A Clean Break - Arima Onsen 有馬温泉
Will Yong takes the plunge in a Japanese hot spring.....
All hotels have hot water but Japan's top onsen resorts are still worth splashing out on.
Everybody in the lobby was wearing the same cotton bathrobe as I was. Blue for the boys, deep red for the girls. I'd died and gone to a paradise where the angels wore yukata.
Everyone was wearing the same, everybody had the same plans - a bath before dinner then a good night's sleep. Put it that way and it doesn't sound like much. If I tell you that one night in this paradise cost me JPY 30,000 (US$300), I've certainly got some explaining to do.
Just as naturally as the water from hot springs bubbles up from the ground, the Japanese channel it into stress-melting baths. In many places around Japan, whole towns have been built where springs gush forth and they take the name "onsen". It's a welcome silver lining for a country bedeviled by seismic activity.
The violence of volcanoes and earthquakes are some distance from the mind as you soak in a mineral-rich hot tub with a view.
A Night At An Arima Onsen Ryokan
Arima Onsen is one of these towns and one of the most sought after at that. High up in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture, with city folks doing city things at ground level, Arima doesn't pretend to be anything more than a village of ryokan, dedicated to the pleasure-seeker. Ours was the Arima Grand (Tel: 078 904 0181), a traditional Japanese ryokan - all nine floors of it.
Don't be misled. Many of Japan's most renowned traditional-style inns are as large as a Hilton, and modern enough to be at home in New York. What puts them in the same class as more historic establishments is the way that you want for nothing for the time you are there.
Our kimono-clad attendant matched the peachy tones of the carpet and walls perfectly. She led us to our room, and while we were sipping the green tea she had promptly made and enjoying the traditional sweets laid on for us, she stowed our grizzled trainers, replacing them with identical pairs of open-backed slippers. After she handed us our yukata (bathrobes), I got the impression that we weren't meant to leave.
In fact, quite the point of the modern ryokan is to give you the best night in you could possibly have. All the essentials are in place. Starting with the baths.
In Japan it's traditional to bathe before dinner. A long, hot bath where getting clean is really only a preliminary. You wash thoroughly first - outside the baths of course - with the showers and taps that line the walls. Then you take your pick. I began with the sauna followed by the cold bath shock treatment. I felt like I had to earn my relaxation with a bit of hardship first. Slipping into the piping hot bath afterwards was tentatively done but only a few minutes after getting comfortable, I spotted an irresistible door leading outside.
Rotemburo Outdoor Bath
The rotemburo (outdoor bath) was lined with wood and overlooked the tree-clad valley. Strategically-placed shrubs hid our nakedness from any passersby who cared to look from far below, but as I stood after a good while to get a better view, it was them that looked sillier, bundled and trussed in all their clothes. I was pure and free, like the steam rising off my body.
Being reduced to a kind of human jelly by the heat reminds you of things that your body tries to tell you. Aches disappear that you didn't realise you had, tension simply melts away. Most of all though, it makes you hungry. Dinner comes relatively early at a ryokan but it's something to be savored over a long period.
Dinner isn't compulsory and many ryokan offer room-only rates which are significantly cheaper. But why miss the Ferris wheel at the funfair? Kaiseki ryori at a top class ryokan is not to be passed up.
My dinner tray was a miniature landscape of morsels, each in its own little dish of rustic pottery or deep, black lacquer. Not everything was identifiable, but matching flavours to colours and shapes became part of the adventure - and that first spread was only the beginning. The next dish arrived and then the next and, pretty soon, harking back to the beginning of the meal was like revisiting good memories. What's more, I didn't taste the same thing twice and after 15 different courses, I couldn't touch the plain rice served at the end. I was, however, assured that it was delicious.
After dinner, I milled around the souvenir shop. The angels drifted by in little clusters. Young couples smiled contentedly, groups of wizened old friends clucked over the neatly packaged regional delicacies - you can always try before you buy.
Already, I was looking forward to breakfast the next day. It turned out to be rice (I'm glad I got to eat some in the end), pickles, boiled egg, dried fish and tofu. I swallowed my preconceptions about what was breakfast food and what wasn't and didn't regret it.
But that was still a good night's sleep away. Ambling past the discrete entrance to the hotel's very own pachinko parlour, I made a plan to visit the 9th floor baths before breakfast was due to be brought up. Bathing in the morning is not traditional in Japan but there were plenty of people breaking the rules with me.
We were treated to a gentle dusting of snow drifting down and to one side of the rotemburo roof. Some of it was wafted under the canopy by the breeze and the odd flake melted on my forehead. Each one was ample reason to stay exactly where I was, as if I needed further convincing. Other snowflakes went straight to hell. Frozen water from the sky meeting water bubbling up from the earth's inner rumblings.
But that was a yet to come. By and by, our maids laid the futons out and bed beckoned. Here again the yukata comes into its own. It's fine to sleep in as well as spend the day in so I didn't even have to change for bed - having nothing to do had never been such a pleasure. In my standard issue robe and slippers I wondered how much more relaxed I could be when I had even left my everyday clothes behind.
Arima Onsen Essentials
History of Arima Onsen
Arima is an historic hot spring resort dating from at least the 7th century and mentioned in the ancient chronicle the Nihonshoki. Arima has attracted emperors, warlords, writers and princesses over the ages including Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had the tea master Sen no Rikyu perform a tea ceremony here, an event remembered in an annual festival in November.
Arima has two types of hot-springs: the translucent, radium and carbonate silver spring (ginsen) and the muddy-brown, iron rich gold spring (kinsen). Both are believed to be good for health.
Arima has two public bath houses: the Kin no Yu (650 yen) and the less crowded Gin no Yu (550 yen). There are reductions for people over 65. The Arima Tourist Office (Tel: 078 904 0708) provides a map of the town and information on the ryokan and inns that allow day-trip visitors to use their hot baths for a fee.
Arima's recommended ryokan inns and hotels include the venerable classic Tozen Goshobo (078 904 0551), Kinzan (078 904 0701), Negiya (078 904 0675), the Arima Grand Hotel (078 904 0181) and the Arima View Hotel (078 904 2295).
Arima Access - Getting to Arima Onsen From Kobe & Osaka
By train from Kobe, take the subway to Tanigami and then a Kobe Dentetsu train to Arima Guchi, then change again if it is not a through train to Arima Onsen. By tain from Osaka take a local JR Fukuchiyama Line train to Sanda, then change to the Dentetsu Line.
If you wish to ride the cable car up Mt. Rokko take the Hankyu Kobe Line to Rokko Station from Sannomiya then city bus #16 to the Rokko Cable car base station. The cable car ride up the mountain costs 570 yen one way / 1000 yen return and takes 10 minutes. Then take a loop bus to the Rokko Arima Ropeway top station then ride down on the ropeway (980 yen one way).
Japanese Bath Products
Purchase a range of wooden Japanese bath products made from the finest Japanese wood including original bath buckets, chairs and soap basins to give your bathroom that Japanese hot spring onsen feel.