Japan is famous for its work ethic, but I was still surprised by the long hours that some of my friends worked during a typical week. I suppose the antidote to that kind of stress is the Japanese onsen or “hot springs”. I feel lucky to have experienced 3 very different onsen while travelling in Japan.
plaque for Sakinoyu onsen, Shirahama, Japan
I went to Shirahama for a day to see its sights and decided it was the perfect place to experience a Japanese onsen for the first time at Sakinoyu. It’s famous, extremely old, outdoors, and cheap! I read up on the place before I went, but I was still surprised by how simple it was. The hot spring baths are blocked off by rocks and a fence—but onsen visitors are open to the sky and the gorgeous ocean scenery and soak in the nude while inhibitions are drained away by the delicious heat! (Men and women’s pools are separated by a fence.) The toilets are in the parking lot outside, as are the lockers for your valuables. When I was there, 2 cheerful attendants took me through the drill in terms of lockers, paying 300 yen to the vending machine (around $3.50 Canadian), and what is allowed and not allowed inside the bath area. Once inside, there are cubbies for your clothes, but there isn’t a lot of space for disrobing. I went on a hot afternoon in May, and it wasn’t busy. Wanting to avoid errors of onsen etiquette (like…where was I supposed to leave my shoes?), I asked a naked woman beside me a few simple questions. She and her friend, cheerful ladies in their 60’s from Osaka, were happy to initiate me into the wonders of onsen and put up with my grammatically ridiculous questions (such as which pool of the 3 is the hottest and which one should I start in?). They didn’t know much English and I knew only a little Japanese, but we quite enjoyed our conversation.
Warning! Onsen are bliss-inducing for some folk (including me). There was no clock in this rustic and utterly fantastic place, so I just stayed on after my new friends had left. In this peaceful state, I watched the ocean and the sky happily and even the huge, grey centipede-like creatures, scuttling over the rocks from time-to-time, looked like messengers from the Gods.
When I emerged, the friendly attendant laughed at how red my face was from the heat and the sunshine. I felt very, very relaxed. And hot! It took a long walk, wading in the pleasantly cool waters of Shirahama Beach to bring my temperature down to normal.
After a long soak in the famous Sakinoyu Onsen, Shirahama, Japan
Note: for some awesome pictures of this onsen, click here to visit the “Onsen Soaker” blog. (I didn’t bring my camera inside as it was forbidden!)
After my time in Wakayama, I went to visit my friend Nori in Yugawara, a small city known for its healing hot springs. The first hot spring Nori and I visited was just for our feet! The set-up was quite engaging and the little pools, connected by rushing water and paths, reminded me of a mini-golf course. I was astounded and delighted to discover the purpose of this onsen. Each pool had a different texture on the bottom: some had big stones, some had small stones, some had a metal grid, others had bumpy texture put into the cement bottom. Each pool had a plaque explaining which body system it benefited.
Onsen for feet, Yugawara, Japan
It started to rain soon after we arrived at the pools, but fortunately we were sitting on a bench soaking our feet under a small roof. There was thunder and lightning. Some other visitors stuck it out but many left. At one point, I heard a little “plunk” and looked to my right to see the guy sitting next to me scooping his smartphone out of the onsen pool without a single exclamation. That seemed to me rather stoic, but I guess it brought home the truth that onsen are designed for relaxation not using electronic devices.
After the rain let up, Nori and I went directly to the hottest pool, which also had the bumpiest bottom, apparently made up of smooth river stones. We enjoyed trying out all of the different textures on our toes.
textured foot onsen in Yugawara, Japan
After the foot onsen, Nori and I continued walking up the pretty river ravine to a local hot spring spa. This place was fairly large and featured lockers with numeric combinations to lock your shoes up as soon as you arrived. My friend and I arranged to meet up at the “rest area” after about an hour and a half in the baths, and he went into the men’s side, and I went into the ladies’ side. This onsen also had three pools. Two of them were inside and one was outside. There was a sizable area for locking up valuables, disrobing (you could leave your clothes in a basket or lock them up with your other stuff), mirrors and hair driers for cleaning up afterwards, and a scale in case you wanted to see how much weight you had lost after the steam bath. The washing area (it is essential that bathers wash themselves before entering the hot spring pools) was in the onsen area and had a dozen or so taps with hand-held shower heads, buckets, and pumps with shampoo and bodywash. This area was so steamy it was difficult to see the clock clearly at times.
After getting clean, I tried the first pool, which was pleasant, but I found the steamy fog difficult to breathe and soon went to the outside pool. Unlike Sakinoyu, which was open to the sky and the sea, this pool was gently secluded by bamboo matting, thick vegetation, rocks, and a fence. There was a waterfall trickling to the left and a stone temple lantern, there was water dripping down from the bamboo matting. Was it raining or sunny outside? Sometimes, looking through the verdant layer of leaves, it was hard to tell. This was a dreamy place to rest and let the mind slow down. Convenient rock shelves served as places to sit when women wanted to cool off or to rest their heads when they wanted to let their bodies float. Women came and went, and no one talked much to each other, rather, our languid movements mirrored some kind of inward process unique to each individual as we let go of daily concerns in the soothing hot water.
Eventually, it was time to leave this dream-state and meet my friend. I managed to retrieve my towel and clothes, find my comb, use the hairdryer, and appear somewhat presentable. I then made my way upstairs to the rest space, where free green tea was available. Here I was surprised again! The tatami mat area had low tables and flat pillows for sitting or lying and the huge windows looked out at the peacefully forested mountains. And what were people doing? Drinking tea, talking quietly, and… napping! Okay, if I had any doubts before, I had none now. This was definitely my kind of place. After rehydrating with some kind of blueberry yogurt drink, and chatting with my friend for a few minutes, we each found our own comfortable spots and took naps, along with a bunch of other totally relaxed strangers. I woke up about half and hour later, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
napping & resting area with great view, Yugawara, Japan
One of the Osaka ladies at the first onsen I visited asked me if we had onsen in Canada; regretfully, I had to tell her “not really”…. I could only think of one place in B.C. (Harrison Hotsprings). However, a quick peek on the internet tells me there are actually a lot of hot springs in Canada (check it out here). No doubt they are totally different from the Japanese hot spring culture, but the next time I’m travelling in Western Canada, I will try to check one or two of them out. Relaxing in hot water with nothing else to do but dream—that’s a good thing wherever we happen to be…even in our own bathtubs at home.