Snow at Tosen Goshobo

21Feb07

After sojourning in Kyoto, and then spending a fun-filled evening in Osaka, The Crew and I headed to Arima so we could enjoy the highly civilized pursuit of bathing in hot springs. According to Margaret Price’s Classic Japanese Inns and Country Getaways, a book that has been very kind to me not a few times,

Arima Onsen has an eight-hundred-year history. In the twelfth century, a priest set up twelve temple lodgings here, each dedicated to one of the juni shinsho (twelve guardian gods of Buddha). Ever since, Arima has been renowned as the place where one could worship and simultaneously be healed by hot spring waters. Many of the inns in Arima . . . still carry the suffix “bo” (“temple lodge”), and Tosen Goshobo was the most distinguished of them all, being the choice of aristocrats and men of letters from long ago. National unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) was fond of Arima, and he ordered the bathing facilities at Arima Onsen to be repaired for his pleasure at the end of the sixteenth century.

Arima’s waters, which bubble up naturally from the earth like all traditional Japanese onsen, are divided into two basic types — ginsen and kinsen, silver and gold. The baths at Tosen Goshobo, the ryokan where we stayed, are of the kinsen type, which means the water is an orangey gold color — apparently a result of ferruginous sodium chloride — and very hot. The inn, in fact, is named after these waters — “tosen” means “clay spring,” a name that is derived from the iron-rich terracotta coloring of the water. There’s also a radioactive ginsen pool or two in Arima, though none at Goshobo, and according to the Arima tourist information page, “Spring gas goes through the whole body by inhalation and improves your natural healing power.” I think I’ll stick with the kinsen pools, thanks.

Goshobo is really an incredible inn, and remarkably comfortable. It’s not cheap — our rooms, among the cheapest, ran about $250 a person (with two meals included) — but all of the rooms are comfortable with beautiful garden views, the staff is incredibly friendly and considerate, the meals are outrageously delicious, and you get to luxuriate in the immensely relaxing orange waters of the kinsen. In fact, Goshobo is so inviting that once we went inside and put on our yukata, we never felt the need to leave the premises again. Everything was provided in this small, closed, perfect world. A bit like a snow globe, except the snow that ended up falling was falling on the outside.

Here’s a shot of Tessa, Courtney, and Mart in their yukata with our room attendant, who was incredibly sweet. Room attendants (I don’t know the Japanese terminology, but the usual translation is “maid,” which I think is a terrible translation) make sure that everything goes smoothly in your room, including making up your futons and putting them away and serving your dinner and your breakfast. Everything seems to happen as if by magic, such are the awesome skills of the room attendant. They send you out for a bath, or down to the library for some drinks and relaxation, and when you return there are tables and chairs all laid out for your dinner. After dinner, you go for another bath, and when you return the tables are gone and your bedding has been prepared. In the morning, after you wake up, you go for yet another bath, and when you return the beds have disappeared and the tables have been set for breakfast. It’s this type of transformative potential that largely defines the aesthetic of the Japanese living space.

And here’s myself, Leon, and Jorge posing with the room attendant, who turned out to be Chinese, though she’s lived in Japan for nine years. This was a nice stroke of luck because Leon can speak Mandarin, and Jorge, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Macau, can read Chinese characters, and I can speak some Japanese, so we ended up having a completely communicative, but very round-robin, conversation in which Japanese, Chinese, English, and the occasional bit of writing were used. Individually, we were partial — but together, we became fully operational.

This is a shot taken at breakfast, but in fact our dinner was equally, if not more, magnificent. High class ryokan serve what is known as kaiseki-ryori, a feast in slow motion in which several courses (eight or so?) are brought out one at a time. Each course arrives, beautifully arranged on appropriate serving ware, at precisely the right time to be eaten. You end up eating for well over an hour, and I’ve heard of kaiseki meals that have lasted up to three. Tosen Goshobo, like almost all ryokan, serves seasonal local specialties, though Goshobo is special in that it has contacts with several local organic producers, so much of the food is organic. The most important aspect of Goshobo cuisine is, however, the proximity of Arima to Kobe — which means that Kobe beef is invariably served. I’ve heard much tell of Kobe beef over the years — about the massages the cows get, and the fact that they are raised on beer (all true, apparently) — and I was prepared to eat some really delicious beef and to enjoy it and to not feel any disappointment at all if it didn’t turn out to be some new, out of this world, flavor experience that I’d never had before. It turned out to be every last single thing that was advertised — certainly the best beef* I’ve ever had in my life.

