Somehow I got an early start on the day and was
packed up and ready to leave my Aomori campsite by 7:30. It looked like another
beautiful day was dawning. I cut back over and got on the Tohoku Expressway
to get past the area I had traveled the previous day. For the most
part, I had avoided expressways because their use would take the fun out
of riding a motorcycle and also because they are extremely
expensive. But when it made sense or when I was in a hurry, I used them. I rode it for about 50 kilometers, from Kuroishi to Towada and
then took Route 341 southwest to Lake Tazawa which is in Akita Prefecture.
Lake Tazawa was yet another caldera lake -- formed by
ancient volcanic action. How many caldera lakes had I seen thus
far? I actually had to sit and count: Shikotsu-ko, Akan-ko,
Mashu-ko, Kussharu-ko, and Towada-ko. So this was the sixth
caldera lake in just a week's time. Lake Tazawa seemed older since
the mountains surrounding it didn't seem as big as some of the
others. But I'm not a geologist so don't take my word for it.
One thing I do know is that it is Japan's deepest lake. Of course I
don't know this first hand either.
What I do know is that it was a hot day and I
was ready to find an air-conditioned place to eat. I
found a place with a view of the lake and had ebi-fry (fried shrimp), a
common dish all across the country. After lunch, I found a shady
place on the sand under an overhanging tree and took a short siesta.
Unlike ocean sand which is normally full of the shell fragments of various
sea creatures, the sand here all looked like little quartz crystals.
The kind that feels really nice between one's toes.
I didn't want to dally too long so I was back on the
road about a half hour later. Just
another hour down the road found me in Kakunodate, a small town famous for
its historical district where there is a row of old samurai-era
houses. Some of them are still privately owned but others are open
to the public. The street was lined with black fencing and a
separate entrance for each house. All
were in the traditional style with tatami-mat floors, sliding shoji
doors and the like. With everything wide open, you can see right
through one side of a house to the other -- great for catching breezes
from any direction. However, in the winter time, a wood and paper
house with no central-heating would make for a darn cold house. And
I thought my modern-day apartment in Tokyo was cold...
The local craft and history museum was interesting for
its various wares. The big handicraft of that region is wood
products made from cherry wood and cherry tree bark. The houses were
cool but old Japanese houses don't hold my attention for long. They
generally have no furniture or devices like can be found in old European
or American houses to give clues as to how the rooms were used. Even
the famous Nijo Castle in Kyoto doesn't look much different than the photo
of this little Samurai house that I took. Nijo Castle is just on a
much larger scale and has priceless art on its paper doors.
By this time it was mid-afternoon and I left Kakunodate
heading towards the Sea of Japan with two goals in mind: one, to
find a place to take a bath and two, to find a beach campsite before
sundown. Luckily I accomplished both. One of the michi no eki ("Road
Stations") on the way had a large 24-hour bathing facility. michi no eki are
rest areas that are scattered throughout the country. Usually they
at least have road, traffic and weather information as well as bathrooms
and vending machines. This one (Nishimi) was quite large. The
bathing facility was quite busy that day. The bathing routine was
one I had gone through many times before but might be a little confusing
for the uninitiated so I'll detail the steps for anybody who may be
First, when entering, you take off your shoes and step
up onto the carpeted area (or wooden platform) into slippers which should
be nearby. A common mistake of first-timers is to take off their
shoes but step in the area where they just walked in their shoes.
It's not a huge faux pas, but it's sort of missing the point. Or
sometimes people will step up on the little wooden platform with their
shoes on. That's a no-no. The platform is there to provide a
sort of stocking-feet land between the inside and outside floors.
Again, put on the slippers that should be either waiting for you on the
floor or in a basket nearby. They almost certainly won't fit and
your heel will hang off of them, but that's okay.
Second, you carry your shoes to the line of shoe
lockers, put your shoes in a locker (which is free), lock it and take the
key with you. (Older places will just have non-locking shoe
shelves.) Then, you go to the front desk to pay the entrance
fee. There, they will keep the shoe locker key and give you another,
wearable key for the locker inside the bath. The larger places will
also provide a two towels (one small, one large) and cotton bath wear
(shorts and a robe-like shirt).
Next, head into the bath appropriate for your sex.
Usually the noren (curtain over the doorway) is blue for men and
red for women but, if you're not sure, it's best to watch others or ask
before doing something stupid. And be careful, sometimes they will
switch the baths depending on the time of the day. So if you are
staying overnight somewhere and already went to the baths once and think
you know where they are, you could still make a mistake.
