Japanese Spas 温泉
Jan Dodd bares all in search of the perfect onsen experience.....
To me - a typically inhibited British female - the idea of stripping off outdoors, in public, and in sub-zero temperatures counts as certifiable behavior.
When I found myself doing just that in the Japan Alps one mid-winter's day, I began to worry.
My brain had obviously metamorphosed into that glutinous, evil-smelling mess of fermented soy beans the Japanese call natto.
The reason for such eccentric behaviour, however, was far, far more serious. After only a few weeks in Japan I'd become an onsen addict. Show me a pool of steaming water and I'd be tearing my clothes off before you could say goose-bumps. This could be embarrassing for all concerned, believe me.
What is an onsen?
Let me stop and explain the word 'onsen'. Onsen are hot springs. Thanks to the subterranean furnaces on which Japan rests so uneasily, it boasts well over 2000 designated onsen areas.
Some comprise a single outlet, but most onsen are made up of dozens, occasionally hundreds, of springs. For millennia this water has been used for bathing, healing and heating, or simply for pleasure. Indeed, according to legend, Japan's gods and goddesses were extremely partial to onsen and the Japanese people have been frolicking in them ever since. No doubt the gods would delight in the modern onsen experience.
This experience encompasses everything from simple outdoor pools (rotemburo) to flashy resorts offering "jungle baths", mud treatments and even faux-Grecian statues.
My first encounter with onsen occurred when we flew to Tokyo from Hong Kong for a reconnaissance trip. Our friends took us, along with a million other day-trippers, or so it seemed, to Hakone. We visited the open-air sculpture museum, admired the views and had a bite to eat.
Mm, yes, very nice but was it really worth the two-hour train journey? Then someone suggested we went to a bath house.
It was a modern place with segregated baths, nothing special, but it had a nice little rotemburo and views down to the plains. My friend gave me the run-down on onsen etiquette. The most important thing to remember is that the bath - and this goes for all Japanese baths - is only for soaking. You must wash and rinse thoroughly at one of the showers or taps provided before taking the plunge.
Lesson two I learnt the hard way: do not plunge. In this particular case the water was over 40. I shot out again like a shrimp off a griddle. Cue for general merriment all round while some kind woman turned on the cold tap. This time I eased in extremely gingerly. A tip: if the water is very hot, it seems more bearable if you keep as still as possible once in. Other people say placing a small, wet towel on your head also helps, though I never heard a convincing reason as to why this should be.
Another handy tip is to get out equally carefully; if you stand up suddenly, the rush of blood can make you pass out.
In my case, the difficulty was to get me out at all. For someone with the blood-flow of a hibernating salamander, this was paradise. I was going to stay here forever. Well, I exaggerate - they eventually tempted me out with the promise of a cold beer. And I'm glad they did because the post-onsen glow is just as glorious. Your skin might be a nasty shade of puce and decidedly prune-like, your muscles might be like jelly and your limbs as floppy as a rag-doll's but, boy, do you feel great! Words can't describe it. You just have to try it for yourself.
And so I was hooked. We moved to Tokyo and I began the serious art of yudedako - attaining the state of a "boiled octopus". My researches took me all over Japan. I skinny-dipped in hot-spring pools half-way up cliffs, beside rivers, in caves and on the slopes of mountains. I shared my bath with floating pomelos and cherry blossom, was eye-balled by wild monkeys and was buried in hot sand. I lazed amid tropical foliage and gazed on stars like fire-flies drawn to the lantern-moon.
Not that all onsen are so idyllic. Many are quite run-down and some are downright ugly with their rusting pipework and claustrophobic bath houses. In fact, I haven't yet discovered my perfect onsen. Its main feature is a rotemburo surrounded by classical gardens with unspoilt views over the sea or mountains. It also has to belong to a beautiful old, isolated inn, where dinner is served round the open hearth and where the murmur of waves or a rushing river lulls you to sleep.
Perhaps no such place exists. Or not any more.
One of the closest so far was a snow-storm rotemburo at Renge in the Japan Alps. But that was a pool by itself with no accommodation and, anyway, a large part of its appeal was the simple pleasure of sitting in hot water while snow-flakes eddied all around - simple but absolutely sublime. Also close were the beautiful riverside baths at Takaragawa, Gunma-ken. The setting is gorgeous, but you're in a valley - so no views - and the old rambling inn has been somewhat spoilt by modern additions.
I know, I'm really picky, but part of the fun is in the looking. So the great onsen search continues. Happy soaking!
Finding an onsen - a hot spring listing
Below are a selection of onsen resorts with public baths located in or around some of Japan's major cities. Note that there are no easily accessible onsen near Kashima or Saitama - take a day-trip from Tokyo to Hakone instead (see Yokohama below). The best time of year for visiting onsen is during the winter months. By June the weather is getting a bit hot and sticky, apart from in Hokkaido and the higher mountains, but at least the onsen are less crowded at this time of year.
Shampoo and soap is usually provided. Just remember to take a towel, though most places sell towels (very small ones) if you forget.
Kobe & Osaka
Since there's nothing much around Niigata city itself, your best bet is to stop off on the train journey up from Tokyo. Echigo Yuzawa, Ikaho and Takaragawa onsen are all reasonably accessible by public transport.
Beppu (12km northwest of Oita) bills itself as Japan's hot-spring capital. There's something for everyone - classic rotemburo, jungle baths and even sand baths where you get buried up to the neck in hot (very hot) sand. Up in the mountains Yufuin is another onsen mecca.
The closest onsen resort to Sapporo is Jankei, about 30km to the southeast. Better, though, to head further south to Noboribetsu (80km from Sapporo and the largest of Hokkaido's hot-spring resorts) or the lakeside baths at nearby Toya-ko and Shikotsu-ko.
On the slopes of Mt Fuji, Hakone is a popular day-trip from Tokyo and Yokohama, so don't expect to have the place to yourself.
Still, there are masses of baths to chose from, as well as mountain walks, lakes, an open-air museum and - if you're lucky - a glimpse of Fuji-san in all her glory.
by Jan Dodd
Read more on 'Onsen'
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.