The buildings all look tremendously old, the sort of clumsy rigidity of old men. The roofing is thatched and the walls are all wood worn down by the weather, dark, wrinkled, the edges worn off. A man in a yukata slides a window open and leans out. Our footsteps crunch on the round, wet gravel. We exchange a shiny gold 500 yen coin for the right to enter the onsen. A lady in a dark blue apron hands us a map with English words on it, all drawn by hand, and smiles.
We move to a low building off to the right. There are a couple of doors, above which are signs painted in Japanese characters indicating men’s and women’s sides and the names of the baths. We enter our respective sides.
The changing rooms are cramped and make you feel awkward in your body, all elbows, when you undress. The floor is wooden and soggy, the air tangy with the smell of sulfur. The two baths sit separately off the main changing room, behind sliding wooden doors with glass windows. They rattle in their casings as you slide them. The sound is deeply satisfying.
In the Shiro-yu bath, water runs through a gutter on the wall and drains out into the bath, which is big enough for maybe four people who are comfortable with each other. The gutter, the bath, the floor, are all crusted with a hard, smooth mineral deposit from the water. There’s a place where the water drips out of the gutter, at a joint; the floor below it is raised in a small yellowish stalagmite. The water is lukewarm and milky. You can’t see more than an inch or two into it. It smells deeply of sulfur, which here is a healthy, relaxing smell -- not the smell of rotten eggs or the sour taste of someone else’s flatulence, but one of minerals and nature and warmth.
No one speaks much. A couple of syllables are exchanged in reverence. This onsen has been open since the 1600s. I have no idea how old the buildings are. Everything I’ve seen could have been built in the 1800s, for the technological simplicity of it. The glass in the windows is mottled, warped. The wood is worn way down on the boards leading back outside, to the outside bath. I catch a glimpse of a security camera, hidden inside a wooden box. It’s aimed at the door to the women’s changing room.
The outdoor bath, too, is milky white. It’s alongside a public pathway, separated from the rest of the onsen -- e.g. the rooms for staying overnight -- by a row of tall reeds. It’s a mixed-gender bath, but the only people in it are old men. Most of them sit motionless with closed eyes, statuelike. There’s a suzumebachi, or giant hornet, buzzing around people’s heads. Tony and I scoot to the part of the bath furthest from the hornet. It lands on one old guy’s head. I squirm in place. The man swats it away. It lands again, he swats again. An old, tremendously wrinkled guy, probably not more than four feet tall, produces a fly swatter from nowhere and kills the hornet when it lands on the rim of the bath. Doesn’t he know that killing them releases the pheromone that attracts more? He flicks it into the bushes. Another hornet appears, skims the water. I stand up and head inside.
The Naka-no-yu bath is darker, an opalescent gray. It’s also significantly hotter than the others. I sit on the edge of the bath with my legs in the water. When I take my legs out, they’re bright pink from about mid-thigh down. I decide to sit down and count ten slow breaths. It’s brutally warm in the same way that a massage is brutally painful. I feel brutalized, but somehow better for it. My runny nose is clear for the first time in days. My skin feels soft, new. It’s hard to breathe but my body isn’t reacting the way that it normally does when it’s hard to breathe. I feel like I’m getting enough oxygen. I reach ten, don’t want to get out, decide to count another ten.
When I get out I’m sweating profusely. I towel myself off but sweat springs back up on my arms, chest, back. I pull my t-shirt on anyway, my sweat bleeding dark islands across my stomach. The sweat from my forehead is dripping into my eyes while I dress. I wrap my towel around my forehead and head out into the cool, rainy afternoon. The sulfur in the air is almost sweet to me, by now.