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Bathing in Japan – Hotsprings
One of my favourite aspects of Japanese life is how seriously they take bathing in Japan. To Westerners it is simply a means to an end – if it were possible to get clean quickly without bathing or showering I bet more than 50% of all Britons would give up showers and baths altogether to save time. But to the Japanese it is more like a recreation, hobby or even religious tradition. They socialise, there is etiquette that must be observed, and can sometimes even involve drinking alcohol – sake or beer – while relaxing and unwinding both body and mind, and is usually followed by a chill out session in a relaxation area afterwards. Wherever you are in Japan, you can be certain you are never far from a public bath (or temple!). Even if you are in a big city, there will be SenTou (indoor OnSen) nearby , and I consider myself fortunate to have visited quite a few in Minakami, Sakurajima, Hakone, Kyoto and various other random places.
What is an OnSen?
OnSen (æ¸©æ³‰) literally refers to naturally occurring hot springs, heated by the volcanic activity under the Earth. The water is rich with the minerals of life from mother Earth, tastes strangely sweet, salty and like calcium, and some people even sell the bottled Onsen water as a health tonic for curing many ills and extending your natural life (it probably works!)
Traditionally, one sits to clean with a running water source – usually a shower or waterfall around the edge of the bath using soap and shampoo.Only once you are completely clean and soap-free are you supposed to enter the bath.
Oh – did I mention you are expected to bathe nude? The sheer volume of Westerners I’ve met who had a problem with this was astounding! But this may be because they are not thinking Japanese. I once read handwriting scrawled in the baths at SeiKanSou Ryoukan (guesthouse) in Nara which read: “When in Rome…“. I suppose this about sums up my feelings. Generally most will be divided into a section for men and a section for women, but in some Konyoku (æ··æµ´) or mixed baths both males and females will bathe together, but these tend to be in the more remote areas.
In one or two they might insist on a Yukata (æµ´è¡£) – an evening robe that one might wear, but this is rarely through shame of nudity. I once visited Furosato Onsen (é¢¨å‘‚ã•ã¨) in Sakurajima Island (æ¡œå³¶) – a small holiday Island off the coast of Kagoshima that is a holiday destination to many Japanese (you will likely get told several times about how Sakurajima is technically now a peninsula after the eruption of 1916 that connected it with the mainland! Act shocked, it will please them!) The view looks out onto the sea – and as it goes dark they light the torches around the edge! There is a small shrine in the hollow of an ancient tree that – if I recall – is a couple of thousand years old, and it is through respect of this shrine – and the Gods in who’s name it is built – that we cover ourselves.
There are some other great Onsens in the south-western island of KyuuShuu – especially in Beppu where they have quite a few interesting ones – including one where they bury you in muddy sand and the natural heat of the Earth acts as a sauna, although oddly I’ve never actually been to this region.
I once trekked all the way out into the Gunma province to a town called Minakami – roughly 100Km north of Tokyo just to experience some of the OnSen it is famous for. The locals must have been horrified sharing baths with me! I bet many had not seen a Westerner except on TV. I love small towns that are far from the bright lights of the city, though there are many good SenTou available even in city centres!
One other very nice one I’ve been to was in the mountains of Hakone – west of Tokyo towards Mt. Fuji where – above the lovely warm steam the breathtaking view. Although – annoyingly – the name of the bath I visited escapes me.
But the Onsen is not reserved purely for remote mountainous destinations! One of my favourite baths of all time is in the Terramachi shopping arcade (å¯ºç”ºé€š) of Kyoto. In this busy but cozy shopping arcade, down a small back alley is a tiny inconspicuous door. Beyond, it opens out into a Tardis-style space-defying public bath with several pools, including an ice cold one, and one with an electric field through it. You can even rent a towel or buy soap/shampoo at this place for an addition 200/250 yen or so.
The electric bath here fascinates me the most – moving your limbs through the field causes all your muscles to contract and curl and can be painful on the chest! I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing.
And most youth hostels will have an OnSen. One of the more interesting – Tokyo International Youth Hostel is actually based in the 18th and 19th floors of a skyscraper and have an onsen with a glass wall that looks out over Tokyo. At night this is a truely awesome sight that rivals even a high mountain-view OnSen.(I strongly recommend the youth hostel too!)
Many hotels will not have OnSen because they will be tailored to suite foreigners who would prefer a tiny private bath in their rooms, but I did stay at one Hotel – The Grand Central in Kanda (ç¥žç”°) Tokyo – which had an entire bathing complex on the underground floor. Most guest houses and youth hostels will have something like this, but the quality and size of this one I found surprising.
In most Onsen and Sentou, there will be a ‘chill out’ or relaxation area to sit and reflect at the end. Often with tables, sometimes with cushions. Some (such as the Furusato onsen) even have a shrine there. Green tea and soft drinks are usually available – sometimes from vending machines and at one (though I forget where) I even saw a hot snack vending machine that provided everything from Pizzas to Hotdogs, which – as a Westerner – I had no choice but to treat it with suspicion and distrust.
Nothing can beat that euphoric, totally-relaxed tingly feeling. This is why I love bathing in Japan … the body getting clean is just a useful by-product!