Thursday, May 01, 2008


The Japanese worship the Onsen
Where you bathe whilst revealing your Johnsen.
The water is hot
So you know that you’re not
In a lake up in Eau Claire, Wisconsen.

Getting into hot water may mean “trouble” to an American, but to the Japanese, it’s Big Fun.

I’m talking here about that fine Japanese institution: the Public Bath. A perfectly understandable mania, when one considers the social value of a clean body in a crowded country.

Inexpensive public baths (sento) are everywhere in Japan, but if you want the true Hot Water Experience, you have to go to an onsen - a bath containing naturally hot spring water. Even better, go to an outdoor onsen - a rotemburo. There’s nothing finer than luxuriating in steaming water on a cool morning while surrounded by pine trees and cherry blossoms.

Bathing etiquette can be a tricky area for Westerners. The key point is to wash yourself thoroughly before getting in the tub. Onsen provide a washing-up area, along with towels and soap, and woe betide the person who immerses him- or herself without using it.

Elder Daughter and I stayed in several hot-springs resort areas while in Japan. The town of Beppu, the southernmost point in our journey, is famous for its onsen; the Hakone region, where we spent our penultimate day, is peppered with natural hot springs as well.

In both places, our hotels had excellent onsen and rotemburo facilities...but in Beppu, we also took a short walk over to the Takegawara Onsen, a venerable Meiji-era bathhouse that offered, in addition to the traditional natural hot water, a sand bath.

That’s right: sand. Hot sand.

When you check in, the attendant hands you a cotton bathrobe (yukata). You go to the changing room, put on your yukata, then go out into a huge room in which there is a wooden walkway surrounded by steaming volcanic sand. An attendant scoops out a shallow trench into which you lie down, your head supported by a block of wood. And then she shovels more hot sand on top of you, tamping it down until you’re completely encased. You then lie there for about 15 minutes, blissfully sweating, before getting out, heading in to the onsen area, and washing off all the sand. Then it’s time to relax in a tub full of steaming hot mineral water.

Takegawara Onsen

Takegawara Onsen sign

The famous Takegawara Onsen in Beppu.

As enjoyable as that was, our most interesting Bathtime Experience had to be at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo, a bizarre place that looks like something Walt Disney might have concocted if he had been born Japanese.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari translates roughly as “Honorable Old Tokyo Hot Spring Adventure,” and it’s nothing less than an Onsen Theme Park. When you visit O.O.M., you stick your shoes in a locker, check in and pay admission, and then pick out a suitable yukata (19 different designs, with samurai, geisha, and all of that Old Japan stuff). You then go into the locker room and change out of your street clothes and into the yukata.

From the locker room, you go to what can only be described as Main Street in Old Tokyo, a kitschy collection of arcades, restaurants, shops, bars, and even a capsule hotel. When you get tired of wandering around there, you can take a bath in what has to be the hugest collection of natural-water bathing facilities I’ve ever seen. There are mixed bathing areas, too, for which you need a swimsuit...but these were all closed (as was most everything else, since we had gone there in the dead of night). Alas, the sand baths were closed, as was a unique spot where you can have “doctor fish” nibble the dead skin off your feet. Really.

One caveat for the visiting Westerner: Sporting a tattoo will get you booted out of the baths at O.O.M. It seems tattoos are favored amongst yakuza members, and Management wants a family-friendly environment. [I don’t know if Body Art is an issue at other onsen.]

Oedo Onsen Monogatari was a surreal experience, a distillation of all that was Strange and Different about being in Japan. The whole adventure - walking there from our hotel in the Dead of Night, enjoying steaming hot baths and a cold beer at 1:30 in the morning, walking back - was like a strange dream. It was, perhaps, the perfect way to spend our last night before taking the Silver Aerial Bus back home.

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