By Deborah Howell

Next up–Yuki and Hiroki sped us down the mountain to hop a small boat to our next hotel high atop a hill. The Hotel Urashima is quite famous for Japanese tourists in search of the sulfuric hot baths and the remarkably fresh tuna.

PHOTOS: Hotel Urashima, Hot Baths and Fresh-Cut Tuna

We got to the hotel just in time to change into our kimonos and sandals and head to the dining room for a special show by a sushi master filleting a small whole tuna. The young kids gathered around with wide eyes as the master did his work, carving and showcasing each section of the tuna and explaining what it was called–from the rich tuna belly to the exquisite meat found by digging right next to the bones of the spine. Fascinating! And of course we all got to taste the very best part of the tuna, just as it came off the knife.

We thought that this experience couldn’t be topped, but we were wrong. It was only the pre-game show. After dinner we went straight to the innermost part of the hotel, which was actually an enormous cave. Not sure if it was naturally there or if it was carved out by man, but in any case, inside it were many wonders to behold.

The men went to the left and the women to the right. We put our sandals and kimonos in a locker and then just as God made us, we went to the washing stations and got ourselves good and clean before stepping into one of several large hot sulfur pools. Almost instantly your muscles begin to relax and so do you. You could care less that you are totally nude around strangers because inside this cave it feels totally natural. After about 10 minutes Hiroko led me to the second pool. And this is the moment of this trip I will forever remember as the most magical.

For as we walked into this warm pool, I realized with surprise and glee that we were at the very mouth of the cave, outside of it in fact, gazing at the roiling sea splashing up against the volcanic rocks just yards below us. We were looking at stars above, gigantic cliffs to our right, and crashing surf beneath our feet. Simply astounding. I literally gasped in awe and shook my head in wonder. I looked around at my fellow female bathers, many with small towels on their heads (protocol is no leaving a towel anywhere near the baths) so beautiful in this setting of pure peace and calm contentment. I felt the sea breeze wash over my body and reveled in the gentle voices of women and children enjoying this all-natural cleansing. I suddenly felt I knew the meaning of the word perfection, for saved place was pulsing with it When I return home to LA and take a bath, I’ll think of my Japanese sisters across the Pacific and smile knowing their bath ritual goes on in its magical way at the lip of an ancient mountain cave. I’ll remember their lovely murmurings and the way they took great care to respect the surroundings and each other. And I’ll be glad to have spent these precious moments with them, without clothing and without judgement, under the ancient Asian stars.

That night Tatum mats were laid out in our rooms and sleeping so close to the floor made me feel even more grounded. The sulphur is famous as an agent for detoxification and to help soften the skin, and I slept like a baby.

I awoke at 5:22 and couldn’t wait to throw on my kimono and slippers and get back to the cave baths. I chose a different bath this time and watched the sun rise through scattered clouds over the green pyramids of distant islands as I took the healing waters. There’s just no way to describe this experience with mere words.

I never wanted to leave.

After breakfast we hit the road and continued west, going further back in time as we drove. We thought there was nothing that could possibly make us happier than the Hotel Urashima, and again we were wrong, for Yuki and Hiroko had another surprise that bowled us over. We hopped out of the car and slipped into life jackets given to us by a couple in their 70’s.

She sold us out tickets (just 12 dollars) and he guided us to a small freshly painted power boat. Our tour of the Kumano River in the remote Doro Gorge area was about to commence!

It was another pinch me am I really doing this moment in time, gliding along a crystal clear river snaking through towering stone cathedrals on both sides of us, blue herons and hawks arcing through the sky. At every curve I expected Brad Pitt to appear fly fishing from shore or perhaps a baby T-Rex would peek its massive head from behind a tree– the scene was so cinematic.

Nara. One of the original capitals of Japan, before Kyoto. There are no hotels in town but the government built a guest house for diplomats up on a hill on the outskirts. The Nara Hotel is a bit legendary, with A-list celebrities that do is like classic handsome temple.

See more of my adventures through Japan here.


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