Saturday, 17 January 2015

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

world-map osawano


I saw an advert on the TV today. It said, ‘What would make an ideal holiday for you? Would it be great beaches? Or would it be gorgeous luxuxry accommodation? Or what about activities for the kids so they can have great adventures? Or perhaps 5-star service so that you can truly relax and unwind?

In short, to all of the above, no.

Which is why I’m going to North Korea.

This week though, it’s back to Japan.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japanese Musings Series 2

Previously I have posted a number of ‘Japanese Musings’ written whilst I was working for two years as an ALT in the small Japanese town of Osawano-machi in Toyama-ken. What follows are more of the same, reflections on life in Osawano during that period (2000-2), but I am terming them Series 2 because they have been written in retrospect, over a decade after the days described when I am (definitely) older and (possibly) wiser. I hope they compliment the former and continue to bring Japan to life for you.

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen


Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Every so often I have a strange dream. Not the exact same dream every time, the circumstances and places always differ, but the basic storyline is always the same. I am back in Japan and I am there visiting for the first time since living there. I am excited to be there and to be revisiting all my old haunts and trying out all the foods that I once liked to eat. But these are not the reasons why I have come, not the goal of my trip. No, my aim in going back to Japan is to revisit my favourite onsen, that fabled nirvana of thermally goodness nestled nigh in the mountains. But in my dream something always stops me, delays me, gets in the way so that I always wake up before I'm there. I may be a modern-day Hiram Bingham but my Machu Picchu of bathing perfection is forever undiscovered. A psychologist or dream-reading charlatan could probably read something deep, pertinent and powerful into this nocturnal mission impossible, but I am ignorant of the reasons why. All I know is that it is bloody annoying for is there was one thing that I adored above all others in Japan, it was the onsen and now that I've been away from the Land of the Rising Sun for over a decade then, by God, I'd like to plunge into one again.

I, like virtually all visitors to Japan, had learnt all about onsens prior to getting on the plane. I knew that because Japan is, geologically-speaking, a young country, then there is a lot of geothermal energy bubbling away beneath its mountains which regularly erupts to the surface in the form of naturally-heated thermal springs. Since the earliest days the Japanese, like so many other peoples across the world, have recognised the relaxing and healing qualities of these springs and over the millennium perhaps the most sophisticated and perfect bathing culture in the world.

I first encountered that culture during my few days' sojourn in the Ōsawano Palace Room 101 had an en-suite bathroom with the most incredible bath I'd ever experienced. Tiled and set into the floor, it took the best part of an hour to fill up and could easily have housed three people. I sat in there, water up to my neck, reading about Robert carver braving the wilds of northern Albania whilst working off the worst hangover of my young life. However, even than most inviting of introductions into bathing heaven did not encourage me to explore further for many months. And the reason behind that reticence was short and simple.


The Japanese bathe naked. You are simply not allowed to wear a shred of material if you take a bath in Japan. Ok, so actually that's not entirely true; they give you a small towel, (the size of a beer towel) to take in with you, but that is meant to be folded and placed on top of your head (seriously!). Modesty is out, dangly bits are in, and that just freaked me out.

Now not that I mind all nakedness you must understand, no, not at all. Indeed, I could spend all day watching shapely young ladies bathe naked in front of me, indeed, I'm sure that I could not only endure such an experience but even find it pleasurable, but alas, Japanese onsen nakedness is a different animal entirely for two very pertinent reasons:

1). Onsen are sex-segregated so no naked ladies, young or old, shapely or not.

2). I have to get naked as well.

And growing up in a country that is still, despite its binge drinking culture, rather prudish, that represented a huge barrier to overcome.

So huge in fact, that it was several months into my Japanese stay that I finally braved going into a bona fide onsen in my birthday suit. And even then it was more a case of, “Well, I'm doing this because it is something that one should do in Japan,” rather than, “Well, this is something that one wants to do in Japan.”

The onsen in question was Shōgawa Onsen in the west of Toyama-ken, on the banks of the Shō River[1] and it cost a whopping ¥1,500 to get in. “This had better be good,” I said to myself as I traipsed in, complimentary head towel in hand along with Damian, an ALT from the neighbouring town of Yatsuo.

But, by God, “good” is what it most definitely was!

I don't know why exactly but even today, after so many more years, countries and experiences, I can think of few, if any, pleasures so complete as that of sitting in an outdoor bath full of thermal spring water with only my head popping out, steam rising from the surface, looking out across a landscape of Japanese mountains. After just one visit to Shōgawa Onsen, I was addicted and my onsen odyssey had begun.

shogawa onsen desu
Shōgawa Onsen: the rotemburo

shogawa onsen desu 2
Shōgawa Onsen: bathing bliss

Along with others. (most notably fellow ALTs Conor, Catherine and Jen), but also alone, I began exploring the onsen of Toyama-ken and beyond. However, before I go into the specifics of individual onsen, it is perhaps best to describe, in general, just what the standard onsen is like.

