Stripping off for the first time in public takes a bit of courage. Not so for most Japanese, where in a bathhouse at least, it is natural to be naked. The locals have been doing it all their lives and it is nothing for them to bare their flesh in the sanctity of a public bathroom.
Be encouraged – you do not need to be Japanese to enjoy the pleasures of natural hot springs (onsens) and you can test the waters at Okutama Onsen, nestled in the mountains of the Tama valley in north-west Tokyo. One of the delights of this onsen is that you don’t need a car to get there. Simply jump on the train from the centre of Tokyo and about two hours later, you will find yourself in the gentle, green Japanese countryside. The Tama, a gushing, crystal clear river, (great for swimming in summer) flows through the small mountain village and is visible from the bath where you will be soaking away your cares, wondering if this is Tokyo’s best kept secret.
On arrival, men and women are directed into segregated bathing areas. Be careful you don’t go into the wrong side; it’s easy to do, as the half curtains (noren) which hang in front of the door don’t have the universal male/female symbol printed on them. Generally blue is for men (otoko) and red for women (onna). If confused, just wait for someone enter so you can ascertain which is which. Once inside, it’s time to get naked. Bring or hire a wash cloth for demurely draping over your private bits when you are not in the bath. There are lockers to put belongings in and your key hangs around your wrist.
Before getting anywhere near the hot tubs, you must wash and rinse thoroughly. Japanese women can take hours in the bathroom at home and a visit to the onsen means even more hair and body washing and pumice stoning of feet than usual. There are tiny wooden stools to sit on in front of the faucets and big bottles of shampoo, conditioner and soap. Once again, its tough working out which one is which and it is best to ask someone, at least so you don’t soap your hair. (Try ‘so-pu’ for soap, ‘shan-pu’ for shampoo and ‘kondishona’ for, you guessed it, conditioner). After a thorough cleanse, you are ready to enter the bath.
First, just dip your toe into the steaming pool of geothermal water. It may feel scalding, but be encouraged by those already soaking and ease your entire body into the smooth water. (‘Smooth due to all the water-softening minerals). After a few seconds the temperature will become more comfortable. Settle in against the tiled rim of the bath and put your wet wash cloth on your head and not in the water (considered uncouth and unclean). Unlike some hot springs which can have up to twenty different pools, the Okutama Onsen is small and cosy, with just an inside bath, tiled, immaculately clean and with a large window to admire the view of the river valley. Step outside through sliding glass doors into crisp, clean air to the second tub, made of sweet-smelling cypress, traditionally used in baths all over Japan.
When the locals emerge from the bathhouse, their skin is glowing and healthy, whereas the very pale-skinned among us invariably come out looking like blotchy boiled lobsters. So beware: don’t do exactly as the Japanese do. Stay in each bath for a maximum ten minutes at a time, interspersed with cold showers and drink copious amounts of water. Having said this, visiting an onsen is wonderfully relaxing and therapeutic and despite how you may look on the outside for half an hour afterwards, you will feel all tingly and purified.
After the rigours of the bathhouse, recline on the wonderful smelling ‘tatami’ (woven rush straw) mats in the adjoining restaurant. With the same picturesque views (minus the naked bodies), you can relax with a large ice-cold beer, a small ceramic carafe of sake (cold, unless it is winter), or some green tea and a serve of the local speciality: udon (wheat) noodles with a delicious sesame dipping sauce.
Sidebar 1: Getting There
Two hours from Tokyo or Shinjuku stations in the centre of Tokyo. Okutama station is the last stop. It is a ten minute walk to the onsen. You’ll see the signs: the symbol for onsen is a shallow bowl with steam rising from it. It is open everyday except Monday. 750 yen ($8.50 ) entry. You can stay as long as you want.
Sidebar 2: Bathing Japanese Style
There are about 3000 spa resorts (where you can stay) and a further 3000 outdoor (and often free) onsens (rotenburo) in Japan, all fed by volcanically-heated water. There are a range of variations on the traditional bath: cold plunge pools; jet-pools; denki buro – literally ‘electric bath’, said to relieve muscular pain (yes, this one is for masochists only); mini waterfalls; Turkish Hamman style and steam rooms, plus shiatsu and coin-operated massage chairs.
The temperature of the water will no doubt be a shock; sometimes as hot as 42 degrees, but the Japanese swear by the healing properties of both the heat and the minerals in the water. From a very young age, children are encouraged to bathe in such temperatures both at home, at the local public baths (sento) and at the hot springs (onsens). Most Japanese houses have their own bath. Cube-shaped, they are for sitting in rather than reclining. The water is up to your neck and piping hot. A whole family will share the same bathwater, one after the other, heating it up between bodies with the inbuilt gas heater. Before you climb in, you can use the hand-held sieve to fish out any floaties. As with public baths, it may sound a bit off-putting, but, considering everyone has washed thoroughly, they are probably cleaner that your local swimming pool.
When you tire of all that, in most onsen, you can stay overnight for around 10,000 yen ($100) a night including dinner. In the middle of the night it is hard to resist heading down for another dip in the baths.
Published in The Courier Mail (Brisbane) March 28-29 2009.
© Heather Scott 2009 All rights reserved