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Soaking up Japan's Hot Springs

by Rachel Farnay, photos Anatol Filin.

Sitting naked in a natural hot spring, water lapping your neck, surrounded by idyllic scenery and Japanese women may not be everyone's idea of bliss, but until you've tried it you're just a skeptic.

rotemburo-dusk Is it the deep, hot water that soaks right up to your neck, the quiet stillness of your surrounds or the sake and beer that makes Japan's hot springs so incredibly relaxing?

Japan's onsens (hot springs) are as famous as their sacred Mount Fuji but as far as rest and rejuvenation there is no comparison. An hour in an onsen will leave you feeling freshly scrubbed, as soft as a baby's bottom and ready to slip into an extremely deep, peaceful sleep.

Located high up in lush, hilly green mountains, by lakes, rock-lined river beds or the sea, they're as diverse as they are numerous. One expert estimated that if you visited one hot spring a week, it would take over forty years to sample them all.

rotemburo-snow It's difficult to say where onsens originated from. Some accredit animals, citing them as God's messengers sent to inform man as to where the healing, purifying waters were. A charming theory that originates from scenes of white herons daintily dipping in the water and brown bears rolling about. It's in honour of these first bathers, that their ornamental images often adorn the rooftops and lobbies of bathhouses.

A more historical explanation coincides with the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in A.D.552. Synonymous with Buddhism, bathing is a means of purification. Through immersion of the body, the sins that plague the flesh are expelled and luck bestowed upon the cleansed bather.

But by no means are the hot springs a religious somber affair. On the contrary they've long been a meeting place for farmers, wandering travellers and fishermen to re-unite and relax. Lodging at inns for as long as their farm chores will permit, it's a time for catching up on local gossip and socialising. Unwinding without clothes or a care, a chilly wind whistling around your ears as you soak in the soothing, hot water surrounded by cheerful friends.

On the weekend that myself and a group of friends decided to take off for the hot springs we chose Takaragawa Onsen. Regarded as Japan's number one outdoor bath time and again, Takaragawa is large, spacious and very picturesque nestled deep in the mountains beside a foaming river. Part of its beauty is its ability to change with the seasons. From mountain sides layered with fluffy white snow, to delicate pink cherry blossoms in spring, to the vivid green of summer and then dazzling autumn, when the entire mountain is ablaze in golden leaves of red, orange and yellow. Takaragawa is a constantly changing oasis, and being high up in the mountains, the perfect escape from Tokyo's oppressive summer heat.

We arrived at Minakami, north-west of Tokyo, via the Shinkansen, Japan's legendary "bullet train", a speedy 90 minute journey. We had decided to do the full once-in-your-lifetime experience and stay at Takaragawa's ryokan (Japanese inn). The large 'Osenkaku Ryokan', notable for its huge thatched-roof, is the quintessential Japanese inn in every respect, typifying the grace, architectural subtlety and artistic understatement expected from traditional ryokans. Staying within its cool, hallowed walls was like entering another, more refined world.

Passing perfect little gardens created with love and lit by traditional lanterns, our kimono-clad hostess led us to our rooms. Disappearing briefly, she quickly reappeared with a welcoming pot of green tea and some Japanese crackers, chattering constantly in Japanese about the baths, mealtimes and facilities. After she left, having drunk our tea, we were on our own.

hearth-fish The room was typical of ryokans, matted with tatami (rice straw), sparsely furnished with a low table and cushioned chairs, a little bathroom and an ancient television hidden behind some sliding doors. A pair of shoji screens slid back revealing a vivid green hillside. High up in the mountains the air was fresh with the scent of the forest and the earth, the only sound being the rustle of leaves by a cool mountain breeze. It was everything Tokyo was not.

Feeling tired and grubby we undressed and slipped into our yukatas, the lovely soft cotton dressing gown hidden in the cupboard, perfect for going to the baths in. Putting on our outdoor slippers (not the hard plastic ones for going to the toilet in) we headed off.

A common legacy of years of additions to ryokans are the confusing maze of corridors. Back-tracking, following the international exit sign and discovering some red-faced, wet-haired people we knew we were headed in the right direction. Four outdoor baths are open to the public and several indoor ones, available only for hotel guests.

A small wooden bridge outside the ryokan led us to the baths and open wooden huts that served as changerooms. Separating from the men, my girlfriend, Lulu, and I headed for the hut with the red Japanese character on it and the sound of women chatting, what we concluded must be the women's bath.

Peeking cautiously behind the curtain we were relieved to see only women. Getting undressed and placing our yukata in the little baskets provided we nervously clutched our oshiboris and headed for the washing area. An oshibori is an elongated wash cloth provided complimentary by the onsen, very useful for rubbing your neck and shoulders. Although not much bigger than a serviette, it's your only means of covering so efforts to remain modest are relatively futile. It's just join in with the girls, who after growing up with this traditition, really aren't fazed by the experience at all. (Although Lulu's long legs and blonde hair did create a little buzz).

alone-in-bath Before immersing yourself in the communal bath it's important to wash. Sitting on a low wooden stool before a wall of taps I lathered myself vigorously with the liquid soap provided. A show of a soapy scrub-up is good etiquette. But the most important rule is RINSE OFF. Taking soap water into the hot spring is a big no-no and a dire mistake that will not make you any bathing friends.

