In his final column in print, Jimmy Viola reflects on his semester during a retreat to a hot springs spa in Hakone, Japan.
“So, what are we supposed to do now?” my friend, another Temple Japan student from Philadelphia, said.
“Pretend you’re on ecstasy,” I replied.
We discarded our nervousness with our undergarments. A steam cloud rushed out and enveloped us as I slid open the door to the hot springs bath, a stretch limousine of a Jacuzzi warmed by the geothermic heat.
After lathering up for a pre-rinse, I slumped into the hot springs pool, and the mineral-rich waters melted any remains of tension over approaching final examinations and my imminent departure from Japan.
As the outdoor hot spring bath began to affect my body the same way boiling water does instant ramen, I stepped out to absorb the rustic ambience of the pink-and-orange velvet sky fading into dusk, until I shivered again.
I had retreated with hundreds of locals for a Japanese-style Onsen – or hot springs – therapy at Hakone, a resort city sprawled over the mountains with a view of Fuji and the autumn leaves, bursting colors like fireworks. Indulging in the hot springs was the silk ribbon tied around the curiously wrapped gift box containing my adventures in Hakone that day.
Upon arriving at the train station and wading through pools of Japanese people who seemed even more confused than the two Americans who could only understand enough Japanese to order food and apologize, we wandered into a bamboo forest on a steep mountain trail.
Bamboo pillars the size of buildings hung above, forming a ceiling over the trail and casting a green shadow over the floor’s unstable mulch of wood splinters – as if the bamboo had suddenly shot up beneath a forest of pine trees and gingkoes, reducing them to smithereens.
Buckwheat soba noodles served in brown meat sauce with shitake mushrooms and creamy tofu skin, followed by hand-churned vanilla ice cream sweetened with local honey sustained me for the day.
But as calming to the nerves as Hakone was, my limp body swayed to the concussive force of amplified bass later that night at a music festival in Chiba City. I am racing like a bullet train on a collision course with the end of my semester in Japan, so passing on memorable outings is no longer an option, no matter the toll on my sleep schedule.
The last few weeks have been a marathon of cramming for Japanese finals and printing out final essays 15 minutes before class on two hours of sleep. But I’ve hurried to my favorite haunts – having a final round of drinks at the shoebox-sized Golden Gai bars; paying the monk at Ueno park to write Beatles lyrics in Chinese calligraphy for my friends; shopping for wood-carved demon masks in Asakusa; crashing at the love hotels in Ueno just to catch an early train to Nikko the next day for hiking and hot springs; and grabbing fresh sushi at 5 a.m. at Tsukiji fish market.
When I board my plane back to the U.S. at Narita airport next week, the only parts of me I want to leave behind are my footprints.
Jimmy Viola can be reached at email@example.com.