Yukiko is my first friend. We've known each other since preschool. Her family, the Hondas are like family to me. Part of my decision to come to Japan was also based on the fact that I have a 2nd family in Tokyo.
We were invited by the Honda's to go to Atami Onsen (hot springs) for New Year's - Oshogatsu. New Year's is a big holiday and lasts for 3 days. Atami is a resort town on the ocean with many hotels and onsens. One of the teachers at school told me that before people started traveling abroad that Atami use to be a very popular honeymoon destination. Atami Onsen is 3-4 hours north of Himeji and maybe 1-1/2 hours south of Tokyo (by bullet train).
From Osaka, we took a bullet train or shinkansen to Atami. The bullet train is fantastic it feels like an airplane but better! It moves really fast, there's tons of leg room and plenty of space to walk around. There are train stewardesses that sell food/drink from a cart. The speed is amazing - we sped by snow covered small towns, tea fields, big cities, the ocean, Mt. Fuji and more. It goes approximately 250-300 miles per hour! As Julian said, “the future is here now.”
When we arrived in Atami, the Hondas were waiting for us by the exit, Yukiko, her mom, dad and grandmother. Outside of the station, there was a foot onsen for people to hang out and soak their feet.
We took two cabs to a beautiful hotel that sits on the ocean. The Hondas reserved two rooms and they both faced the ocean. They were so beautiful! The rooms had tatami mats (a traditional straw mat that's used for flooring) with a large low to the ground table and chairs on the floor. Our room had a bedroom with twin beds and we had a private bathroom with bath/shower and a window facing the ocean. Many hotels with public baths offer rooms without bathtubs/showers. The Hondas were extremely kind in getting us a room with a tub and regular beds, there had been some concern that our guests might not feel comfortable at the public bath or on a futon. Gwynne and Shay slept in the bedroom and Julian, me and Yukiko slept in the tatami room on futons. Luckily, Gwynne and Shay were fine with the public baths! It's an experience not to be missed.
View from our Hotel Room
As soon as we arrived, our hotel assigned us a host who oversaw our every need. We were served green tea and some okashi (sweets) while she told us about the hotel and onsens, checked out our body sizes to fit us for the correct yukatas (Japanese summer cotton kimono) and arranged our dinner and breakfast times. Shay's luggage did not arrive with him and was expected to arrive at Atami sometime during our stay, so we were thrilled when we realized we would all be wearing yukatas most of the weekend and there was no need for clothes. We sat in the tatami room catching up with Yukiko and Honda-san and just stared out at the ocean. The setting was just so gorgeous and unbelievable. I was finally at the ocean! In the four months that I've lived here I've seen the ocean from bus, train and airplane but I hadn't actually been to the ocean yet. I live on an island and I hadn't been to the ocean! It felt so right.
Our host informed us that dinner would be served at 6pm, so we decided to go relax in an onsen before dinner. We all changed into our yukatas. There are onsens all over the hotel. There were communal onsens separated for men and women on the roof and on the first floor and private onsens on the top floor and behind the hotel near the source of the hot springs. All the men, Julian, Shay and Honda-san and all the women, me, Gwynne, Yukiko, Honda-san and her grandmother (obaachan) went to the top floor onsens. By the way, I call both Mr. and Mrs. Honda by the same name, Honda-san. In Japan, when you address somebody you always use their last name and add san to the end of it unless it's a child then a girl you add -chan to the end of their first name or a boy -kun at the end of their first name.
The top floor onsen was on the roof facing the ocean. Next to the hot bath, there was a glass window/pane that was maybe 6 feet tall that looked out onto the ocean and a small roof with a skylight over the onsen. We were essentially outside and facing the sea. We were the only people at the onsen. It was so amazing soaking with Gwynne, Honda-san, Yukiko and grandma. After our long trip to be able to just relax in the hot springs and talk casually about life in Japan was fantastic. At some point, grandma started to sing. She was so happy that we were all together that she started singing an old Japanese song about rainbows. I met grandma when I was five years old and had not seen her since I had lived in Japan. She's 85 years old and wears a kimono everyday. She's so sweet and wonderful. Throughout the trip, she would talk to each of us in Japanese checking on us and to tell us how happy she was to be in Atami with us.
After the onsen, we got ready for dinner. Normally, dinner is served in the tatami room of your hotel room, but since we had two rooms and we were a party of eight, we ate breakfast and dinner down the hall from our rooms in another beautiful tatami room. When we walked in there were 8 small tables low to the ground with chairs and arm rests 4 on one side and 4 on the other side facing each other. The Hondas sat on one side while we sat on the other side. Yukiko was amazing because she translated everything all weekend. Her English is great - she studied language and was a translator for many years. It takes quite a bit of effort, energy and skill to translate for 7 people, so we all really appreciated her help with everything and her patient way of talking to all of us and making arrangements.
The food and the setting that was on the table was unbelievable. When we arrived there was already a lot of food on the table. Japanese food tends be served in small portions but there usually is a great variety of foods. My understanding is that special foods are served for New Years. The food was carefully prepared and the attention to detail was amazing. Every leaf or flower garnishing the food stood for good luck or happieness in the new year. Many of the foods also had some sort of meaning. Some of the memorable items were 2 pine leafs that were still connected together and fell from the tree together meant a life-long bond of friendship/love, a fern leaf served as a reminder not to be two-faced because one side of a fern leaf is semi-white and the other is green. There were so many items, I wish I could’ve recorded all of Yukiko’s explainations. It really was an amazing experience. We were surprised as more food kept coming out – 9 courses later we were completely stuffed and some.
Our own little dining table
Menu - Listing all the food to be served for the evening
And more beautiful food is served...
Saki with Pine Leaves
The Hondas presented a wedding envelope as a gift for my recent marriage to Julian. The envelope was beautiful and the gift was beyond generous! It’s very traditional to give money as a gift. There are entire shops dedicated to selling beautiful gift envelopes.
The hotel arranged for a game of bingo complete with prizes. We all went to a big room in the hotel and sat on chairs in our yukatas. The first night a bunch of us foreigners won!! We were all hoping for first prize, a free stay at the hotel, but that didn’t work out. The announcer kept saying there were many international winners. We won cookies, a Hello Kitty suitcase (thank you Shay), toys, etc.
After bingo, we were tired, so we stayed up and talked until we couldn’t talk anymore and we all fell asleep only to dream about fish, leaves, flowers, luck, happiness and good fortune…..