To start with you go in. Above the entrance there's a sign, often a traditional cloth one, with the symbol ゆ(yu) printed on it. This means “hot water” (o-yu) which traditionally denotes a bath.

onsen yu
: The sign for a bath

Then there's the reception where you pay, an area to sit and wait for friends or just relax and read a paper or, in some instances, shop. Onsen are major tourist attractions in Japan with coachloads prepared to travel hundreds of miles to sample some particularly wholesome waters, and whenever there's a tourist attraction, then it follows that there should be a souvenir shop. And given that I am a perennial collector of knick-knacks and mementoes, then you may expect my home today to be full of snow globes, paperweights and commemorative glasses bearing the names of some of Toyama-ken's finest onsen. Alas, 'tis not so. Despite extensive searching of many establishments, onsen souvenir shops – like all Japanese souvenir shops – seem to sell only edible products. The tradition in the Land of the Rising Sun you see, is not to amass pieces of purposeless tat to litter your mantlepiece with, (probably because they don't have mantlepieces), but instead to come bearing gifts into work the next day and hand out omiyagi – individually-wrapped cakes and chewy... things that don't generally taste good but tell your colleagues exactly where you've been on your day off. Spread the love baby, not hoard it!


So, we leave the souvenir shop and reception area and enter into the onsen itself, through one of two doors, the first bearing the symbol 男(male) and the second女(female). These are sometimes fixed, but in many establishments they rotate depending upon which day it is. In one of our favourite onsen, Rakkyokan, it was always a moment of tension – joy for two members of the group and despair for the other two – as we entered and discovered which half of the establishment our gender had been allocated that day. For the south-facing half was distinctly average whilst the north-facing part was exquisite.

otoko onna
Signs denoting which half is allocated to which gender (males to the left, females to the right)

Once through your allocated entrance there's the changing (or to be more precise, stripping) room where you can leave your clothes and valuables in a basket. There's no need for lockers here; this is Japan where petty crime is unknown. Then we move on to the washing area.

Clothing baskets: no need for security!

Now this might sound a little strange, but before entering a Japanese bath, you must be clean. Meticulously clean. In Britain we tend to think of baths as a place in which to get clean, but in Japan a bath is a place in which to relax once you are clean.

To get clean in an onsen you go to an area with showers and low wooden stools designed for five-year olds. You sit on one of these and vigorously scrub yourself with soap and scourer (provided), then rinse off temporarily with the shower, before doing it all again just to make sure. You may also shave and wash your hair there, no problem just so long as every pore glistens before proceeding.

Onsen washing area

And then you're into the onsen itself. Each onsen is unique in terms of its layout and facilities but a 'standard' onsen will have the main onsen bath itself, a three-foot deep tub of thermally-heated, (although often topped up by less natural heating methods), spring water; a sauna which is generally the wooden 'dry' type, (although many onsen do have steam rooms as well), and then a plunge pool of icy water in which to recover from the heat. And if all that is not enough, there may also be waterfall taps, jacuzzis, herbal baths and other delights inside, but in virtually every onsen the star of the show is not inside but instead reached through a sliding door where, surrounded by carefully-arranged smooth volcanic rocks and separated from the other gender's side by a bamboo screen, (either real or plastic bamboo), the rotenburo.

A rotenburo is a pool of thermal water similar in size and identical in content to the main bath inside. But the rotenburo's attraction lies in the fact that it is outdoors. You sit in a rotenburo and feel the rain drip on your head, the sun beat down, the snow melt on your face and all the while you are warm and happy in the healthy water gazing out on a stunning panorama of forested slopes or the twinkling lights of a vast city or the lamplit lapping waves of the Japan Sea. It is heaven itself.

An idyllic rotenburo

To start my tour of the onsen of Toyama-ken, I shall be starting with the establishments in my own town, Ōsawano-machi, where there were no less than four onsen, three of which fed from the same spring, whilst the other was on the edge of town occupying a stunning setting beside a lake created by the damming of the Jinzu River. And that latter onsen was arguably my favourite of them all and its name was Rakkyokan.

