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Mon Apr 10 2017: Travels with Yakuza in the City of Steam

From Shimabara, we head towards our rest place for the evening, located on the west side of the peninsula. To get there, we have to drive over an active volcano: Mount Unzen!


Heading towards Mount Unzen, and then onwards to Obama

Yes, there's a town named Obama. It means, "little beach" in Japanese. Although it's not named after US President Barack Obama, he is *very* popular in Japan. When he was inaugurated in 2008, there was a huge celebration here in Obama, Nagasaki.


Twisty roads up Mount Unzen

We love mountain roads, we always find enjoyable twists and turns that we can attack with our sportybikes. However, I'm a bit worried about roads around active volcanos though. Mount Unzen's last major eruption was in 1972, when landslides and tsunamis kiled 15,000 people. We tip toe on these curvy volcano roads, careful not to set off another eruption...


Heading towards the peaks ahead in the distance

As we get higher, fog obscures the way. Near the summit, 1500m above sea level, we stop to look at the clouds below us

Road is one-way around the summit of Mount Unzen

Near the top we find a resort: Unzen Hot Springs Onsen Resort

This isn't fog anymore. We are enveloped in steam emanating from the ground. Hot, smelly sulfuric gases seep up from all around us and makes us gag as we walk around the boardwalk that the resort has put up around this hellish rocky landscape. In fact, the Japanese name for this place is "Unzen Hell". Although these gases aren't poisonous, you have to hold your breath the entire time that you walk around otherwise you'll throw up from the smell. *blech*

Finally we had enough and we scramble back onto our bikes to escape Unzen Hell. Back down the volcano we ride until we reach Obama.

Looking at the map, this is the western-most point of our travels in Japan. From hereonin, we start heading back east.


This is our hotel, we have a tatami room. Yay! A pretty tea set awaits us on the short-legged table (chadubai)

This part of Kyushu island is very geologically active, and there are many onsens in the area. Pretty much every hotel and ryokan in the area has an onsen. Including ours!


Donning the yukata provided to us in preparation to take a dip in the hot pools

Neda is not allowed into the onsen.

Back when we first started our trip, she got a huge tattoo on the side of her ribcage to celebrate riding across Canada. But now we've discovered that tattoos are frowned upon in Japan because only gangsters get inked. Tattoos are linked to members of the underground criminal organization known as Yakuza. They're like the Japanese version of the Mafia. In almost every onsen, there is a sign that reads "No tattoos allowed".

There is hope for tatted-up individuals though. There are a few onsens that will allow you in if you cover up your tattoo. We've been trying to find a stick-on bandage that covers Neda's bodyart, but there is nothing that large. So everytime we go to an onsen, she takes her chances hoping nobody will catch her.

Cause she's gangsta like that. OY (Original Yakuza).


All set to head down to the onsen!

Since onsens are separated by sex, we go our separate ways. I wish Neda good luck and hope she doesn't get picked up by the police.

Most onsens in hotels are just swimming pools, fed by hot springs water piped up from the ground. However, the nicer establishments make their onsens look as natural as possible.


Oooh, so fancy! Yes, I brought a camera into a public bath house... What could possibly go wrong?

I figure if Neda will be kicked out for her tattoos, I might as well get into the gangster action as well. Thankfully, the onsen is empty when I go in, so I'm able to snap some shots.

Just like most things in Japan, there is a strict etiquette in how to onsen. The pools are not chlorinated at all, so everyone who enters has to wash and scrub their bodies vigorously before they go in so there are no stray hairs or body oils floating around in the onsen. There are many wash stations situated around the onsen, equipped with soap, shampoo, wash clothes, buckets and a little shower head.

When you enter the onsen, you're supposed to put your towel on your head so it doesn't get wet.


Performing the pre-onsen cleansing ritual. And then... aaaaaaahhhhhhh!

Onsen etiquette is a very good example of the Japanese culture of conformity.

These wash stations are always situated around the onsen in plain view of everyone in the pool. They're not hidden away. This is so everybody can scrutinize you scrubbing your body clean before you enter the onsen - a sort of policing by peer pressure: "Hey Gai-Gene.. you missed a spot!"

Everyone's behaviour in Japan is always for the benefit of society, whether it's wearing a facemask in public so you don't spread your own germs, using an umbrella condom so you don't drip water everywhere when you carry your brolly indoors, or scrubbing your butt clean so you don't pollute the onsen. Disregard for others is seen as deviant behaviour and there is huge pressure to conform to this code. And extreme shame and ostracism if you don't.

This is in stark contrast to the western way of thinking, where personal liberty is placed ahead of the common good. There, the prevailing attitude is: "Everybody's got rights - and my rights are more important than yours!"

I hate that kind of mentality.

In Japan, there's a pendulum swing to the other extreme, where there's a narrow set of behaviour that's tolerated in this society. Maybe it stifles individualism, creative thinking, experimenting with different ways of doing things. But personally, I prefer that over the rampant selfishness, callousness and disregard for others that I see in the west.

Rant over.


In this Japanese version of Turn Down Service, the maids come in and actually make the futons for you! So cool!!!

We decide to take another rest day to explore Obama. Because it's raining once again. :(

Not fog. The city is shrouded in steam on this cold spring day.

It's like the entire place is sitting upon a lid covering a cauldron of boiling water. Steam escapes through vents and short chimney stacks set right on the sidewalk. It even seems like it billows out through open windows in the buildings around us. All of it hangs heavy in the air around us, indistinguishable from fog.

It all feels so... volatile...


All the businesses here make good use of this geothermal activity. Here we walk by restaurants using it to steam cook their food.

We find a nice seafood restaurant. Kind of ironic with all this geothermally cooked food everywhere, we're opting for sushi. So goooood!!!

After lunch, we continue walking through the steamy city. More vendors, keeping their food warm by geothermal heat

We head down to the shore, to Obama Marine Park. So funny seeing Obama everywhere,
it almost seems like they are milking the relationship to the US President

I just found out that in front of Obama Onsen, there is a mannequin of Barack Obama welcoming visitors in. Totally milking it!


At Obama Marine Park, we stumble upon a long roofed structure...

It's a 105 meter long foot bath called... Hot Foot 105 - of course! There's a little stand where you can rent a bucket and a towel

The geothermally-heated water is piped in from the ground and it feels super hot when you first dip your feet in. But on this cold spring day, it takes no time at all before you get acclimatized to the heat, which then radiates up through your entire body making you feel warm and cozy all over!


Haha! What a way to spend a cold rainy day outside! We didn't want to leave!

Back in our hotel room, Neda chows down on a cup of noodle soup while reading her Kindle. This is our go-to quick-prep meal here in Japan. My personal favorite is the Big Curry Noodle Cup - I'm addicted to it! Everytime we stop for the evening, we make a pit-stop at the convenience store and pick up a couple of noodle soups for dinner. Cheap and delicious!


The theme for this blog post is "Steam", like on Neda's glasses! :)

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