Steam, mist and dragons: Yunomine Onsen

Yunomine Onsen is a tiny village buried deep in the green forest-covered, dragon-dwelling mountains of Wakayama prefecture. While most foreign visitors come up this high for a hike; most Japanese just come here for a bath and to boil a few eggs. The sulphurous hot spring water is a World Heritage site,  surely the only world heritage site where you can legitimately take all your clothes off.

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The baths here are legendary. An 18th century man, Oguri Hangan from Gifu travelled for 440 days just to have a bath here, a remarkable achievement considering he spent the entire journey dead. He was pulled along in a handcart by pious pilgrims hoping for karmic reward. 3 weeks in the bath was enough to bring him back to life. Most people only need 3 minutes.

On a map, Yunomine in the middle of Wakayama is no more than a fingernail from the metropolis of Osaka, but it feels like the middle of nowhere. In his book, The Old Ways, the author, Robert Macfarlane considers the interior of islands as the fringe while towns on the coast are the centres with links to the outside world. This certainly made sense up in Yunomine which felt like a dead end, backed up against steep rocky slopes that rise up alarmingly. The only way out is a ride on a dragon – one of the seaside-bound public buses, shrouded in myth, rumoured to randomly roam the valleys.

Hiding from the torrential rain this morning, I sat down on an aluminium bench outside the Medicine Bath.  In the sulphurous waters running nearby, tourists were boiling eggs. Steam from this stream merged into the mist hanging over the valley. I felt invisible and consumed by the mist. Opposite me, a bathing attendant, a grey-haired elfish man, was sitting in a booth looking at a security came. Suddenly he appeared in front of me: “Where are you from?”

“Ingurando,” I told him, before he ran away. For a moment I was not invisible, a torch had been shined into my face. Then two other customers attracted his attention, hikers, both younger than me, and with far more makeup on.

The elf started telling them huge porkies about the epic journeys people had made just to come to this bath. Listening to his banter was very therapeutic, like sitting by a warm fire and being tickled by nonsense. I felt reenergised and relaxed, and ready for another journey. Just in time too, a dragon had just pulled up.

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