Summertime! Water play! Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture is not known for its swimming beaches (are there any?) so what to do on a hot summer's day? Stir-crazy at home, and wanting to get outside without melting? With kids? How about an outdoor family-friendly aquatic center that features three large pools, and three kids’ slides, two of which have cold water flowing down them?
Yonan Pool hides amongst a maze of narrow streets, close to “Apita” shopping center and next to a forested park with swings, slide and gateball field.
This is not the kind of pool where you dip one toe in and feel that the only way to get in is painfully slowly or by jumping. The water is refreshing, clean, and warm enough that you will have no trouble getting wet. Although concrete, the pools are not rough on the feet.
Up the stairs to the left, are the two deeper pools, one of which I will call “the adult pool,” which I didn’t try, being with a preschooler. Adjacent to that, was a pool about 150 cm deep, which my son was allowed to enter with me and his inflatable swim ring. Finally, on the lower level find the third pool which is just as big as the others. but divided in half by a low fence; one side is about 30 cm deep and the other side abut 50 cm deep. A giant pink spotted mushroom in the shallowest area perpetually showers water from its top.
The Tobu train passes right by Yonan, however the only way to get there is by car, unless you live close enough to ride a bike. You could arrive by parachute if you ignored the no jumping into the pool rule. Fuji Juko and the Japan Self Defense Forces Base are close by, and their helicopters and airplanes fly overhead frequently. This makes floating on your back more interesting. Seriously, limited accessibility is a good thing: there is plenty of shaded, free parking and the pools were not crowded on the two weekday mornings I visited. Yonan is open daily July and August, from 9 till 5.
My first mistake (if you don’t count arriving last year with a swim diaper tucked under my arm) was not taking my shoes off at the entrance. The ticket counter is right there at the door, and staff were quick to inform me of my misdemeanor.
The day we showed up at 8:55 with our swimwear on, we had the staff all aflutter as they were still counting coins for the float. We were allowed to pay at precisely 9 AM: Y340 for adults, little kids are free, and school-aged kids are Y160 (no coming and going on the same day allowed). Ticket booklets offer a bit of a discount.
The building housing the change rooms, showers and ticket office is an old one-story ramshackle affair flanked by vending machines (ice-cream!), fitted with rubber matting and consisting of a maze of narrow halls and low doorways. Curtains billow in the breeze around change room doors and shroud change stalls. Shoes must be stuffed into your locker along with your underwear and clothes (very un-Japanese don’t you think?). Lockers takes a refundable Y100 coin.
The ladies' change area has not one but two huge locker rooms, connected by a doorway festooned with plastic hula flowers. The shower area is down a narrow hall at the exit to the pool. Toilets are the squat type.There is also an outside W.C. for emergencies. Not unlike any other pool, one must use the open showers first (yes, there is hot water), before taking a dip. Shower afterwards too if you'd like, but since the doors between the showers and the pool are always left open, keep your bathing suit on. Nobody seems to use soap or shampoo. Take note too that the pool lacks any convenient place to rinse and squeeze out wet swimwear besides the sink in the toilet area.
If you like, bring towels, sunglasses, books, bags, and drinks carefully through the shower area to the poolside. You can set your belongings on a shaded bench, lounge chair or table. If you have tender tootsies, clean, waterproof swim shoes or flip flops are permitted in the outside pool area.
Photography, I soon found out, is forbidden. Cameras and and cell phones with cameras are best left in the car, or with your wallet and car keys in a locker. One locker can easily accommodate a change of clothes, towels and footwear for two or three people.
The no-photography rule may be about lecherous men taking photos of kids in swimsuits, or just the privacy issue – nobody wants a camera near a changing room, or a revealing swimsuit, god forbid. I got away with just a few photos of the pool after some pleading because I arrived early; there was nobody around!
Swim diapers, as I found out last summer, are no longer permitted in Utsunomiya public pools; I am not sure what the baby bed is doing in the ladies change room. Before this rule came into effect, we found Yonan perfect for our diaper-clad one year old son.
Water guns are also not permitted, nor was the empty detergent bottle that we squirted water from for the first hour with life guards circling us like sharks. Finally a younger guard got up the courage to inform me of this rule. Sun hats and flotation devices are fine. Sunscreen use is discouraged but long sleeved swimwear is permitted. Some kids wore swim caps, by habit probably.
For the cost, this pool is definitely worth it but the no diapers rule is a bummer for those with babies. This facility would be so much better if it were open earlier in the mornings, and into the evenings, when harsh UV rays could be avoided. If that is important to you, you can wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, long sleeved swim jacket, bike shorts and arrive at 8:55 ready to go, like I do. See you there!