Once you're all scrubbed and rinsed there's nothing left but to get in. The water temperature can come as a bit of a shock, step in slowly. Sit on the rocks, then when you've acclimatized slide right under. Nestled against the smooth, warm rocks, revelling in my own nakedness and the scenery of thick forest, as a cool mountain breeze brushed my neck and little birds chattered in the trees, I entered a deep and total state of relaxation.

enjoy-snow-bath I sat for a long time, I don't really know how long, my only guide of time being my fingers and toes turning a wrinkly-prune white. Lulu and I didn't even feel compelled to break the silence by talking, happy just rolling about in the water, admiring the simplicity of this heavenly pleasure.

You often hear Japanese saying that Tokyo is not the real Japan and it's true. It's not until you visit the country-side where the concrete buildings begin to thin out, meet some of the gentle country people and experience some of the culture that has shaped the nation that you begin to appreciate the immense character and charm of this unusual country. To understand Japan you must do as the locals do, and the hot springs are definitely my favourite on their cultural heritage list. Where else in the world is bathing a national hobby?

Easing out of our state of lethargy we decided to go exploring and see what the men were up to. Takaragawa is accredited with being the first onsen in Japan to designate a women's only bath. But as is usual, the communal and the men's baths were still twice the size and more spectacular. At least ours was bigger than the 'Bears Bath', a pool specially set aside for two bears who have been returning to the baths every winter.

group-portret Delicately negotiating our oshiboris we found our friends soaking beside the gurgling river. Taking it in turns, we sat below the thermal waterfall, five minutes of its pounding torrent being as good as ten minutes with any masseur. These waters are simple thermal alkaline waters that are good for stiff joints and skin irritations and if consumed, stomachs.

For an invigorating change in temperature we clambered naked over the rocks and poked our feet in the river's clear mountain water, very exhilarating indeed we thought scurrying back to the onsen. Taking a break from the steamy heat of the bath I perched up on a rock, modestly trying to hide behind my tiny oshibori.

Feeling totally fresh and rejuvenated, a glow of health and well-being radiating from us, we changed back into our yukatas and headed back to the ryokan, ready for a short cat-nap before dinner. Our bedding, having been stowed behind sliding panels during the day, was now made up and spread out on the floor, fluffed up and enticing. Within five minutes of laying down we had all passed out.

hostess-and-nabe Awakened by an antiquated recording of 'Love Potion Number Nine' we drowsily pushed aside our futon mattresses as our waitress arrived with our dinner. Bowing deeply she entered the room, the epitome of gracious hospitality. Arranging the assorted dishes on the table each one was an artistic creation, a multitude of different colours and textures. Specialising in river fish - grilled and sashimi, mountain vegetables and thick hand-made noodles this hearty mountain fare provided the perfect sustenance to complement our day of bathing.

ryokan-meal Bowing again as she stood up to leave, we were left in peace to enjoy our meal. Occasionally magically reappearing to offer more dishes or assist in cooking a fish stew (nabemono) at the centre of the table. With no bar or dining room, just a rowdy karoake room, we entertained ourselves with card games and another bath, this time indoors, at the ofuro. Smaller than the outside bath, the steamy room was panelled in fragrant wood with smooth marble floors, warm, cosy and quiet, it was the final blow which sent me to bed at the early time of 9.30.

The next morning we awoke at 8.00 by another recording, this time 'I'll Come Running Back to You'. Our breakfast arrived before our sleepy eyes had barely opened, another interesting assortment of coloured bits and pieces. I felt extremely well rested, all those late nights finally made-up for. A quick morning bath was all I needed to end my weekend of indulgence. Opening the shoji doors a bright clear sun flooded the room with warmth, the forest air crisp and fresh. Pondering the Japanese saying - Hadaka to hadaka no tsukiai (Bathing buddies are the best of friends), I couldn't help but dream of when we could try this again.

izu-sea-sunrise.jpg tochigi-foggy-landscape.jpg
Sunrise in Izu Landscape near Minakami Onsen

To maintain such style for so few guests dictates that rates at this and most other ryokans are higher than those charged at the finest Western-style hotels. Choosing a ryokan where meals are optional will help reduce the bill considerably, as will going in the middle of the week. Try asking for a smaller room or one without a view. Typically accomodation, unlimited use of the baths, breakfast and an elaborate Kaiseki dinner, starts at around Y20,000 ($200) per day, per person. Dinner could include pickled cabbage, sushi or sashimi, nabemono, soba noodles, tempura or grilled fish and fruit, so could breakfast.

Staying at a ryokan doesn't mean you have to stay there constantly. The large onsen towns have numerous ryokans, many with outdoor baths also open for the public's use. There are also public baths abounding where you can just drop in and experience the waters.

