Hot sand purification at Ibusuki; In which I'm unable to avoid a public bath; Magic night swimming

I may have mentioned once or twice that the Japanese train system is brilliant. There were three trains to get us from Kumamoto to Ibusuki at the very southern tip of Kyushu. The connection between the first train and the second train at Shinyatsushiro was only three minutes. This worried us a bit, especially since we now had Sayaka with us and she didn’t have a rail pass, so the momentary annoyance of a missed reservation for us meant a lot of wasted money for her. But when we arrived, the next train was only just across the platform - the rail reservation system seems to take into account the distance between platforms. Brilliant.

I was impressed all the way to Kagoshimachuo on the Tsubame bullet train, some forty minutes, but the shine definitely wore off when we were confronted with the last train of the day. We were definitely in the sticks, now. It was a rattletrap two-car subway-style affair that I instantly appointed as the Worst Train in Japan. We jolted and jerked and rattled over the bumpy tracks for an hour and a half, getting increasingly sore in the head and the neck. Poor Sheryl was in rough shape - her back has been giving her grief since before we left Tokyo. The whole reason for coming to Ibusuki was to visit the hot-springs, though, so I was hopeful that she’d be better soon.

When we got off the train at last in Ibusuki, we were nearly knocked over by a wall of damp heat. Ibusuki is a lot farther south than we’re used to being, now. I hadn’t felt heat like that since Calcutta. Ibusuki is flat-out tropical. There were palm trees growing everywhere. The place looked like a run-down old resort town, tired and long past its prime. All the concrete was cracked and all the shops were closed. Sheryl and Sayaka were decidedly unimpressed with the place, but I liked seeing another side to Japan, one that wasn’t as slick and prosperous.

The light was hard enough to leave bruises, and every surface had been burnt white by the sun. The town’s only bus ran every couple of hours, and got us to the other end of town in due course. The hostel was deserted but the manager still wouldn’t let us check in until four o’clock, so we dumped the bags and set out in search of something to eat. This part of the city was just as much a ghost-town as it was near the station, but we scraped up enough from a convenience store to keep us alive and ate on the boardwalk in the shimmering hazy heat amid clouds of dragonflies. Even the ocean was battered flat and sluggish by the sun.

Our enthusiasm for yet more heat had withered a little, but the hot-springs were our reason for coming. The most famous of the hot-spring resort onsen in Ibusuki is actually famous not for its hot water, but for its hot sand. The opportunity to be buried in steaming volcanic sand and sweat out all the bad stuff was too much to resist, so off we went. With the admission price came blue cotton yukatas. I put mine on in the men’s locker room, trying to avoid the shameless old lady dawdling about her cleaning routine and trying to get an eyeful of whatever she could.

Out on the beach, an old man scolded Sheryl and I - Sayaka said because we had our yukatas on with the right side over the left side, rather than the other way around. This bloody country, honestly. Why on earth do you need a rule for that? It had never occurred to me that there would be a right and a wrong way to but the damn thing on. I should know by now that this is true of everything in Japan. There are so many, many arbitrary secret rules here. I’ve just been proceeding on the assumption that every single thing I do will be wrong. Most Japanese will never tell you you’re doing something wrong, they’ll just glance at you with courteous, refined horror, so I was perversely grateful to the old man for being cranky and outspoken. He’d prevented us from exposing what would actually have been a terrible faux-pas. Traditionally, in Japan, the only people who wear their yukatas right-over-left are dead ones on their way to their funerals. At least this way we only offended one person. I was annoyed - isn’t this why I pay good money for guidebooks, so that I don’t have to find this kind of thing out post facto? On the other hand, I’d have thought Miss Sayaka might have mentioned something too.

We lay down on the hot, oily, gritty beach, and the staff wrapped our necks with towels and unceremoniously began to bury us alive. It was incredibly hot and crushingly heavy, but very comforting in a weird sort of way - like being in the womb of some monstrous creature. Very soon we were nothing but three bright red heads on the beach like a row of snooker balls. Steam rose from the mound of sand where my body used to be. I could feel the pulse throbbing in my hands, my feet, my gut. The heavy weight of the sand made the hint of a trapped feeling rise in me, but the heat boiled it away along with every other conscious thought. Sheryl had a little more trouble, claustrophobe that she is, but she and Sayaka both lasted fifteen minutes by the clock hung on a nearby concrete wall. I wanted to stay in for a couple of extra minutes, but Sheryl needed to take some pictures and so I ended up staying in the sand for twenty minutes - twice the recommended ten.

My head was floating when I stood up. It seemed as if my skull had been boiled empty and hollow. The greasy sand slid down from my yukata in clumps and steam rose from my skin. We tottered inside to the regular baths. It was my first experience of bathing in public. It’s a Japanese custom, and one I knew I’d probably have to deal with at some point, though I hadn’t been especially looking forward to it. The place wasn’t crowded, though, and I managed to deal with it. Covertly following the lead of the old men who looked as if they spent every day of their lives in public baths, I rinsed off, claimed a bucket, and sat on one of the row of low stools to wash. It’s usual to soak for awhile in the hot bath after washing, but I after the sand I couldn’t take more than ten minutes before I had to towel off and wobble upstairs to wait for the girls.

Sheryl, carrying her pack up the hostel stairs, slipped and ruined her back again not fifteen minutes after leaving the onsen. I’m beginning to suspect that she does this on purpose to get attention. Either that or the overheating brought on a terrible headache and she had to lie down for a few hours. Sayaka and I went out to the supermarket at the edge of town to figure out dinner, not wanting to deal a second time with trying to find an open restaurant in the deserted streets. When we got there we realized why the place was a ghost-town - everybody was at the supermarket. We picked up sushi for ourselves and chicken for Sheryl, and a couple of ice-cream treats unappealingly named Cake Sticks. These were just as nasty as they sound, but the name gave me endless amusement - especially when Sayaka turned bright red in the supermarket after I nudged her and said in a greasy voice Hey baby, want some Cake Stick?. She says I can make anything sound rude.

After dark we trooped down to the ocean for a night swim. The stars were out and the lights from the big ships offshore reflected in the waves. The water was so strange, layered hot and cold from the springs underneath the sand. The water was hottest at the bottom, freezing in the middle and warm at the top. We chased the hot patches around and burned our feet digging them into the sand on the bottom. The shallowest water at the edge of the beach was the warmest and I lay flat on the sand, letting the waves wash over me. It was a quiet, magical night and it didn’t last long enough. These things never really do.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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