Last Sunday afternoon, I headed down to Hakone for an afternoon of onsen therapy with a couple of friends, one of whom has an adorable three year-old son. And was it ever amazing!! We started the afternoon off driving up a winding mountain road until we got to a cute little train station called Gora, which had lots of greenery, many winding streets lined with little artsy shops, and–at last: an onsen that we had *completely* to ourselves!!
For me, onsen are *definitely* one of the top pleasures of living in Japan. I have visited onsen in every conceivable kind of weather–from a rotemburo (outdoor onsen) with snow lightly dusting my shoulders during winter in Iwate (northern Honshu island) to swimming naked with friends back in my young and rowdy days during summer in the onsen resort area of Kinugawa (Tochigi prefecture) . 😉
An onsen (温泉?) is a term for hot springs in the Japanese language, though the term is often used describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. A volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered along its length and breadth. Onsen were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in directing Japanese domestic tourism.
I like this last part, because it conveys the lack of morality-tinged weirdness around being naked in front of other folks (at least within the space of the onsen) that is found within Japanese culture. It is simply about the natural, cozy pleasures of spending a good time with friends while soaking and scrubbing, with the relaxing aromas of steam and soap wafting through the air. It’s sort of hard to describe unless you’ve actually had the experience yourself, but it’s definitely amazing!
Anyway, we had almost given up hope of finding an onsen because by the time we got around to going to one, most inns were already closed with the exception of their paying overnight customers. We did finally find one that let us come, though, and not only was it fabulous; we also ended up being the only ones there!! The particular onsen that we found had the aroma (er, odor?) or sulfur wafting all around the building, so we knew it was authentic!
Although we had been hoping to find something with a rotenburo, this one was perfect in every other way: a nice interior with soft, soothing tones of gray and brown, a large pool that my friend’s son Leeroy had a great time sending the wooden washing bowls cruising around in as if they were fish; a wonderfully hot sauna with a cold pool for soaking in afterward whose temperature was actually hospitable to the human body (usually they are so freezing cold that it is impossible to enter them unless you have special meditative self-control powers 😉 ), and an array of luscious body products such as shampoos and soaps made from sumi (liquid charcoal), collagen, and bayu (horse fat). Sounds bizarre, but their restorative powers are supposed to be superb. And that was exactly what our afternoon/evening turned out to be!