Rakkyokan had two major drawcards for me, one of them obvious, the other not. The obvious one was the setting by a placid lake hemmed in by lush, forested Alpine slopes. And it made the most of that location with two rotenburo and large plate glass windows so that the full glory of the nature of Japan could be appreciated from the inside as well. However, as I mentioned earlier, Rakkyokan did suffer more than other onsen from having two very different halves. The north-facing half had an enormous rotenburo with incredible views; the other commanded more mediocre views from a rather cramped rotenburo and furthermore, unlike the other half, no dry sauna inside. Had both sides been of equal standard, then it would undoubtedly have been my favourite; as it was, it was always something of a gamble.

One thing that was never a gamble however, was Rakkyokan's less obvious drawcard: the water.

The whole point of onsen is the water which is, due to its very nature, more minerally and healthy than your standard drop of H2O. However, when discussing onsen, with Westerners at least (although never the Japanese), that very key element often gets overlooked in favour of facilities and scenery. At Rakkyokan however, the water simply cannot be overlooked for it is marvellous. Not being a scientist, I haven't got a clue as to what it has got in it that makes it so bloody wonderful, but bloody wonderful it is. In Rakkyokan you see, after exiting the bath, instead of feeling shrivelled and dehydrated as one does after a lengthy dip in more usual waters, one feels as if coated by a sheen of healthiness. The description might sound a little strange but trust me, it is exquisite and if you ever get the chance, please, please try it for yourself.

rakyokan1Rakkyokan: and this is the naff rotenburo!

DIT04BKC030116Rakkyokan: the main building

As for Ōsawano-machi's other three onsen, they were all congregated around the Kasuga Spring which bubbles away a kilometre and a half down under the earth and was discovered by a farmer during the Taishō Era (1912-25). I have bathed in all three but two of them – the onsen at the Windy health Resort and the one in the Ōsawano Palace hotel where I was once a guest, I only bothered with the once. The third however, Yu-toria Etchu, was perhaps the onsen that I bathed in more than any other in Japan, on average once a week.

Yu-toria Etchu was nice whilst not amazing, but it appealed to me because it was an easy bike ride away from my aparto, it was cheap, (¥400 compared to the more standard price of ¥600 that Rakkyokan and Ushidake charged), and because, unlike Windy and the Ōsawano Palace, it had the facilities that I really needed, namely a rotenburo, a dry sauna and an icy plunge pool.

Yu-toria Etchu's rotenburo was nothing special, a nice view over the river, but rather cramped. However, I went there largely to engage in my favourite onsen pursuit: sauna tripping.

Sauna tripping is simple. You sit in the sauna for as long as you can stand and then when you can face no more, you exit and get straight into the plunge pool and immerse yourself in the water until only your nose peeps out. And then you stay still or, to use a most apt pun, freeze.

Not moving is the key. You stay motionless and the water around you heats up slightly; the slightest movement and a rush of cold buffets you. In the pool you stay, stock still, getting colder and colder and colder until you begin to lose feeling in your fingers and toes. That's when you get out and hit the sauna again. On the second or third round of this the tripping starts. You feel light-headed and the world spins. You leave your body and float motionless in space. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” the Beatles told us. They must have been onsen addicts as well. It's rather like being on drugs (I'm told) hence the name, and like a drug habit, it is probably not very healthy, (I don't do it these days as with my high blood pressure I just get a banging headache), but back then it was pure bliss and it caused the pounds to simply fall off. Through very little effort I lost around 5kg in onsen, most of that through sauna tripping in Yu-toria Etchu.

Yu-toria Etchu: sauna heaven

But it was further afield than Ōsawano-machi that (Rakkyokan excepted) all the best onsen to be found and one of the other contenders for my favourite establishment lay some ten miles or so away in the small mountain village of Yamada. Yamada was a beautiful place, but its main attractions lay atop a mountain above the settlement, for in the winter Yamada was a major ski resort and Ushidake Onsen was built primarily to serve that resort.

If Rakkyokan's drawcards were its water and the views then Ushidake's was its facilities. True, the water was good and true also is the fact that there were good views of the mountains from its rotenburo, but it was inside that Ushidake scored highest with jacuzzi baths, wet and dry saunas, several waterfall massage taps and some jacuzzi beds, perfect for reading a book in, on a cold winter's evening as the sun set on the mountains outside.

Actually, book reading was my own Matto twist to the onsen experience. I never once saw a Japanese person reading in the bath, (although they do read everywhere else), probably because the damp knackers books in record time, but in my mind there is nowhere better to get through a cheap edition classic novel than in an onsen. Not that my strange gaijin behaviour went completely unnoticed mind; once I went to a locally-renowned onsen in Ōyama-machi that stunk of eggs – sulphurous water is particularly healthy apparently – where some of my students happened also to be visiting with their families and observed me engrossed in an Arnold Bennett novel whilst immersed in hot, smelly water and within days I had become famous throughout Ōsawano as the gaijin who reads in the onsen.