Here’s Mart sitting in the library/lounge, a really lovely area for having coffee and some light sweets after dinner, or after breakfast. There always seems to be nice jazz playing in here (through a really nice vintage set of tubed McIntosh amps) and the mood is mellow and yukata relaxing. That’s snow that you can see outside of the window. In the morning, when we woke up, it was snowing lightly. There had been no sign of snow the night before, but by the time we left Goshobo there was a heavy fall.

But before I talk too much about the snow, I should talk about the bar that’s located just to the right of the library/lounge. The bar, which was too dark to get a photograph of, is simply beautiful. Done up in a kind of Japanese neo-Deco, the interior of the bar is coated in black lacquer which, in conjunction with the dim spots in the ceiling, ends up creating the impression of being inside a cozy Japanese lacquer box with the ceiling open to a night sky full of UFOs. The wine list is extensive and of course there is plenty of nihonshu and shochu as well, and lots of whiskey and scotch too. Many bars that advertise their ‘classiness’ do so as a sort of sham — they have the signs of classiness (chandeliers, bartenders in tuxedos, etc.) but if you look closely you realize that it’s all just veneer with particleboard underneath. Goshobo’s bar is just the opposite — its mellowness is precisely the sign that it doesn’t need to push its classiness because it’s already outstripped the pretenders.

And I haven’t talked enough about the bath yet either. Goshobo’s bath, like almost all onsen, is divided into a men’s and a women’s side. The pool is in a covered room that opens to the outside, and it is lined with stone. There’s also a stone wall that divides the men’s and the women’s halves, but unlike many onsen it gets continually lower toward the far end of the pool so that you can easily talk over the wall if you like. Or you can move over to a more private area if you prefer. The entrance to the kinsen is through a narrow passageway that is filled with water. As you walk down the passage, the water rises higher and higher until the passage suddenly opens up into the main bathing area. Then you can relax in the iron-orange waters, which are a little salty. I can’t remember how many times we went down to the bathing area for our twenty-minute soaks, but certainly we went as often as possible. The bath is open 24 hours, and I even toyed with setting the alarm to see what a three a.m. soak would be like. My smarter, sleepier head prevailed, however.

The snow, which had started as a pleasant sprinkling, in fact kept falling and continued piling up throughout the morning. Arima has communal umbrellas which you are allowed to take from the ryokan and leave at the train station, so after checking out in the morning we took a short walk in the snow before catching our train. We found some steps leading up to the area pictured above, which we actually thought was a small temple at first. It turned out to be a nice looking ryokan, in a very classic architectural style. So I took a photo.

Here are Tessa and Leon standing on the red bridge that crosses over the creek that runs through the town of Arima. Everywhere was covered with snow by this time, and it was slippery and slow to walk. And of course a couple of wags made small snowballs that ended up smacking the backs of a few very surprised heads.

It was lucky for us that we had ended up taking the train because by the time we left there was no other way into or out of the town. Roads were being closed off to automobile traffic and it started to look like those people who hadn’t gotten out of Arima earlier in the morning might be due for another night at the onsen resort. Not a terrible fate, if you ask me. But the traffic was tense — very slow moving, and lots of sliding around since most cars didn’t have chains (the local buses did though). On the train ride back we were able to see several multiple car pileups — those slow accidents that happen in snow — on several of the roads leading to and away from Arima. But the Kobe Dentetsu just chugged along as normal, picking up snowy passengers, and then falling below the snow line, and then down into Kobe where there was no snow at all.

*I’m excluding the amazing Frank Steak thing that Justin brought to the BBQ that one time that looked like a cross between part of a seal and a black lung but was unconscionably delicious.



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