The most important consideration to be made regarding an onsen is to first decide what sort of scenery do you want to languish amongst. With the entire country resting on two massive volcanic ridges running east and west, Japan has been blessed with an abundance of onsens. Once you've selected the suitable ambiance, then determine what the mind, body and spirit requires. There are many different chemical compositions in each onsen, each claiming healing properties and while the results are yet to be proven scientifically, there is no doubt about an onsen's ability in mental and physical rejuvenation. Another choice to be considered is how you'd like to experience the water, pounding waterfalls, gentle rippling pools, waves crashing on the shore, a hot steam bath or an exotic mud bath? The choices are enticingly infinite. Consider these:

Kyushu Island

BEPPU - 3,800 old and very famous springs. Beppu Kaihin Sunayu is a beach sand bath which buries you up to your neck, soothes stiff joints, tired muscles and frazzled nerves. Shiei-mushiyu is a steam bath where you lie inside a cavelike chamber on racks covered with herbs, helps rheumatism and clears the nose. Honbozu Jigoku is a gooey-grey mud bath for the body designed to give skin a new lease of life. Follow it with a cloudy green bath whose minerals complement mud at the Hoyoland bath. Visit these public baths from either Okamotoya Ryokan, famous for melon-sized oranges that float in water from winter to spring, softens skin while adding fruity aroma, or traditional Kannawa-en Ryokan, with its teahouse and open-air bath.

IBUSUKI - Ibusuki Kanko Hotel has 59 baths ranging from a jungle tub with vines to an exotic banana, papaya and litchi bath. The public sand bath at Surigahama beach covers you in sand beside crashing waves.

Kinki Region

ARITA - Arita Kanko Hotel is known for its 'floating cable-car bath' that takes bathers from the main bathing area across an islet and up the mountainside, their milk bath with floating mandarins is designed to beautify complexions.

KATSUURA - Hotel Nakanoshima has split-level baths, practically in the sea, the sulphur water will dilate blood vessels, invigorate your heart and remove toxins from your body. A mouthful settles the stomach (needed for the seafood feast afterwards). Urashima Hotel has a cave bath that opens towards the sea, creating spectacular silhouettes at dusk, the water is good for skin, joint and stress ailments. Both hotels offer superb bathing, food, accommodation and service.

Tokai Region

men-in-yukata-1 NORTHERN ATAMI - Torikyo has exquisitely designed Japanese-style rooms, a magnificent garden overlooking the sea and a non-thermal pool for summer swimming, public baths are everywhere to explore.

ODARU - Riverside Amagiso Ryokan is renowned for its numerous baths and seven waterfalls nearby. The outdoor bath is clear blue-green set amongst rocks beside a frothy tumbling waterfall, their cave bath set 20 metres into solid rock is dimly lit and communal. Dinner is river fish, mountain greens, eel, wild boar and sake.

SHINHODAKA - Known as "rotenburo heaven". Set on a river the Imadakan Ryokan is old and traditional with cooking pots suspended over open fires. The bathroom and tubs are aromatic cypress, as luxurious as the outside tub set within a rocked-off section of the river, amidst steep mountains. Great skiing and hiking and the second longest cable car ride in the world.

SHIMODA - Discovered 1,200 years ago by a monk these waters are good for skin problems, rheumatism and neuralgia. Commodore Matthew C. Perry landed here in 1853. There are many attractive beaches and parks. Kanaya Ryokan has lovely outdoor baths surrounded by bamboo, the indoor baths are beautiful - entirely cedar with a large domed ceiling, big open windows and floating log headrests. The sashimi dinner arrives still flapping.

Kanto Region

HOSHI - Built on the river bed this onsen's thermal water bubbles up through the pebbles, naturally. Containing magnesium sulphate and calcium it treats cuts, burns, pimples, hiccups, nervous disorders, hardening of the arteries and even hysteria! Floating logs provide headrests. Chojukan Ryokan is rustic and old, with beautiful high ceilings in the indoor bath. Some rooms have a cooking pot over a fireplace for cooking dinner - vegetables, meat or carp.

MINAKAMI - As mentioned in this article.

IKAHO - The calcium sulphate water, a reddish colour resulting from the carbonated iron in the water, is good for infertility, drinking it is recommended for anemia and stomach disorders. Chigira Jinsentei, a traditional ryokan on a hill, has a cascade bath and a room preserved where Roka wrote a famous Japanese love story, Hototogisu.

oze-yukata on-way-to-bath two-in-window
A gentleman in his yukata heads for outdoor bath Left to man bath, right - to woman's. Takaragawa Onsen Ryokan close to Takaragawa Onsen


onsen - hot spring

ofuro - indoor bath

rotenburo - open-air outdoor bath

ryokan - Japanese inn

yukata - lightweight kimono

haori - overcoat for kimono

obi - sash

oshibori - wash cloth

nabemono - food cooked in a pot at the table, usually meat and vegetables

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