Quite a different to Ushidake was Kureha Heights which I really enjoyed but was not rated highly by the locals. Again, its all above the criteria by which you judge these things: I rated it because of the facilities and views, they didn't because of the water quality.

Kureha Heights was officially an onsen, but the water tasted, smelt and felt no different to that which came out of the tap. However, I regularly drove over to Kureha Heights, on a hillside near to Toyama-shi because its luxury was positively James Bond, its view amazing, particularly at night and best of all, I always had the place virtually to myself.

In Japan there's a culture of large corporate parties. The highlight of any social calendar is the annual New Year's stopover party at a hotel known as a Bon Enkai. Consequently, there are thousands of luxury hotels dotted across the country built specifically to deal with these kind of events. Kureha Heights is one of them; its onsen is an add-on to a luxury hotel, then Kureha Heights onsen too is luxury, and I mean luxury with a capital 'L'.

There are free massage chairs in the changing room, a machine which consists of a wide strap which you fasten around your burgeoning belly and which promises to slim you by shaking and wobbling it whilst you do nothing taxing whatsoever, but that's nothing to what you get inside: enormous baths, a walking foot massage bath, herbal baths and the most luxurious, spectacular rotenburo in all Toyama-ken. And like I said, so long as you avoid the peak enkai times, there's nobody else there. You feel like James Bond, albeit without the gorgeous supermodel to slip in the bath beside you. Even without her though, there is something pretty damn cool about walking naked on a balmy summer's evening down to a large outdoor bath from which you can watch the twinkling lights of a city whilst the express to Ōsaka thunders past in the background and cicadas chirp in the nearby trees.

I went to many more onsen beyond these ones, both in Toyama-ken and beyond. There was a nice one at a ski resort near to Kamioka, a fine one by the sea in Wakayama-ken that I went to with a friend who lived there and the one in Kamitaira high up in the mountains that I visited in the depts of winter where the snow was piled up higher than my car and I was the only visitor, (probably the snow had something to do with that – no one else was so stupid as to try and head up there...), but which was great fun because it offered a variation on the sauna tripping: extreme winter onsen. This time you heat up in the rotenburo and then jump and roll naked in the snow before launching yourself back into the steaming bath. Not so trippy perhaps but very tingly – I recommend it highly!

Perhaps my most surreal onsen experience though, came on the Ōsawano Middle School Bon Enkai which we spent in a posh hotel in Unazuki Onsen, Toyama-ken's premier onsen resort, up in the mountains near to Mount Tateyama. As with all enkai, I'd imbibed quite a lot of alcohol and when I eventually entered the hotel bath, I was most annoyed to find the new IT teacher in there, a strange chap who freaked me out more than usual by stating in his rather stilted English, “Matto-sensei, biggu dicko!” I did not stick around.

Finding that, in true Asian party style, everyone went to bed whilst I was just getting warmed up, I tried to get more beer and failing in the hotel, I headed into town to locate a izakaya (tavern). There were none open, but I did find a beer vending machine which did the trick and a narrow-gauge railway which I amused myself on by climbing all over the locos and carriages in the (unlocked) engine shed. Then, walking back from my railway exploits, I had an alcohol-induced realisation: there had been no one on the reception desk at my hotel when I'd left, ergo anyone could just walk in and try out their onsen and people would just assume that it was a guest, ergo if it was like that in my hotel, would it be the same in the others? At this point my natural stinginess and value-seeking self kicked in: Unazuki Onsen's hotel onsen all charged at least ¥1,000 each to enter, but if no one was checking, then surely I could check a few out without paying.

And so I did, wandering from hotel to hotel, bathing in every onsen and buying beer from all the vending machines until I eventually hit the sack at around three or four in the morning, each and every onsen in Unazuki Onsen well and truly ticked off the list.

And on that note I shall end my short account of life as an onsen aficionado. Except to say that it didn't end there. Upon leaving Japan, I made a point of checking out the Korean equivalent (oncheon), and then several Russian baths (banya). And since then, wherever I've been in the world, I've checked out the local bathing culture and enjoyed it immensely. But even so, despite sampling the thermal delights of a dozen or more countries, I have to say that, to this day, nobody does it better than the Japanese.

Written August 2013 – October 2014, Smallthorne, UK

[1] The Japanese for river is “kawa” or “gawa”, therefore the town's name, “Shōgawa” means “Shō River” or to be more exact, “Settlement on the banks of the Shō River”.

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