Our toes cling to the ragged rocks so comfortably to stare over the edge into ebbing waters below, lives lived near the sea don’t forget this too easily. The ocean slops and slaps against the rocks in such familiar fashion but it’s not our Pacific Ocean, it’s the sea of Japan, a world away but all the same, the same water all over the world but this part of it is particularly clear. All water in Japan seems to be clear. Mika from our Ryokan casually tells us that the sharp detail we can see below the water is ten metres down; maybe it’s not just the same water all over the world.
The water might be clearer than we’re used to but the aggressive coastline that rises up from the waters is a Goldi-Locks setting for Aussie minds: just right. Rugged headlands jut and jag wild and steep from the ocean that belongs on a beer commercial for its purity, wrapping around small inlets that harbour tiny clustered fishing villages from the oceans rage. It’s a calm day today as we skip around rocks and into ocean caves but lines of concrete break-walls tell those of us familiar with the ocean that this tranquility isn’t always the case. At times this purest ocean rises up too battle the wild coastline and discard this scene of passive serenity into the churning foam of Neptune’s fury. The water might be clearer but in the end it’s all one planet, one water that surrounds us all on our islands of land that now seem so fractured and distant.The ocean always calls us back home to some degree, but the flight of fancy cannot remain; we’re back in Kinosaki for more onsen time. We’re robed up in our Kimono and clopping the streets in our timber sandals in vastly more comfort than yesterday. The process of an onsen is still a levelling one with vanity left at the locker for a very personal re-introduction with the life sustaining water that Japan seems to hold in high esteem, correct esteem, more than any other country we’ve been to. Water, obviously the most vital and abundant element on this planet, so abundantly disregarded by so many and vitally abundant for too few that merit it’s obvious importance. Japan remains one of the most densely populated nations on earth and where less populated countries drink from cesspits and blur the lines between waste deposits and waterways, there’s a more accurate set of priorities here in Japan. Open stormwater drains are stone lined and teeming with healthy fish like garden features, oceans glisten a white sand turned glowing green and wells in major cities still draw pure life sustaining water.
Into the onsen it’s bath time, surrounded by water we take our small stools to wash; we need to be clean before entering the treasured water, not enter the water to become clean. Imagine water as a valued commodity befitting its importance, not another on the list of resources to be used or consumed. From Australia, the most arid continent on earth, this abundance of such a precious resource feels decadent, guilty. Pure drinkable water runs a permanent slick over the vast tiled floor while showers and taps that have never seen a water-saver device pour out the liquid gold to fill small buckets in seconds. From a life of short showers and waiting till dusk to water a garden lest it evaporate, this world of water feels like a bourgeois excess like a vice, a drug.In this world of clean, this world of pure, we are again draping over rocks wild and untamed with the hot mineral rich water sweeping away our ails. As usual we’re joined by a group of young guys, maybe early twenties, all naked and jumping in the springs with the casual sociality that Australia’s equivalent demographic might enjoy a beer at the pub. This slice of Japanese culture so effortlessly sweeps aside the vanity, the self deprecation, the misplaced introversion that so readily afflicts youth culture that we know of. In this light it’s so hard to visualise the contradiction of Japans sad youth mental health state. Suicide rates are immense while social disorders are commonplace, Japanese youth are sometimes known to lock themselves indoors or eat lunch in a toilet in place of the terror of simple social interaction. So commonplace is this sad tale that there’s even a social designation, Hikikomori they’re called. Modern Japan is so close to perfect in so many ways but that perfection does come with a price tag, maybe we’re seeing an old time remedy struggling against the innumerable ills of modern demand that no amount of water can quite wipe clean.
Here now, draped over rocks like advertising mer-men characters we take it as a sign of our comfortability that first a group of older men engage us in conversation before the group of young guys fish out a few exchanged sentences. In just two days the waters of Kinosaki have washed clean a lifetime of accumulated consciousness and shame, here we are naked in the night sky charading an attempted cross language conversation laughing with these young guys who punch the air to imitate the first Aussie they can think of, footballer Tim Cahill. We could be in a pub, on a guided tour or a hostel common area in this jovial conversation; but no, we’re stark naked in water too clean to hide what now so obviously doesn’t require discretion.The air still carries a comfortable almost-cool feel with the night time streets gently aglow from the warm tones of stone lanterns. It should feel like an entire town in fancy dress but bizarrely this dress so outlandish for us seems only appropriate as we deviate by a sushi restaurant for dinner and a beer. The ungainly gait of our timber sandals is gone, there’s possibly an emerging rhythm to our slower than usual amble as a secret is shared on a discrete bow given and returned by others also in kimono. The canal that trickles beside us would be choked with rubbish, cloudy water or worse in other countries but here the bright carp swim among mossy stones and healthy plants. We’ve all heard the expression ‘black gold’, now it just seems so wrong, like it’s always been wrong. The most precious thing we have is clear, not black, more precious than gold, oil, diamonds; we can’t wash in oil, drink gold or feed our crops with diamonds. Who needs to parallel it to gold, diamonds or otherwise to give it a sense of value, the most precious thing we have is all around us and it’s neither black nor gold but like a diamond, in the right light it definitely does sparkle.