No canoeing, No cherry blossoms, and Radioactivity
From Tokyo, on the advice of my airbnb host Patric I took the train to Minakami, a few hours to the north in Japan's alps, where I was hoping to go canoeing or rafting and see cherry blossoms. It turns out I was about two weeks too early for all of these things, as the season hadn't started yet. It was a disappointment, but as I was hitting the peak of my Tokyo Train cold/flu, I wasn't up for much besides lying down shivering in my room in the minshuku – a type of traditional Japanese guesthouse. Luckily I had caught a ride with the Aussie canoe company owner from town, who was able to explain I didn't eat meat – not even sausage – to my host, an older Japanese woman who spoke no English. I was the only guest at the minshuku and the owner whose name I never learned, sat with me as I tried to eat the huge meal she prepared – so many dishes I couldn't manage them all. We watched the Tokyo Tigers play baseball on tv – I found out afterwards they won 3-0! Against.. some other Japanese team. Baseball seems to be a popular sport.
The next day I went to the nearby Takagarawa onsen, one of the more famous thermal hot springs in Japan. With thin suspension bridges crossing the scenic Takagarawa river lined with separate artfully laid out rock baths, it was a beautiful sight aside from the caged Asian black bears I passed on the stairs down to the river.
I had heard about the strict protocol for entering Japanese onsens, but there were no showers or soap for scrubbing in evidence, and no one else was around to follow when I entered the ladies bath.
The lack of other people was more of a concern when after 5 minutes in the bath I noticed that underwater my body had an electric blue outline. I admired the neon light for a few moments until some faint alarm bells started to ring. Radioactive objects glow blue underwater. Japan had widespread radioactive fallout after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. No one else was in the bath. Was the water radioactive? Was I?
There was only one way to find out – I'd need to get out of the water and find the guy I met at the entrance who spoke some English. But as per the protocol in the ladies bath, I was stark naked, just warming up and not feeling like getting dressed all over again. I stayed stewing over what to do, as I steamed in the bath. It was just too much effort to leave, but I was jeopardizing my health! And still I was alone in the water, and my body outline remained steadfastly blue (with a bit of bright orange on one arm at one point). Instead of relaxing in the warm pool, I worried. And I didn't get out. After a couple of hours a group of young Japanese girls came into the bath for a while.
When I finally got out to leave – after it began to snow – it appeared the only English speaking staff had left. In the end I didn't find out the cause of my blue light, despite repeated Internet searches.
I left Minakami and the minshuku the next day, my cold feeling resoundingly better after my day in the warm pool. I did read that some of famous Japanese onsens advertise their naturally occurring radiation as providing health benefits. While I haven't confirmed it, this onsen may be one of them…