SONIC REDUCER Massive wood phalli. Steaming pits of gooey geothermal activity paired with shameful cages of sulky, muttonchopped Japanese monkeys. (No wonder their bottoms are red.) Fingers going pleasantly numb after noshing on fugu innards sashimi. That's the salty floating world of old-school onsen (hot springs) life in Japan — as experienced by yours truly earlier this month.
The GOP got a well-deserved scrubbing while I was gently simmering in soupy milk-blue water at Myoban Onsen in the hills above Beppu, down south on hard-drinking Kyushu island in Japan. My kindred lady bathers sneak discreet glances at each other's invariably saggy, soggy, well-brined flesh — appearances by the blinged-out, booted fashion-damaged dolls more common to Gwen Stefani vids and Tokyo and Osaka streets are almost nil at these OG public soakathons, though you do get the occasional yakuza, singing soulfully postbath. "Drunk!" okasan, a.k.a. my mother, hisses with disapproval. Signs of those bad boys' continuing patronage abound: even our Osaka Hyatt's fitness center and spa boasts a sign forbidding the excessively drunk or abundantly tattooed. We tell the attendant that we probably won't be making the cut.
The art of onsen bathing goes a little like this: Scuttle out of the changing room starkers — locker key secured with a rubber bracelet around the wrist. Hustle to a free station — equipped with stool, wash tub, faucet, and handheld showerhead — to soap and rinse off offending personal filth. Then waddle over to the big, boiling communal tub — either mineral salted au naturel, Jacuzzi driven, or hotter than hell, as it was at the Meiji-era Takegawara Onsen in Beppu. Sink down to your neck. Sigh deeply. Sweat. Cook until just past al dente so that your muscles begin to resemble the hot noodles you suck down at the standing-room-only ramen stands on most train station platforms. Chase with a cold Sapporo.
Few Kansai and Kyushu wanderers are searching for pop culture kicks in Beppu — there's a dank air of slightly seedy sadness lapping round the edges of the onsen town's arcades of shuttered shops and windowless hostess bars. We suck down eggs, coffee, and custards cooked in or with the mineral water at the unbathable geothermal hot spots, otherwise known as jigokus, or hells. These tourist traps have been given a halfhearted theme-park treatment: bright red demonic statues overlook belching pits of steam, crocodiles pile in too-crowded concrete pens, and a miserable-looking crane parades psychotically in a barely big enough cage. It's best to head into the bamboo thickets and green wilderness, toward smaller towns like Usuki, a few train stops away. The small town is graced by 10th-century stone Buddha images, delectable bird tempura at Kokoro Club, and Furen Limestone Cave, a less-traveled national monument fanged with gorgeous, eerie massive white stalactites that shame those in The Descent.
The clubs in Fukuoka are said to be just as surreally scary — eating live critters (odorigui, or “dancing-eating”) is apparently quite the height of nightlife derring-do. But instead, I ended up at the promenades of Hiroshima, near the extremely moving Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Teenagers in spiky mullets, trailing goth getups, and trendy ethno-hippie rags commune for grub like superspicy eggplant, enoki mushroom, and sausage curry. If it gets overwhelming, duck into a virtual escape hatch like Media Center Popeye, where you can rent a cubicle and gorge on games, DVDs, Web surfing, manga, and junk food till the morning. Those nostalgic for Tower Records can stop into one of the chain’s Japanese holdouts — on the top floor of the Parco department store next to an ass-kicking musical instrument emporium. Your one-stop shop for starting your own mind-blowing Japanese band?
I'd find my inspiration in OOIOO, Boredoms drummer Yoshimi P-we's all-XX-chromosomal foursome.
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