Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Music, Singing and Kusatsu Onsen

My car, as if by magic, started to sing while approaching the hot spring town. The entire car was eerily humming the melody of Kusatsu-bushi, the theme song of Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture. The melody suddenly appeared as if an invisible person had  just turned on the radio, but no one had done that. The melody was not coming from speakers outside either. I was at a loss until we passed a street sign that explained we were driving on a “melody road.” 
Yumomi (湯もみ) Cooling the Hotel Bath
Melody roads are the creation of ingenious Japanese engineering. When a vehicle passes over an uneven road surface, it causes the vehicle to vibrate slightly. By applying cuts into pavement and spacing these at precise distances from each other, engineers can control the vibration and the sounds that are created when tires move over the tiny perpendicular “ditches.” 
The Slits in the Road Produce Music
The melody road at the entrance of Kusatsu Onsen has been designed to make cars hum the folk song that was traditionally sung by locals as they performed yumomi. To view a short video and listen to the melody as sung by a car, click here; however, the recording does not really do justice to the experience of hearing the melody road in your own car.
Start of Kusatsu Melody Road
Yumomi is the stirring of water in hot spring baths with wooden paddles, which are as large as the average person. Yumomi is a custom that developed in Kusatsu because the spring water is too hot to enter until it is cooled. The people of Kusatsu are very proud of the mineral consistency of the hot spring water and do not want to add cold water because that would dilute the water and lessen its efficacy in treating skin and other ailments. In large communal baths, a leader would begin singing. Others who are standing around the bath stir the waters with their huge paddles and also sing. The paddles mix cool air into the water. When the leader decides that the water has reached a comfortable temperature, everyone bathes together.

Mixing the Onsen Water A Unique Tradition
Yumomi is still a living tradition, one which you should experience if you are interested in learning about Japanese onsen culture. Netsunoyu Bath House is the best place to visit for a live performance and explanation of this special ritual
Visitors can both watch local ladies performing yumomi before having an opportunity to try it themselves.  Admission is just 500 yen. My wife and I later enjoyed adjusting the water temperature in our hotel bath with a traditional stirring paddle that was placed on the side of the bath. Numerous baths in Kusatsu Onsen are equipped with large stirring paddles. Stirring the water while looking forward to a great bath is fun!

Visitors and Yumomi
Even by Japanese standards, Kusatsu Onsen water is hot. Perhaps, the best hot spring in Japan for experiencing various temperatures and developing a tolerance to almost scalding hot spring water is Ootakinoyu (大滝の湯), which is a gorgeously designed onsen with a wide range of baths and bath temperatures. As you enter the main bathroom, you will see a high wooden vaulted ceiling, a sauna, a large indoor bath with utaseyu. The wood provides a rustic ambience. Outside of the indoor bath is a small courtyard with different outdoor baths. A descending walkway in a channel of hot water leads one into the heart of this distinctive onsen building for an encounter with awaseyu.
The Outside Bath

Walk Down This Channel to Awaseyu
I entered a dark room that was too steamy for photographing baths. It is here that awaseyu (合わせ湯) another traditional bathing practice is still carried on. A small map on a wall shows the layout of the baths. As I was staring at the map, a kindly older man stood next to me and explained the arrangement of the baths and the bathing process. My friendly guide explained that one should spend just one minute in each bath, starting with the lowest temperature and ending at the highest. The lowest water temperature was 42°C. The hottest is an almost scalding 46°C. Some people stop when they discover the temperature that best matches their mental and physical condition.

The elderly Japanese man and I proceeded through the baths together while engaged in an animated conversation about hot springs throughout Japan. He also told me growing up in Kusatsu and how the city has changed since his youth. Our conversation was enlightening. I find that many of the people I meet in Japanese hot springs teach me aspects of Japan that I would not have learned otherwise. Besides being good for the body and soul, exploring hot springs throughout Japan is educational. To learn about one of the best outdoor hot springs in Japan, which is also in Kusatsu, follow the link to the previous post.