In some cultures floating around naked with strangers would land you in hot water. In Japan it quite literally does, but this is not a story about exploits in a far- flung destination. Even if your visit is fleeting, a layover from Narita Airport (approximately 1 hour from Tokyo) ensures you’re ideally located for a rendezvous with the perfect remedy for fatigue, jetlag and countless other ailments.
The Japanese have been soaking in hot springs for over 2,000 years and when Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century, monks set up temples with lodgings often on the same sites as hot springs for road weary pilgrims. Once the Edo Period (1603-1867) arrived, so did the construction of highways and a train system, leading to more frequent trips by merchants, affluent families and leisure travellers. The travel boom saw the opening of inns with onsens (hot springs), known as ryokans, where travellers still visit for leisure and health purposes.
With over 138 million people visiting 55,000 onsens every year, even the most common ones contain small amounts of radical carbon, salt and other minerals. Each type is known for its unique benefits and salt springs have a high concentration of minerals and salts; and although are the perfect jetlag remedy, hot springs have many therapeutic benefits. Carbonated onsens are said to aid those with heart conditions, blood circulation disorders and neurological disorders. Those containing sodium chloride offer relief from painful joints, arthritis and rheumatism. Iron springs are identified by their boiling red water and offer relief for painful joints, menopausal discomforts and chronic skin diseases. Soaking in sulphur springs reeking of rotten eggs is not going to satisfy the romantics, but will help to prevent the hardening of the arteries. Springs containing radium lower blood pressure, aid in the prevention of the hardening of the arteries, are good for digestive disorders or rheumatism. Acid onsens may seem like they belong in a Bond movie, but are actually indigenous to Japan, thanks to the high concentration of hydrogen ions which are good for chronic skin conditions and diabetes; however they should be avoided by those with sensitive skin.
In the Chiba Prefecture about 45 minutes from the Narita airport, the Yamato no Yu (www.yamatonoyu.com/eng/) onsen overlooks Inba Lake, and with views of Mt. Fuji shimmering in the distance, it delivers a taste of Japan and several bathing options. The open-air bath is surrounded by natural beauty, and the main inside bath is full of nutrients believed to cure nerve tension, muscle pain, incision injuries, burns and gynaecological disorders. Or splash out on one of the individuals rooms with private baths and end your treatment in the Radiant Bath, a heated chair designed to maintain 1-1.5 degrees above your body temperature.
Located in the heart of Itako city along the Soyokaze River (aka River of the 12 Bridges) is the Itako Hotel (1-10-7 Ayame, Itako-shi, Ibaraki Prefecture); its main bath offers views of Mt. Tsukuba and Lake Kasumigaura. Many of the traditional Japanese-style rooms command river views, and in June the adjacent Iris Garden is in full bloom and heaving with snap-happy bridal parties. While in this region, visit the pretty canal town of Katori in Sawara, especially during their festival seasons in spring, summer and autumn, when the town comes alive with floats.
In the Ibaraki Prefecture on Mt. Tsukuba, one of Japan’s famous 100 mountains, known for its twin peaks (believed to be male and female bestowing marital harmony) is Tsukuba Grand Hotel (www.tsukuba-grandhotel.co.jp) with an open-air hot spring and a view of the Kanto Plain. The waters are high in alkaline, which are known to reduce fatigue and help with nerve pain, aching muscles and joints. In this region is the Kashima Port, one of the biggest in world and well worth a gander, if only from the observation tower, although an even greater appreciation can be had with the excursion boat “the Eureca.” Also in Kashima is the Jingu Shrine, founded in 660 BC in a relaxing forest complex sure to scare away jetlag.
Further afield is the small island, Shikinejima, which is part of the Izu Seven Islands (www.japan-i.jp) and renowned for its onsens and beaches. In the south of the island is Ashitsuki Onsen, which is refilled by the sea at high tide, causing a large iron count known for its miraculous healing powers used by wounded soldiers during WW II. Bathing is mixed, but in this instance swimming costumes are mandatory. Also in the south is Jinata Onsen reached by a trek through a gorge, and as you can imagine, its remoteness ensures almost complete seclusion. Novelty bathers may opt for Yunessun Spa Resort (www.yunessun.com), where there’s a bath for all tastes: sake, green tea, coffee, wine or noodles; not edible, but your babe will still be good enough to eat.
Sitting on the volcanic belt which causes havoc and heartache, particularly as March marks the anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Mother Nature makes some compensation for the tectonic flaw with her gift of hot springs. The tradition of immersing oneself in hot waters shows no signs of changing and is more popular than ever with the influx of tourists returning to Japan’s shores. Dipping your toe into an unknown culture can be an exhilarating experience for the uninitiated, and all the goodness gushing from within the earth’s core is sure to leave an impression as sure as your jetlag floats away.
Sidebar: The rules of hot springing
Public bathing is quintessentially Japanese, but before you can relax there is a protocol to follow. These are not rules to be broken or you could be asked to leave, and given you’re as naked as the day you were born, this is a scene best avoided:
- If you’re staying at a ryokan you’ll be given a robe to wear to the baths, worn with the left side wrapped over the right and tied with an obi (sash), which is to be left in the lockers with your belongs and clothing.
- Yes, you’re going to be naked; however the sexes are generally segregated. This is not an exercise of sexuality and vanity, but one of relaxation and contemplation.
- An onsen is for soaking, not washing. The more you lather up and scrub every crevice, the more accepted you will be. All soap must be thoroughly rinsed off before entering the onsen.
- You’ll be given a hand towel, which is to be placed on the ground near to where you’ll be wallowing. You may use the towel to dab the sweat off your brow, but it’s never to enter the water.
- Anything apart from your pristine body entering the water is considered unclean, including hair (to be worn up) jewelry, clothing and soap. Tattoos are associated with gangsters, so if you do have ink, best to mention it before entering, while you’re still conservatively dressed.
- As you are a foreigner, the locals will be politely curious, and you might be grateful for the modesty of steam.
- Making small talk with strangers is considered suspicious.
- And the most important rule of all: relax!