Day 2 began with a trip to Nara Park. As I’ve said before, Japan is a straight-up magical place and our visit to Nara seemed like a page out of Snow White. Imagine you’re at a park and there are squirrels. Now double the amount of squirrels your’e imagining. Now pretend those squirrels are actually deer. That’s what Nara Park is like. The legend is that one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine appeared on Mount Mikasa riding a deer. After that, deer were seen as divine and sacred and up until 1637 killing one of these deer was punishable by death.
It was the craziest, coolest thing to experience. The deer are everywhere!!! Walking through shrines, reaching into your unattended purse/pocket for a snack, wandering through the streets. You can also buy little wafer crackers to feed them and they will actually bow to you to get one. Seriously!!! We spent the day wandering the park with the deer and visiting the Todaiji Temple (the largest wooden structure in the world that houses a 50 ft tall Buddha. I was also able to have a quick photo session with two willing, beautiful girls! GAH! I could’ve shot there all day!!!
After the deer-we enjoyed a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and then went back to the hotel to take a dip in the onsen. An onsen is a geothermally heated hot spring and Japan has thousands of them due to the volcanic activity on the island (thanks, Wikipedia!) It’s supposed to be both relaxing and great for your skin and I’m all about trying anything that will leave me glowing and supple. Some traditional hotels (ryokans) would build up around these springs. They can be indoors or outdoors and almost every place on our itinerary had one. I love that AdventureWomen really plans our stays at hotels that are more authentic to the country you’re in rather than sticking us in a Hilton or Marriott. There are a lot of rules in Japan, so I assumed onsens would be no different. I was correct.
First of all, when we got to the hotel, we were all given a robe (a yukata), socks and sandals to change into. When you check into your room, you were expected to don your yukata, socks and sandals to wear around the grounds of the hotel-both men and women. When you were in your room, you were to leave your sandals at the door and just wear your socks. In the onsen, you enter into a locker room where you leave your sandals, socks and yukata in exchange for a tiny towel (think washcloth) and your birthday suit (don’t worry, most onsens are separated by gender). You then strut in all your glory (or hunch over and walk fast depending on your style) into the onsen area.
The next step is to shower before getting into the onsen. Another interesting thing-most of the showers had a stool and you showered sitting down. I was super confused about this at first and the only thing that clued me in was the mirror hung at crotch level and the little seat. That, and I saw another woman do it. I really tried mentally to prepare myself to be that naked in front of a bunch of strangers, but I was still nervous. And, not gonna lie, I also expected that somehow once in the onsen I’d be less exposed...I dunno, maybe there’d be bubbles or something. Nope. No bubbles. Just a seat where the water came up maybe a few inches on my thighs and was very, very clear.
Honestly though, I came to truly love going to the onsen. Especially while we were hiking the Kumano Kodo (which I’ll get to in part 3!). There’s nothing like hiking all day and then getting to the hotel, slipping into a cool, cotton yukata and then laying your sore body in silky, warm water. Not only that, but while it is incredibly vulnerable, it’s also incredibly equalizing. There’s something about being naked in front of strangers that strips you on a soul level. Suddenly it doesn’t matter how much money you make or if you’re a CEO or a student, if you’re a mom of 3 or never want kids, if your married or single. We’re all just women who simply want to relax in an onsen—and maybe get some glowing, supple skin while we’re at it.