Saturday, January 7, 2012
A Trip to the Onsen 温泉
One of my brother’s perks as an employee of Keikyu Railways is the ability to stay at a number of hotels and onsen resorts at a greatly reduced price.
One of these onsen hotels is located by the seashore about 50 minutes from the house, so my brother made reservations prior to my arrival for an overnight stay.
An onsen (温泉) is a term for hot springs in the Japanese language, though the term is often used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered along its length and breadth. Onsen were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in directing Japanese domestic tourism.
Onsen come in many types and shapes, including outdoor (露天風呂 or 野天風呂 roten-buro or noten-buro) and indoor baths.
Baths may be either public run by a municipality or private (内湯 uchiyu) often run as part of a hotel, ryokan or bed and breakfast (民宿 minshuku).
The one we were at also provided a traditional Japanese-style dinner and breakfast. Great seasonal food, presented beautifully in a traditional way but I'll cover that in a separate blog post.
Onsen are a central feature of Japanese tourism often found out in the countryside but there are a number of popular establishments still found within major cities. They are a major tourist attraction drawing Japanese couples, families or company groups who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to relax. Japanese often talk of the virtues of "naked communion" (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) for breaking down barriers and getting to know people in the relaxed homey atmosphere of a ryokan with an attached onsen.
Check-in was 3:00 PM and we quickly got settled, unpacked and changed into the requisite yukata. My brother and I, being taller (and overall bigger) than the average Japanese, had to ask for extra-long yukata – which, luckily, they had available.
The onsen slippers, unfortunately, were one size fits all and both my brother and I forgot to bring our own so we squeezed our feet into them as best we could.
Once you are changed into your yukata and slippers, you make your way to the bathing area with two towels that are provided. The big towel is a regular towel for drying off and the small one is for taking with you into the bathing area for washing and modesty.
Traditionally, men and women bathed together at the onsen and sentō but single-sex bathing has become legalized as the norm since the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji period. Mixed bathing (混浴 konyoku) persists at some special onsen in the rural areas of Japan, which usually also provide the option of separate "women-only" baths or different hours for the two sexes. Children of either sex may be seen in both the men's and the women's baths.
As with most things in Japan, there is a process and a ritual – and I love the process and ritual of the Japanese bath.
There is a sterilizer to put your slippers in before you enter the changing area.
The changing area consists of baskets and lockers to put your yukata/clothes into as well as a well-stocked grooming area with razors, combs, brushes, toothbrushes etc. for after the bath.
In a Japanese bath, you wash your body and hair and rinse well so you are completely clean before you get into the hot water to soak.
Typically, there are low mirrors with faucet that line the walls of the bathing area and small stools and buckets are provided to facilitate washing and rinsing. These days, there is also usually a handheld shower at each station.
Once you are all clean and rinsed, then it’s off to soak.
Most soaking tubs or pools have varying areas of temperature. The hottest is where the water is fed from the hot spring itself. In this particular onsen, there were various ledges for sitting and inner and outer soaking pools as well as a warm hot tub for kids or anyone who finds the onsen water too hot.
Once in the soaking pool, you can sit and enjoy the view or have conversation with other bathers as you wish. Bathing is a very social and communal activity in Japan and I remember going weekly to the local neighborhood sento (an indoor bath, styled after an onsen) with my mother, grandmother and brothers where all our neighbors and friends would be washing, soaking and chatting; catching up on the local gossip or just de-stressing in the hot water.
The place we stayed was right next to the water, so interestingly, the water had a slight saltiness to it which was unusual.
One of the benefits of staying at an onsen hotel is that it allows you to come and go as you wish from the onsen, soaking as much as you wish at all different times from about 5:00 am to 12:00 midnight.
The first day, I soaked a couple of times under the stars and on my last visit for the night before bed, I went down by myself and found myself in the washing area with two full-body tattooed men in their early 20's. This was fascinating for me, because generally, anyone with a tattoos are not allowed into onsen or sento.
My own tattoos are not really enough to warrant notice but there are places where I would definitely be refused entry. This is because traditionally, the only people bearing tattoos in Japanese society were the Yakuza or Japanese Mafioso.
The guys kept to themselves and were trying to put off a tough Yakuza air but it's kind of hard to do sitting naked with soap piled on top of your head...in any case, they left after a 10 or 15 minute soak much to the relief of the only other bather who was kid about 16 years old.
The next morning, I woke up early and had the onsen to myself from about 5:30 am to 6:30 am where I sat and watched the sun come up.
The outside temperature was about 45-50 degrees so it was just perfect for me!
Sitting in the onsen was the only time I wished for snowfall while I was in Japan – there is nothing like sitting outside in an onsen while snowflakes drift down all around you.
For me, soaking in an onsen is one of those perfect moments in life.