Japan trip 2019 report (Part 4)

By | April 11, 2019

(This is part of a series about my recent trip to Japan. See this page for other articles in it.)

Furitakiya Onsen Hotel

We stayed for several days in the Furutakiya Onsen Hotel (古滝屋) that resides in Iwaki city (岩城) in Fukushima prefecture (福島県). This is a historically significant place that has been around since 1695––yes, that is over 300 years––managed by the same family over 16 generations.

The room we stayed in was a traditional tatami room, with a large living/sleeping area (much bigger than any modern hotel I have stayed in Japan) and smaller bath/shower and toilet rooms. There were no beds, instead futons (布団) were brought out at night and then put away in a closet during the day. The room also had one or two pieces of art and a handful of books, many of them about onsens.

Like a majority of onsens (温泉), there is a separate bathing area for women and men, alternating twice a day. One of the areas featured two levels, with an outdoor bath (露天風呂, rotenburo) on the upper level. The onsens were very relaxing and a major plus to staying there, but to be honest they didn’t contain the diversity of the Narita View hotel (see this page for my review) that we have stayed in on several occasions. For example, there was no scented bath, no “bean” bath, or no cold-water bath. Having said that, if you’ve never been to an onsen before I’m sure you’ll enjoy what the Furutakiya has to offer.

There was a free breakfast included, but it was simple fare with mostly just bread of three types, bananas, eggs, and a few basic drinks (orange juice, coffee, water, milk). It was sufficient but nothing compared to the continental breakfasts that many other hotels have––though those are generally an extra fee. The hotel had some other nice amenities like a laundry room, ping pong table, a playroom for kids with a variety of books, and a mini gift shop in the lobby.

The location of this hotel was quite good, with a convenience store, a hot-water foot bath, and a shrine (温泉神社, onsen jinja) in very short walking distance. The shrine was very unique in that it had little spring water pools in a few places, and a large stone sculpture at the entrance. Unlike the water in the hotel’s onsen, there was a strong stink of sulfur in both the temple and the foot bath. There were also a few restaurants in close walking distance.

While none of the individual aspects on their own were that spectacular, as a whole the Furutakiya Onsen Hotel was a worthwhile experience, especially if you like traditional Japanese culture. By the way, traditional lodging like this is usually referred to as a yado (宿), not a hotel.

Temples and Shrines

Japan has a great number of temples (お寺, otera) and shrines (神社, jinja) scattered around the country. It is said there is roughly 80,000 of each! (Reference). By the way, temples and shrines are counted using 社 (sha) in Japanese.

The temples are associated with Buddhism (仏教) and the shrines with Shintoism (神道), the two most common religions in Japan. For those new to Japan’s culture it can be easy to mix up these two types of structures, but there is a pretty easy way to tell which is which. If you see a torii gate (鳥居), then it’s a shrine; if there are statues of Buddha (仏像) or grave(s) (お墓), it’s likely to be a temple.

During my first trips to Japan, I visited some of the more famous ones, like Toushouguu (東照宮), but now I find myself enjoying even the smaller, minor ones. I don’t consider myself to be a Buddhist or Shintoist, but I still feel there is something special in these spaces that are often peaceful and quiet in contrast to the hectic city life (of course the more popular shrines and temples can be quite crowded, too).

On this most recent trip alone, I think I visited at least ten shrines and temples. Some visits were planned (like those part of the Hato Bus tour), but some were just chance encounters while exploring. Some are very tiny––smaller than a house––and can be found shoved in between normal city buildings, or even in the middle of a shopping arcade (I talk about one such shrine here). I feel something like a sense of adventure or discovery every time I visit a new one, like when I came across a mysterious-looking one during a late night walk in Haneda on this last trip.

If you do happen to visit Japan you’ll likely come across at least one temple or shrine during your trip; I encourage you to explore these wonderful locations that Japan has to offer. For those interested in photography, they generally are very photogenic places. My picture of the Haneda Temple at night is one of my favorite photos from this trip.

Aikido

I’ve been training in Aikido for over a year now and one of my goals was to train in a dojo in Japan. It took some coordination, but I managed to achieve it on this trip. You can see the full report here.

Closing Thoughts

I omitted a lot of stuff we did, but a majority that is just more of the same: playgrounds, restaurants, shopping malls, game centers, and a robot store (we didn’t get to see Aibo on this trip, but did come across Pepper once). I also stopped by an Ikea store in Japan, though it wasn’t that different from the ones I’ve seen in the U.S. (with minor differences like Sakura ornaments)

I can still vaguely remember how my first trip to Japan was like going to a new world; perhaps the biggest shock was when I came back home––there was a strange transition period when my brain had to used to what life in the U.S. was like (and I had only been in Japan around 10 days). During my first time in Japan, I remember nearly panicking when someone said something to me I wasn’t expecting, like the time I tried to go to the bathroom but ended up heading the wrong direction. There was also a strong feeling like I was someone who was not from this world and stood out like a sore thumb.

While I surely still stand out in many places in Japan and will never lose the label of “foreigner” no matter how fluent I become in Japanese, in my trip to Japan this year I felt a little more at peace with my place in the land of the rising sun. Despite lacking some of the language skills a native speaker would have, I could speak enough to get by while traveling. If I ever do decide to take the plunge and actually move to Japan (no plans at present, but maybe someday), I have enough confidence in my Japanese to know it won’t be that bad of a transition.

I also feel that the accumulation of experience from this trip (and prior ones) will help inform my understanding of Japanese culture and language in various media like books, newspapers, even anime. Even fiction is based, at least in part, on real life, and without enough real-world experience it’s hard to understand things like cultural references. This enhanced understanding will not just give me a more accurate picture of things, but will allow me to make more accurate translations to English.

But this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop studying and using Japanese in my daily life in the U.S. I’m going to keep up my Japanese activities as usual, so that next time I head to Japan I’ll be even more prepared for whatever happens. Where will that be? I have some ideas but nothing firm yet.

Thanks for reading this series of articles, I hope you enjoyed them!

If you want to read more of my Japan travel reports, you can see my 2018 report here.

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