The Rebirth of the Japanese Hot Spring
The word onsen (温泉) conjures up images in Japanese books and movies and trendy TV dramas of lovely old hot spring resorts ‘neath snow-covered pines, and oneness with nature as you soak away your cares in a scalding, steamy, outdoor tub in the middle of winter. It also suggests cultural continuity, as some of these springs have been visited by pilgrims since ancient times. Until recently, it was expected that a guest would stay a night or two, enjoy a dinner and breakfast (included in the cost) featuring specialties of the area, and leisurely take the waters at the inn’s communal indoor tubs (ofuro) or outdoor baths (rotenburo). Many springs were famous for the healing properties of their waters (see sidebar). If you believe all those JR travel posters and beer ads on TV, there is no better life than sitting in a piping hot rotenburo, beer in hand (saké if you’re a purist), gazing out on the snow-covered hills.
Sadly, the thought of going to a hot spring leaves many foreigners in Japan cold. Not many of us can boast of a hot-spring tradition (not since the Romans left), and considering the historical difficulty of obtaining hot water in the winter, not much of a bathing tradition either. Westerners are probably cleaner now than at any time since Nero, but our thinking is still too often utilitarian: get in the shower, get out, don’t waste the water, think of the heating bills. True, the invention of the shower head has probably saved more lives than penicillin, but where’s the poetry? For however long you might be staying in Japan, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the hot water culture of these islands: it warms you in the winter, cools you in the summer, and keeps you clean and shiny all those times in between.
All right, so you’re new to the country, have read all the brochures, have seen all the photos, have screwed up your courage, and then you’re confronted with this:
“Arima Onsen (Arima Hot Springs) is located in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture and it is one of the oldest hot spring areas in Japan. Located on the northern slopes of Mount Rokko, Arima Hot Springs is full of expensive hotels, souvenir shops, and resorts. It is a very good destination for a first introduction to a hot spring resort.” – from a homepage advertising Japanese Guest Houses and Onsens
Well, there is a lot to be said for truth in advertising: come to our baths and get soaked! Sadly, though, Arima, the ancient hot spring village in Rokko, Hyogo Prefecture, might not be the ideal place for your first onsen stay. Beautiful , yes, therapeutic waters, yes, but crowded and expensive; you realize that all those brochure photos were taken at 6 in the morning. On the other hand, you might consider crowds to be part and parcel of living in Japan, and as a Japanese friend of mine sensibly remarked, “Who goes to an onsen alone? How boring is that?”
In the post-war boom years, with their disposable income and improved transportation, Japanese families began traveling more within their own country. With all the new business, innkeepers had to constantly upgrade and expand their facilities and compete with the hotel chains who had deep pockets and marketing savvy. In the 1970s, many picturesque old inns were replaced –some tastefully, others not – with concrete mini-hotels. The boom, however, was ultimately the death of many of those same resorts: with the Bubble Economy of the late-80s, travelers, especially those lucrative honeymooners (believe it or not, Wakayama was once the Waikiki of Kansai), began preferring package tours abroad to weekends in the sticks. Quantity began to equal quality – those six-day, eight-city “tours” of Europe were not urban myths. In an atmosphere like that, souvenir towels from Gifu could not compete with Rémy Martin from the Duty-Free. Many large, concrete onsens began to be thought of as kitschy, dated places for retirement trips, not old enough to be quaint, not novel enough to compete with a week on the Gold Coast.
Then came the recession of the 90s, and the industry began to stagnate. Many onsen which lacked historical significance or worthwhile views closed their doors, but the recession was for some younger members of the industry a blessing in disguise. It forced them to rethink the whole concept of the bath while tapping into the cultural love of a good long soak.
YUKAI RESORTS: MAKE IT NEW!
Ishikawa Prefecture, just northeast of the Kinki region, was one such place, rife with onsen resorts which had seen better days. A local company, Yukai Resorts, saw an opportunity where everyone else saw piles of moldy cement, and began buying up the resorts, which despite being run-down, were still on prime land.
They renovated both the properties and the idea of running a hot spring: while the older generations found comfort in the predictability of onsen schedules (check-in time at 3, dinner from 5:30 to 7, take it or leave it), a younger generation finds them oppressive and inflexible. So check-in time is now anytime. Also, guests pay a flat rate of ¥7800, which is incredibly cheap by onsen standards (you’re lucky to get a puny business hotel for that price in Osaka!), and for a ¥2000 round trip, a shuttle bus (from Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya) will take you to the chain’s various resorts in Ishikawa.
As for dinner and breakfast, meals are now buffet-style, and feature Japanese, Chinese and Western food. The Yukai onsens have really caught on with younger Japanese customers who prefer their hot water served without a heavy side-order of tradition.