Once in the bath, you will take off your slippers and
leave them behind before stepping up into the changing area. At this
time you should be barefoot or in your stocking feet. If you were
given a key on a bracelet, find the locker corresponding to the number on
your key and use it to store your clothes and large towel. Sometimes I
also peek in the bath to see what it looks like and to see if they provide
soap and shampoo. If not, I am usually prepared with my own and take
it in with me (though at the kind of large place I am describing, it's
pretty much always provided). And if you need to take a pee or do
something else, there is usually a toilet located in the changing
room. (Don't forget to use the special toilet slippers and to leave
them in the toilet when you are done.)
After dropping off all your belongings -- including the
clothes you are wearing -- in the locker lock it up, taking the key and
small towel with you. (If you didn't get a key and there are no
lockers, just pick an empty basket or shelf in which to put your
stuff.) You might want to hold the towel demurely in front of you to
protect yourself from prying eyes (or then again, you might not). In
the bath you will likely see rows of water faucets with tiny stools and
buckets in front of them. If you don't see any stools or buckets,
there's probably a pile of them next to the door where you just
entered. Pick a spot, sit on the stool and wash up good using plenty
of suds and your small towel as a wash cloth. If there is not any
bar soap, most likely there is liquid soap. Usually there's two
containers, one of liquid soap and one of combination
shampoo/conditioner. Sometimes they're marked in English and
sometimes not. If not, try to figure it out or just take a
chance. If you get it wrong, it probably won't matter much anyway.
Usually there is a shower head in front of you which
can you use as well as a faucet that you can use to fill the bucket and
dump it over yourself. I should also note that some of the larger
and newer places have a few shower stalls and you might be able to avoid
the awkward sitting position if you wish. In any case, make sure you
wash up good and rinse off good. After that you're ready to soak in
any of the tubs available to you. Take your towel with you but don't
put it in the water (either put it on your head or on the side of the
tub). You might only see one bath or there may be various baths with
various types of water with different mineral content. Sometimes
there may be a herbal baths, and sometimes even a bath with electricity
running through it! And there may be other facilities such as saunas
and whirlpool tubs as well.
Once you're done -- and don't forget to check out the
outdoor bath before you leave, if there is one -- you may want to
rinse off with fresh water before heading back in to the changing
room. I usually use my damp towel to get all the loose water off of
me so I don't drip water all over the floor on the way back to the
locker. Retrieve your big towel, dry off and change. There should be sinks and mirrors
in the changing room if you want to style your hair or brush your
teeth. Often, there are combs available if you don't mind sharing
combs with other people. Just make sure you pick one up from the
so-called clean tray, not the bucket holding used combs.
In large facilities, you can lounge around in the
cotton bath wear and even have dinner or take a nap. You can just
run a tab using the number on your locker key. When you're all done
and changed into your clothes, dump your towels and lounging clothes into
the clothes hampers in the changing area before going back into the
lobby. Turn in your key and pay any extra money you might owe.
You will receive your shoe locker key and that's it. Just retrieve
your shoes, put them on in the entranceway and you're done.
Wow, that was a much longer explanation than I had
intended. And I still haven't touched on any of the advanced topics
like how to sneak beer into the outdoor bath and when it is tacitly
allowed. Or what to do if female staff walks into the bath
area (not an uncommon occurrence). The answer to the latter is
"ignore her," the answer to the former is too involved to go
into right now.
Anyhoo, since I hadn't had a proper bath in two
days (dipping into sulphur water the previous day didn't quite count) I
was glad that I come across this place. Though, in reality, it's
almost impossible to go anywhere in Japan without fairly easy access to a
public bath. Of course most of them are not 24 hours like this one
I picked up some food for later at the convenience
store next door to the bath before continuing south on Route 7. This
was a coastal route along the Sea of Japan and it felt good to be
traveling on the side of Japan that most tourists (or Japanese, even) do not ever see.
It's too far off the beaten path. I was worrying about finding a
place to camp before sunset (didn't want to miss any sunset photo
opportunities) and just as I thought I would have start looking for a
place where I could "unofficially" camp, I came across a private
camp area right off the ocean. I was in Yamagata Prefecture, just
south of Chokai Quasi-National Park.
All the campground was, really, was a strip of
beach. There were no facilities except a couple outhouses and a
spigot providing fresh water. The proprietor had a little open-air
eating establishment. His fee for a motorcycle camper was less than
$2 -- what a deal. I think he also had a cold-water-only shower so I was
glad I had cleaned up earlier (though it was kind of ironic that my bath
earlier cost more than the night's lodgings).
I managed to ride my bike across the sand without
dropping it. I had to find a piece of wood to put under the kick
stand so it wouldn't fall right over. I set up my bivy tent and then
got my camera ready for Mother Nature's show. Now, finally, I got to
see my first Sea of Japan sunset. I was lucky because it was a good
one, just beautiful.