In some cultures floating around naked with strangers would land you in hot water. In Japan it quite literally does, but this is not a story about exploits in a far flung destination but a story about Japanese hot springs.
The Japanese have been soaking in hot springs (onsens) for over 2,000 years and it’s safe to say they know a few things about this ancient tradition. With over 138 million people visiting 55,000 onsens every year and containing small amounts of radical carbon, salt, and other minerals, onsens and are the perfect jetlag remedy.
Quintessentially Japanese, there is an etiquette to public bathing. These are not rules to be broken or you could be asked to leave, and given you’re as naked as the day you were born, this is a scene best avoided:
- If you’re staying at a ryokan (a hotel with hot springs attached) you’ll be given a robe to wear to the baths, worn with the left side wrapped over the right and tied with an obi (sash), which is to be left in the lockers with your belongs and clothing.
- Yes, you’re going to be naked however the sexes are generally segregated. This is not an exercise of sexuality and vanity, but one of relaxation and contemplation.
- An onsen is for soaking, not washing. The more you lather up and scrub every crevice prior to soaking, the more accepted you will be. All soap must be thoroughly rinsed off before entering the onsen.
- You’ll be given a hand towel which is to be placed on the ground near to where you’ll be wallowing. You may use the towel to dab the sweat off your brow, but it’s never to enter the water.
- Anything apart from your pristine body entering the water is considered unclean, including hair (to be worn up) jewellery, clothing, and soap. Tattoos are associated with gangsters, so if you do have ink best to mention it before entering; while you’re still conservatively dressed.
- As a foreigner, the locals will be politely curious, and you might be grateful for the modesty of steam.
- Making small talk with strangers is considered suspicious.
- And the most important rule of all: relax!
Sitting on the volcanic belt which causes havoc and heartache Mother Nature makes some compensation for the tectonic flaw with her gift of hot springs. The tradition of immersing oneself in hot waters shows no signs of changing and is more popular than ever with the influx of tourists returning to Japan’s shores. Dipping your toe into an unknown culture can be an exhilarating experience for the uninitiated, and all the goodness gushing from within the earth’s core is sure to leave an impression as sure as your jetlag floats away.
Where to land in hot water:
In the Chiba Prefecture about 45 minutes from the Narita airport, the Yamato no Yu (www.yamatonoyu.com/eng/) onsen overlooks Inba Lake and has shimmering views of Mt Fuji. The baths are full of nutrients believed to cure nerve tension, muscle pain, incision injuries, burns, and gynaecological disorders. End your treatment in the Radiant Bath, a heated chair designed to maintain 1-1.5 degrees above your body temperature.
Located in the heart of Itako city along the Soyokaze River (aka River of the 12 Bridges) is the Itako Hotel (1-10-7 Ayame, Itako-shi, Ibaraki Prefecture) and its main bath offers views of Mt Tsukuba and Lake Kasumigaura. Many of the traditional Japanese style rooms command river views and in June the adjacent Iris Garden is in full bloom, and heaving with snap-happy bridal parties.
In the Ibaraki Prefecture on Mt Tsukuba, one of Japans famous 100 mountains known for its twin peaks (believed to be male and female bestowing marital harmony) is Tsukuba Grand Hotel (www.tsukuba-grandhotel.co.jp) with an open-air hot spring and a view of the Kanto Plain. The waters are high in alkaline, which are known to help with nerve pain, aching muscles and joints, and reduce fatigue.
Onsen Ma (Level 1/12-18 Meyers Pl) is as traditional as you can get outside of Japan with private and public baths and shiatsu massages.