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-> Joys of Hot Springs
by David Paget
->Hot Spring Experience
by Andrew Daniel
Make a Reservation at a Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn) Anywhere in Japan
 Home > "The Joys of Japanese Hot Springs," by David Paget

Takaragawa Onsen, Gunma Prefecture
Copyright D Paget, All Rights Reserved, 2003

The Joys of
Japanese Hot Springs

Lucky is the traveler who can step into a Japanese hot spring bath after a long day on the road. As you stretch out and are engulfed by the hot water, your aches and worries disappear. And in so doing, you participate in the sensuous custom of communal bathing which has been practiced in Japan for over a thousand years, and which is still very popular today. It is a manifestation of the admirable Japanese preoccupation with cleanliness and purification. [Top]

The elderly, the young, adolescents and middle aged people all love to go to onsens. There are over 2,000 volcanic hot spring areas in Japan, covering the whole country, from the northern island of Hokkaido to the main southern island of Kyushu. Hot springs are even to be found in the metropolis of Tokyo. [Top]

Perhaps the most pleasurable way to experience the hot springs is while staying at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). A cotton robe (yukata) and slippers are provided in your room for perambulating about the inn and for going to the baths. The etiquette for taking a communal bath is not complicated but must be observed. For some foreign visitors, the first rule may be the hardest, namely taking off your yukata or clothes in the changing room and putting them in a wicker basket on a shelf. Those who are not comfortable parading around naked in front of strangers – albeit of your gender – may find this challenging. You are expected though to drape the provided wash cloth modestly in front of your body. [Top]

Entering the bathroom, you come to a row of faucets and shower hoses placed close to the floor. You take up your position at one, squat on a very low wooden stool (this too can be a challenge), and apply the liquid soap and shampoo from the dispensers to the washcloth, and proceed to vigorously scrub every part of your self. You rinse off thoroughly with the shower hose, or, more dramatically, by using the traditional method of filling the small wooden tub near your stool and pouring its contents repeatedly over yourself. It is very important to rinse well, as bringing any trace of soap into the bath is the most serious breach of protocol. [Top]

When you are completely rinsed you proceed to the bath itself, whereupon you lower yourself in gingerly, as the water is sometimes so hot as to require getting used to. This is the ecstatic moment. You stretch out in the water, which is usually not much more than knee-deep, resting your head against the side. For the all-over experience, you may place your neatly folded (and previously thoroughly rinsed) washcloth drenched in the hot water on the top of your head. Then you soak for as long as you want. Some bathers get out, wash again, perhaps asking a neighbour to scrub their back, and then go back in for another soak. [Top]

In the men’s section at least, the atmosphere is tranquil, almost mystic. There is never any splashing or rough-housing and there is very little conversation. In the women’s section, it is understood that there are often animated discussions among groups of friends. Being a non-Japanese is not a problem (despite some urban legends among foreigners that baths clear when one of us arrives). It naturally helps if you are aware of bath protocol and make a point of emulating the locals. Then, Japanese politeness prevails. Bathers keep to themselves or their group and show no particular interest in others including any non-Japanese in their midst. The mellow ambiance is sometimes enhanced by the beer and sake that are almost universally available. (The alcohol and hot bath can make for a dizzying combination for the uninitiated.) [Top]

Most indoor baths are granite or marble lined. Some more traditional ones consist of large cedar tubs. There is usually a stream of hot water pouring from a spout or gushing from a fountain. The size of baths varies greatly, accommodating anything from a few bathers to facilities that are proudly advertised as handling hundreds. Many are rectangular and others are fancifully curved. Often indoor baths have a wall of glass with a view outdoors of a small Japanese garden. Some also boast an outdoor bath, or rotenburo. These are greatly appreciated by visitors. The water is usually contained in an artful series of smooth volcanic rocks; a “waterfall” may add to the allure, sometimes emerging from a bamboo spout. The outdoor bath is often partially covered by a masterfully constructed rustic roof supported by smooth cedar posts. [Top]

