This is going to be an especially lengthy post so get ready!
This weekend we made a little overnight trip to a nearby Satoyama area. But what does Satoyama mean?
Satoyama is a Japanese geographical term for the area between flat lands, where cities are usually built, and mountainous lands, which are classified as too rough for living. Satoyama lands are inhabited, but by few people, and are usually cultivated for agricultural purposes. A good way to imagine Satoyama lands is to think about the beautiful scenery in Miyazki’s masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro (which is why I included a picture above). It’s a “rural” or “countryside” area, but one with a strong community. You have to drive for a while to get to the nearest train station or city.
The Satoyama area we went to is in the Northernmost area of Kasai city, a city next door to Himeji, still within Hyogo prefecture. It’s in an area called Manganji.
Anyways, when we arrived, all I could think about was that I had stepped through a portal into my favorite childhood film, My Neighbor Totoro. I didn’t want to look away from the scenery, it was so beautiful!
This is the building where we came to eat meals and do activities! (Which I will go into further detail later). It’s a traditional-style Japanese building – the ceiling beams are rather low, and there is a Genkan (entrance area) where you must remove your shoes. The seating for meals is are long, low-tables and floor cushions. It had some really interesting decorations!
And this is the house that the women stayed in! It is really beautiful, it has tatami floors on the inside and we all slept in futons. I LOVE JAPANESE FUTONS. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of the inside because I was too preoccupied with taking photos of the outside, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
When we arrived, we dropped off our things at our house and headed straight for the Onsen. An Onsen is a public bath house. A true Onsen is a natural hot spring, but the term is also applied to bathing facilities that are not actually “true” Onsen. The actual term for non-natural hot spring bathhouses is Sento, but I find that people (meaning my teachers and Japanese friends) refer to them as Onsen anyways. The one we went to in Kasai is called Otani Sento.
When you arrive at the Onsen/Sento, you buy a ticket (usually like 500円) and can also buy drinks and snacks (the baths are hot so it’s important to drink something beforehand). When you’re ready to go in, you enter your respective area (men and women are completely separated, for obvious reasons. However, children are allowed in either section regardless of what gender the child is), and there is a locker room where you put in a 100円 coin and are allowed to lock up your clothes and whatever else while you’re in the bath. When you leave the locker room, there is a showering area with little stations for each person to become clean. In Japan you need to be clean before you get into the bath! The bathwater is shared by many people, so not showering first is seriously disgusting and disrespectful! After you’re cleaned, you can head over to any of the huge bath tubs or the sauna area.
Now I will answer the question everyone is thinking of: Yes, you have to be naked! At many Onsen/Sento, bathing suits are actually prohibited. I’m sure many Americans will read this and cringe, but I also felt that way before we went. I was nervous because in American culture it is definitely considered awkward to be naked in front of your friend, let alone 15 friends and 5 teachers!
You are allowed to bring in a small towel, but not one big enough to wrap around your body and effectively cover yourself. The purpose of the towel is to pat yourself dry, not really to prevent people from seeing your body.
It was awkward for about 30 seconds but then I didn’t really care anymore. Maybe it’s because I used to dance when I was younger so I’m used to changing clothes in front of large groups of friends and teachers. The baths were amazing! They are very hot (44.5 degrees celsius), so it takes a few minutes to become accustomed to the temperature, but it really is extremely relaxing!
Another thing to note is that if you have a large tattoo, you probably cannot enter an Onsen or Sento. In Japan, tattoos are associated with Yakuza (gangsters), and are heavily tabooed. My friend who has lived in Japan before told me that if you’re a westerner (and by that I mean, you do not “look” Japanese), Onsen and Sento are unlikely to turn you away because of a tattoo, but an extremely traditional Onsen is liable to do so. Some traditional Onsen actually do not like westerners (or “western-looking” people) to enter at all (although clearly this is racist…)
I have no pictures of the bathhouse experience for obvious reasons. So if you want to see what an Onsen/Sento is like, I suggest google images to get an idea!
After the bath we have dinner (which was amazing), and relaxed for a bit before returning to our respective houses to go to bed in traditional Japanese futon. It’s definitely a very interesting experience to be in a house with 1 bathroom and 20 women!
We had an early start in the morning and headed to the eatery/activities house for breakfast.
We were told not to overstuff ourselves because of our next activity: Mochitsuki (mochi-pounding). What made this particularly awesome was that we didn’t do it alone, but with local kindergarteners!
For mochi pounding you need two people: one person who uses the hammer to pound the mochi, and another person who adds water and turns the mochi over in between. It’s really interesting to watch because everything needs to be in rhythm or the helper’s hand can get smashed by accident!
Here I am pounding mochi with a little girl named Ritsuha. That hammer was heavy. She’s stronger than I am!
We all took turns pounding mochi with the children and eventually made enough for everyone to eat. The kindergartener’s moms who were kind enough to come help out added Anko (red bean paste) to the mochi, it was extremely delicious!
After eating, we played games, sang songs, and listened to a story with the children. It was super fun. After a few hours, the children had stopped being shy and were climbing all over us!
When we were saying goodbye to the children, they gave each of us a fan that they drew on with crayons. Here is the one I received from little Ritsuha:
I know most people think this sort of stuff is junk, but I really treasure these kinds of things. It’s looks a little bit like me, no? 🙂
Around noon we ate a lunch of curry (I LOVE JAPANESE CURRY. I ate so much food on this trip.), and then started our next activity: Ikebana (Flower Arrangement), with two local ladies who are apparently famous teachers of the traditional art!
I know it doesn’t look like much, but it took a long time! The teachers went around to everybody’s arrangement and helped us make it better. When a teacher came to inspect mine, she said “わあ、きれいにしました！” (“Wow, you made it well!”). I would only hope so, considering I’m an art major. Haha 🙂
After flower arrangement, we were greeted by yet another famous local teacher who taught us about Shodo (Calligraphy).
Since most of us were complete beginners, and we only had one hour with her, the teacher spent most of the time teaching us how to sit, hold the brush, and make basic strokes. Then she checked our work with orange ink (you can see above, she circled the areas she thought were executed well).
After Calligraphy, we headed back to our house, packed up our things and headed home to Himeji. It was seriously a fantastic trip! I wish I could go to a 里山 for a more extended period of time. It’s perfect for painting and other art-making.
Here are some more photos of the area.
This has been a jam-packed weekend, and a very long post. Right now I’m doing laundry, homework, and planning to go to the Yukata Matsuri this evening. Even more photos of that will be coming soon!