I love a good bus journey. Throw in some snowy mountainscapes, bouncing black streams, inky leafless trees, a captivating podcast, and the fact that the bus journey is in Japan and life is good.
The journey to Niseko took a good three hours, starting in the urban sprawl of Sapporo before heading out of town, the clusters of houses waning and nature taking over. I can see why Japan is the birthplace of the haiku. It’s gorgeous.
I arrived in Niseko at 11:30, a full hour earlier than expected, but to no complaints. Niseko is more of a ski town than Sapporo, with little villages nestled at the base of the mountain resorts. It reminded me of Mount Snow or Vail.
My hotel was located a good 20 minutes outside of town. They sent a shuttle to retrieve me from the bus drop-off and I was quickly whisked down the hall into a pretty expansive room whose floors were lined with tatami mats. The hotel encouraged a shoeless lifestyle, which I eagerly embraced. (Who doesn’t love padding around in socks?)
It was noon, and again, I found myself blindsided with the amount of time I had. The hotel offered a shuttle to the mountain at 1:30pm, but the last shuttle back was at 4pm. I’d be paying for 5 hours of skiing and getting a little more than 2. Normally, I would’ve hastened into my gear, but then I remembered: I had all week.
Instead, I opted to try the hotel’s onsen. An onsen is a Japanese bath in hot springs. The sulphuric hot water bathing experience reminded me of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, so I was keen to give it a go.
There was one difference: you have to be naked in an onsen.
When in Japan though, right?
The hotel receptionist explained that there was an outfit I should wear to the onsen, which could be found in my closet. She gestured to a short green tunic and a corresponding bright red sash. When I was ready, I should report to reception and she’d lead me to the onsen.
In retrospect, I’m not sure why I had to report to the front desk in order to get to a place that was closer to my room, but I didn’t question it.
Instead, I slipped into the Peter Pan tunic and balked at my reflection. Surely this was a mistake. The tunic was extremely short, for one, with gaps under the arms that were more than a little revealing. In the front, two cords appeared ready to tie the thing shut, except they didn’t. The little robe did not close entirely.
I reached for the red sash and tied it around my waist. This helped a little, but not completely. If anything, I looked more like a sassy Tinkerbell now. A Google search of “onsen outfit” yields some pretty bizarre and provocative results which were not at all helpful.
I decided that I must be overthinking things. This was Japan, and this must be some kind of Japanese custom. Despite feeling risqué and exposed, I marched out of my hotel room and headed toward reception.
As I passed hotel guests in the hall, I could hear them gasping or, in some cases, giggling. Normally, this would be disconcerting, but in situations like these I always feel like I have two options: embrace it with the confidence of a runway model or be awkwardly self-conscious. I went with Option 1.
I clung to this confidence even as the receptionist darted out to lead me to the onsen, her fellow receptionists laughing heartily as I walked past. She paraded me past the hotel restaurant where demure guests were modestly sipping tea and gawking.
On the upside, the onsen experience quickly shifted from a nervous endeavor to one of relief. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the other robe in my closet, a floor-length thing you’re meant to wear under the Peter Pan tunic. Oops.
Later, nursing a cup of tea over Peace Like a River and a pristine and glittering view of a slow sunset over the mountains, I watched dozens of Japanese guests shuffling to and from the onsen, all looking cozy in their floor-length gowns.
At the very least, I felt thoroughly relaxed, time passing slowly, immersed in the pages of a novel I’d started months ago and never had time to finish. Zach would be messaging me about meeting for dinner soon, and in the meantime I had hours – languid, glorious hours! – to do whatever I wanted.
I ended up chatting with a Japanese woman who sat near me sipping a Sapporo. A hotel manager who had lived in both Seattle and New Orleans, she was quick to converse and cheerfully taught me a slew of random Japanese phrases and words, most of which I happily used that evening at dinner.
There is something idyllic and wonderful about getting lost in the hours and minutes of a lull, this perfect afternoon in between my hectic morning bus journey and the excitement of meeting up with friends for dinner and drinks.
I wonder if there’s a word for that.