Naturally, the main attractions are still the baths, the saunas, and the rotenburo, all restored to their past standards. If you’re new to Japan, and that first paycheque is burning a hole in your mattress, this might be a great way to ease yourself into the Japanese bathing culture without the accompanying culture shock. Due to their popularity, though, the places are booked solid (especially on weekends at this time of year) but if you’ve got time on a weekday, persistence pays off.
Spa World: If you build it, they will come.
The other innovation of the past few years has been to build spas which feature international style saunas and baths in an urban setting. These onsens rely more on day-trippers than overnight guests to make a living. The biggest, and arguably the best of these is Osaka’s Spa World.
Don’t take your first impression of Spa World (near Dobutsuen-mae Station, exit 5) from the dismal Festival Gate, a failed, cavernous amusement space which clings to the spa like an evil twin. Walk past the boarded-up merry-go-round and the three still-functioning food outlets and you’ll come to Spa World’s entrance. The place is huge. Periodically, admission to SpaWorld is only ¥1000 (luckily, March is one of those times, but in April, the price will go back up to ¥2700). The main lobby is always swarming with patrons then, but such is the size of the place that it never really seems crowded in the bathing areas. The “Europa” spa zone is on the 4th floor, and the “Asia” zone is on the 6th (in March, women will use the “Europa”, men the “Asia”,alternating in April). In the Asia zone, you’ll be able to lounge in a fragrant Japanese hinoki (cypress) bath, visit a salt sauna (popular in Korea), and go outside to three amazingly authentic rotenburo and smaller wooden hot tubs. (you really do forget that you’re on the 6th floor of a downtown building). The European sauna is a cross between Helsinki (Finnish sauna and cold bath), ancient Rome (a large bath with huge fountain-like statues from an old gladiator movie), and a good YMCA (mini jacuzzis). There are also aromatherapeutic herbal baths (huge herbal teabags are moored in the brown water! They’re great!).You don’t have to bring anything: the price of admission includes towels, toothbrushes, disposable razors, as well as jimbei (pajamas with short pants) for men and muumuus for women – to lounge in when you’re using the gym, restaurants, game centers or other facilities in the building. For mixed bathing, go to the swimming pool on the top floor (put a bathing suit on, by the way).
So while the traditional Japanese onsen is still alive and well, the industry as a whole has moved into the 21st century. You’ve got plenty of choices now: the most boring one is your own little bathtub.
Four of the Best Daytrips
Chosen for accessibility, affordability, or general charm. NB: Mixed bathing is a rarity in Kansai onsen, and these are no exception. Home pages are all in Japanese.
Especially beautiful in the autumn, with a nice view of the mountain and the famous monkeys therein. Water soothes rheumatism, arthritis, and menopause.
• Mino Tourist Hotel: Lunch and baths, ¥4,000; dinner and bath, ¥6,000; rotenburo for women only.
• Spa Gardens (next door), ¥1,300 (includes use of indoor pool and gym); men’s and women’s rotenburo
Getting there: Take the Hankyu Takarazuka Line (express) from Umeda to Ishibashi; change to the Mino Line to Mino Station; one-way from Umeda: 30 minutes; fare: ¥400.
Senri Onsen (Suita, Osaka)
Senri no yu: originally built as a retreat for MBS TV employees — hence the slightly incongru-ous Ultraman statue out front — the otherwise tasteful Senri-no-yu features an excellent engawa (narrow veranda) overlooking a spacious rotenburo garden. In fact in summer, half of one wall slides open and the inside bath becomes a rotenburo too. This is what a modern onsen should look like.
Day trips only: ¥1,200.
Getting there: JR Kyoto Line from Osaka to Senrioka Stn. One way, 15 minutes: local train; fare ¥210. From there, take the free shuttle bus from the west exit of the station.
Kurama Onsen (Kyoto)
A natural sulfur spring (bene-ficial for heart disease and hardening of the arteries),
plus a beautiful view of the mountains from the open-air baths make this a meditative must. Situated between Kurama Temple and Kibune Shrine.
Getting there: From Osaka, take the Keihan Main Line from Yodoyabashi Stn (kyuuko express); change at Kyoto Demachiyanagi Stn. to the Eizan Line (local train) and get off at the terminus, Kurama Stn. One way, about 90 minutes. Fare: ¥870. There is a free shuttle bus from the station to the onsen. www.kurama-onsen.co.jp/plan01/index.html
Ryuujin Onsen (Wakayama)
This onsen is best gotten to by car. It’s fairly famous in Kansai, for both the view of the river and the mountain across from it (gorgeous in autumn), and for the healing properties of the waters. Ryuujin is a bicarbonate spring, and the alkalis soften your skin and cleanse your liver. I went to this one on a muggy summer afternoon and left feeling totally refreshed. Amazing.
This article originally appeared in Kansai Scene number 70, March 2006