Some rotemburos are made into large ponds, set along mountain streams. Takaragawa Onsen (Osenkaku and Bunzan, Osenkaku Bekkan) is a ravishing example of this. Set in a mountainous area two hours by train north of Tokyo, this hotel offers four oversized rotenburos set on both sides of a verdant ravine. One is reserved for women, and others are mixed. You walk along a narrow path following the rushing mountain stream, coming to the first mixed rotenburo. In the change hut (with separate women’s and men’s sections), you remove your yukata and slippers. If a woman, you wrap yourself in a huge towel which you keep on throughout the bathing experience, but the men have to make do with the regulation washcloth. Somehow decorum is generally maintained and a good time is had by all (groups, couples, and singles). [Top]

The setting of the rotenburos is spectacular. Dense green forests on both sides of the stream enclose the ravine, and the mountain stream consists at this point of series of rapids. A few carefully placed Japanese stone lanterns and a long bamboo trough from which hot water splashes into the first bath make the scene even more picturesque. Birds flit around. You wade into the clear blue-green water walking over the smooth stone floor to take up a soaking position at the rotenburo’s rim, which consists of boulders gathered from the stream-bed. Then you sink down into the wonderfully hot water to stretch out languorously. You are so close to the rapids that you can almost touch them. You feel at complete harmony with nature. This feeling of being close to nature is reinforced when you amble, clad in your towel or washcloth, from one rotenburo to another. For uninhibited patrons, a strut across the suspended foot bridge to the newest rotenburo, on the other stream, is a piquant experience. And after sun-down, the scene is even more exotic, illuminated by lights from the stone lanterns. In winter, deep snow everywhere, including on the boulders protruding from the stream, makes for an other-worldly scene. [Top]

For those visitors who prefer a more intimate experience, some onsen resorts offer private rotenburos in front of each suite. A more affordable variation of this is where the hotel has not only “public” rotenburos but also one or more small ones which are available for rent by the hour – for groups up to five….(Doing things by couples seems not to be the rule.) The most affordable Japanese bath experience, albeit the least intimate, is provided by sento, neighbourhood public bath houses. Many have survived to this day even though homes of course now have their own baths. Nozawa Onsen (Chitosekan and Uenokan), a mountain village north of Nagano, still has 11. They are open long hours and are free. The oldest is built entirely of wood, and is an outstanding example of traditional Japanese carpentry. [Top]

The variety of Japanese hot springs is endless. There is even a rotenburo for monkeys. At Jugokudani Onsen (Korakukan), near Nagano, in the middle of a forest a primitive rotenburo has been constructed along a stream which is popular with wild monkeys. During the winter, with snow all around, they like nothing more than soaking in the water to keep warm. [Top]

The views from rotenburos are one of their most appealing features. And you seem to appreciate the scenery more than usual, while lounging in hot spring water au naturel. An unspoiled panorama of mountains and a valley is offered by a hotel in Nikko (site of the Shoguns’ mausoleums). Just outside Shimoda (Shimoda View Hotel), where Commodore Perry forced an end to over 200 years of Japanese seclusion in 1854, you look through palm trees and over a cliff for a breath-taking view of the sea coast and rugged islets. At Shikine Jima island south of Tokyo, you are right at the ocean’s edge. And at Shikotsu Lake (Marukoma) in Hokkaido, you look across a wide lake to a surreal view of a perfectly conical volcano. [Top]

After reveling in the joys of the bath, you should do what the other customers do, return to your room or the restaurant of your inn where a copious traditional dinner of numerous courses of small servings will be served. In advertising their attractions, hot spring hotels give the photos of their meals at least as much prominence as the bath facilities. Good bathing and good dining are inextricably linked. And during dinner, there is no need for even the uninitiated to hold back on sake or beer. After the meal, unless you are with a group indulging in karaoke, there is nothing better to do than collapse on your futons which are spread out on the tatami mats. You deserve a good sleep, after the “exertions” of your hot spring experience! [Top]

Copyright D Paget, All Rights Reserved, 2003



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