In Hot Water Again

A beautiful day in the heart of tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season - no rain, warm and breezy - greeted the Ajimi team this Saturday. A brief look-see at Sumiko Enbutsu and Mimi LeBourgeois' Water Walks in the Suburbs of Tokyo, a little homespun guide to off-the-beaten track walking tours throughout the greater Tokyo area, and we decided to take a quick train ride to Izumi Tamagawa station and explore a section of the mighty Tamagawa. The promise of finding some remnant old farmhouses piqued our inquiring minds.

First off, though, was lunch. In the shoutengai just south of the station we stopped in an unassuming soba shop, Maruya, where we found thoroughly delightful summery zarusoba to fortify ourselves for the afternoon. A short walk through the neighborhood and we hit the Tamagawa, where there was some serious teen action - grilling, flirting and showing off stuff - going on under the massive pylons of the Tamasuidou Bashi. The upriver walk took us past spits and embankments where people were fishing, wading or merely staring at the flowing water, wasting away a sunny afternoon. Makeshift blue-tarp homeless shelters hid in the sparse copses that dotted the wide riverbank, their residents sunning themselves.

Looping back into the neighborhood we followed the guidebook's directions to the farmhouses of the Ishii clan who dominate this area. It seems that since the 2000 publication of the Water Walks book, the Ishiis have done the classic Japanese thing - torn down the historic farms and replaced them with spanking new houses and apartments made of particularly repellent building materials not found in nature. Ah, well, such is progress.

Hot and sweaty, we jumped on the train and headed even further west to Miyamaedaira Onsen (宮前平 温泉). On a hill above the station in the somewhat severe suburb, sits the modern, well-appointed onsen. When the Ajimi team soaks we have three criteria that we look at - the quality of the water, the amenities and/or amusement level of the baths, and the general ambience and feel of the place.

Like many natural onsen in the Tokyo area the water that feeds the baths at Miyamaedaira Onsen is kuroyu (黒湯) - black water. Strange and wonderful, soap-silky, dark as cola, the water has a slight tingle and leaves your skin about as soft as your grandma's inner arm. There were plenty of different baths at different temperatures, a pleasant rotenburo, a sauna, a salt steam bath for the ladies, jet baths and a wonderful utataneyu (うたた寝湯) bath (the napping hot water bath) - a bath partitioned with shallow, bed-like units, with just enough hot water to immerse one's back, leaving the ventral side open to cooling breezes and the perfect conditions for a good snooze. All in all, a wealth of options with subtle variations. For a few yen extra one can take advantage of the stone bath.

In the lounge were the usual phalanxes of TV/Barcaloungers. The room was softly lit and the low sounds of piped in mood music mashed up with the patter of variety shows that bath-drained customers slept to. Ice cold beers completed the after-bath ritual chill-out.

The Ajimi team loves to get into a bit of hot water after hitting the urban trail. Country trails too. It's the only way to hike.



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