Lets face it, there`s nothing like winter time and it`s cold winds to make one quite comfortable going absolutely nowhere. Relaxing at home with some mochi and green tea, I`m doing just that while watching a travel show on TVTOKYO featuring the regional joys of the season. The host is wandering around various areas of northern Japan showcasing their differing customs, festivals and cuisine. However, so far every region has one thing in common, one aspect of Japanese culture that has captivated them all, the onsen, or Japanese hot spring baths. Mineral rich and often with breathtaking views, there are thousands of onsen spread out across Japan. To the average Japanese, they are a welcome respite from a hard day`s work and wonderful weekend getaways. Now, it`s important for me to come clean (ha, see that?) and admit that I have also fallen in love with onsen over the years, gradually succumbing to their alluring touch. Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture and Echigo-Yuzawa are a few of the places I`ve traveled to in order to slip my tired body into a pool of refreshment. From the first time I encountered them I knew onsen were special and though hot springs are found in other countries, few have developed into such a refined sub-culture.
The Chinese characters for onsen, 温泉, literally mean “warm” and “spring”. Their existence having been recorded for centuries, these springs are an inherent characteristic of Japan, as the country is made up of volcanic islands of various sizes that generate them. Some of the oldest onsen like Tamatsakuri and Dogi are even mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest chronicles of Japanese classical history, being completed in 720 AD. They have been frequented by everyone from samurai lords to the common people, finding their way into art and poetry. In the past it was more common to find both sexes in the same bath, but these days they are often separated into male (男) and female (女). In contrast to a sento, a public bath of heated tap water, a true onsen uses only natural spring water from deep within the earth. According to the onsen law enacted in 1948, this water must be 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher and contain certain levels of hydrogen ion and sulfur, amongst other elements, to qualify.
My mind goes back now a few years, when the tingling heat of Hokkaido`s Jozankei onsen slowly washed away busy thoughts of history and records, snow gently falling, melting before touching the water. The mountain air was crisp and the scenery wild as I enjoyed the roten-buro, or outdoor onsen, before heading back to the total warmth of it`s indoor brother, the utiburo. Once inside the steamy room, I remember enjoying the rustic wooden beams and stone floors, feeling like I was somehow suddenly displaced in time. My clothes had already been put away in one of the lockers in the changing room and I was briefly reminded that I was still a visitor to this culture, sheepishly keeping a small towel in front. Sitting down on the wooden stool in the washing area, I filled up a bucket with hot water from one of the removable shower heads. As with many practices you observe while traveling, you learn by doing what the locals do when explanations are scarce, so I looked around and dumped the bucket over my head. This is to acclimate your body to the high temperatures of the onsen, helping to prevent temporary rise of blood pressure. Next, a good scrubbing is in order because you are not allowed into the onsen dirty or covered in soap suds. This keeps the spring water pure and clear and forgetting this step is a definite faux pas in onsen etiquette. Finally, there was only one thing left to do, find a spot in a pool of naked Japanese men who had suddenly stopped chatting and were now looking in my direction. Eyes squinted in thought, mouths open and heads tilted to the side in confusion. When your skin is 2 shades darker than most here, you grow accustomed to these faces, but not so easily in the nude. Still, the hot spring called so I slowly stepped into the water, settled down neck deep and gazed out through the massive windows at the winter wonderland before us. It didn`t take long before a weird, alchemic, English/Japanese hybrid conversation began, after which the experience became truly complete.
The right onsen encounter can prove to be an unforgettable memory that you`d be hard pressed to make anywhere else. They are not only places to relax but great outlets for communication and insight into the Japanese character. For me, these springs are a bit of blissful irony as I continue to search them out in earnest, even traveling as far as Hokkaido, in order to strip down, ease into the steamy waters and once again, go nowhere.