Hot About the Onsen
January 1, 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!
The Onsen as Meditation
Perched on the edges of the sleepy hot spring town of Yamashiro, in Ishikawa Prefecture, is one of Japan’s most elegant onsen ryokans.
More redolent of a wealthy friend’s private art museum than a place of rest for the weary traveller – though it is very much that too – Mukayu is named after a concept described 2,300 years ago by famed Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. Mukayu means non-existence and refers to enjoying something in its natural state.
With simplicity at its core, the retreat, designed by award-winning architect Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama, is a joy – its rooms reflect simplicity and a purity of form-meets-function. Crafted in tatami (rice straw), bamboo and shoji paper screens, these rooms are the reason architects, designers and artsy types flock to Mukayu in droves.
Yet the inn also possesses a sense of playfulness and liveability – it never veers off into pretension or cold austerity. Quirky artwork dot the corridors, the spacious entrance hall welcomes you into its airy embrace, a yoga space looks out into a beautiful wooden terrace and the gorgeous semi-wild garden is always within sight.
Rustic Hospitality at Ocean's Edge
LAMP NO YADO
Owner Shuichi Tone comes from a family of shipbuilders dating back 400 years, his destiny tied inevitably to where the land meets the sea. His traditional onsen ryokan Lamp no Yado perches precariously at the very tip of Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto-hanto Peninsula, quite literally metres from the foaming, turbulent Sea of Japan.
On our visit, the sea was in no mood to be welcoming. It boiled, hissed and spat, vying with rain and icy wind to send us scurrying inland to safer, more hospitable climes. Occasionally, the sun broke through the dark clouds, allowing rainbows to flash through the sky. Yet there was no need to flee too far. We dropped into the open-air rotenburo bath, with its 40°C water, where the warmth seeped into our bones and all was well with the world again.
Over a lush dinner of winter crab, served at a table beside an antique decorative yoroi samurai suit of armour, the cheery owner says, “Our guests drift into a trance in the bath. They can’t stop staring at the ocean.”
Lamp no Yado means “The House of the Oil Lamps”. Today, the lamps may be electrically powered but the warmth and hospitality of this northern Ishikawa outpost remain as authentic, reminding us that, above all, an onsen means comfort, pleasure and fun.
Rural Setting, Designer Chic
RIVER RETREAT GARAKU
The approach to River Retreat Garaku takes you through the tiny farming villages that dot the plain around Toyama City. Rice farmers still toil in the fields as they have for centuries and the ancient diurnal cycle remains the same as it has always been – work, eat and sleep.
After passing the farmhouses, rural dwellings and ancient stone statues of Jizo dotting the roadside, the low-slung ultra-modern architectural outline of River Retreat Garaku might come as a visual shock.
The Aston Martin and Bentley parked in the driveway remind visitors that, though they’re out in the countryside, this onsen ryokan doesn’t have mud on its metaphorical boots – the city sophisticates are out here in force.
Garaku revels in its otherness or what the Japanese call zure, a deliberate contrast. Yet what could have been a disaster – an art-filled modernist building set among rural dwellings does sound quite out of place – isn’t. Garaku works beautifully.
The stylish rooms are spacious and hip, with high-tech TVs nestled seamlessly alongside designer Italian and Scandinavian-inspired furniture. The hot spring baths range from the minimally elegant (the ladies’ spa bath overlooking a river is a beauty) to the no-nonsense rock solid (the men’s rotenburo bath). Yet what puts Garaku into a different class is its artsy designer chic – the classy abode was designed by multi award-winning architect Hiroshi Naito after all – and its accomplished restaurants.
Garaku’s French and Japanese restaurants really up the ante in the onsen ryokan food stakes. Take for instance, the creations of culinary superstar Kida Yasuo. Enticed from Kyoto’s famous two-Michelin-starred Gion Sasaki, Yasuo’s creations are all superb, but his toro (tuna) sushi alone makes the trip to Toyama worthwhile.
Home Away From Home
Long ago, in the mist of pre-recorded time, the Shinto gods Izanagi and Izanami created Awaji Island from cosmic ether, and being Japanese gods, they made sure it was blessed with the essentials for divine and mortal recreational bliss – namely an abundance of hot springs and a surrounding ocean offering the most delicious seafood in creation.
Mindful of the Shinto deities’ bountiful generosity, the owners of the Hotel New Awaji group created Villa Rakuen – its name meaning “Garden of Relaxation” – in the summer of 2010, with comfort and cuisine as its guiding principles. The property is located just a short hop across the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge from the Honshu mainland.
Villa Rakuen is a favourite with city dwellers from nearby Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. Its simple but elegant Japanese-style family-sized rooms are finished in lovely hand-carved wood and are perfect for those travelling in groups. Its bar, spa, games centre, swimming pool and sky lounge on the topmost floor offer ample diversion for all. The baths are a pleasant mix of sodium and mineral-infused water, known to be excellent for the skin, and said to alleviate high blood pressure and detoxify the body.
Onsen Dos and Don'ts
Hiroe Izawa, a 75-year veteran of onsen bathing, offers her advice on basic hot spring etiquette.
GET IN THE RIGHT BATH
The Japanese Kanji character 男 denotes the male bath, 女 the female. Occasionally, these are replaced with 殿 and 姫, meaning tono (prince) and hime (princess), most often on the hanging curtain at the entrance to the bath.
MIXED BATHING IS ALLOWED
Unisex baths are called konyoku-buro or kazoku-buro, literally family baths. They are usually available by appointment only. Be warned: Onsens in the heart of the countryside may practise mixed bathing by default – gender separation in this case may not be available.
USE YOUR “MODESTY TOWEL”
The tenugui (Japanese cotton towel) is essential as it allows you to cover up your most private areas as you make your way to the bath. It’s a matter of personal style as to how you use it once in the bath – veterans place it on the head while submerged, believing it will prevent them from passing out from the heat.
NO SOAP IN THE BATH
Wash first at the shower stalls adjacent to the bath, making sure to rinse off shampoo and body soap. And then before stepping in, ladle hot water over yourself from the bath using the wooden bucket provided.
Requirements vary. Visit www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa for details.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
For winter snow and the finest seafood, visit in January or February. A trip in April or May will allow you to admire cherry blossoms and for autumn leaves, a visit in November or December is perfect.
HOW TO GET THERE
Singapore Airlines flies 11 times weekly from Singapore to Osaka.
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