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Content accurate at time of publication

01 Jan 2012

Indulge in Japan’s healing hot springs with visits to these four ryokans that exemplify the genre. Text and photos by JOHN ASHBURNE

Sitting in a beautiful rotenburo (outdoor bath) on the slopes of Japan’s Mount Haruna years ago, hot spring expert Tomio Motohashi told me, “There are onsen everywhere. Poke a stick in the ground and hot water will come out.”

By onsen, he meant the venerable hot springs and associated ryokans (traditional inns) that have captivated the Japanese for centuries – and of course, now offer their myriad pleasures to tourists too.

The Japanese, now as then, don’t just wash – they bathe. Visiting an onsen resort, be it a single rural inn in a lonely hamlet or a glitzy modern hotel set amid the trappings of a hot spring holiday town, remains as popular as ever. It is a pastime that transcends age, gender, wealth – and indeed, any worries about appearing naked in front of a bunch of strangers.

So what’s the attraction? A bath is surely just a bath? Well, in Japan, it isn’t – it is an ofuro. That initial letter “o” is an honorific reserved for special things in life, like ofukuro (mother), otera (Buddhist temple) and, in some circles, obiiru (beer).

Historically speaking, to soak in a Japanese hot spring is to take an “Honourable Bath”. Wounded samurai would retire to mountainous hot springs to recuperate before the next bout of bloodletting. Even today, if you find an onsen that can claim to be a Heike Ochiudo site, where the warriors of the 12th century Heike clan fled to lick their wounds and bathe, you know you are in a classic, and invariably, excellent hot spring.

The practice of touji (visiting an onsen to cure illness) is still quite common. Animals knew this long ago, of course – according to legend, most hot springs were discovered by injured men of war, deer or saints.

The inn is at the heart of the Japanese onsen experience – hot spring bathing has rarely been a solitary activity and is definitely not a spartan affair. Japan’s hot spring inns are as varied as the waters upon which they are founded, but certain constants remain: unparalleled Japanese hospitality; impeccable and trustworthy service; luxury, to some lesser or often greater degree; healthy and very delicious food.

Indulgence, hedonism, having a damned good time – whatever you decide to call it – onsen bathing has always been an exercise in pleasure. Eat, drink, be merry and get in the bath. Enjoy, or as they say in these parts, tanoshinde!