Things I Like About Japan #4: Onsen

Picture courtesy of the Yunogo Grand Hotel

One of the best things about Japan has to be its onsen. What are onsen, you ask? Onsen (温泉) is the Japanese term for hot springs, though the term is often shorthand for the baths around the hot springs. Japan is (obviously) a volcanically active country, so it has thousands of onsen. They come in shapes and sizes, including outdoor (rotenburo) and indoor baths. Baths may be public run by a municipality or privately as part of a hotel or ryokan. After a hard day of work, there’s nothing like climbing into an onsen and lying there until all of your stress melts away. My favorite onsen is probably the one I went to in Nagano five years ago—the baths were located on a snowy mountainside, which seems to be the perfect environment in which to enjoy a hot soak. This time it was raining, which also makes for a great atmosphere.

The pictures above shows the onsen that we CLSers went to a few weeks ago in Okayama at the Yunogo Grand Hotel. The Yunogo area contains a number of hotels and inns that feed off of the same source, the Yunogo Onsen, which is also known as the “Sagino-yu” (hot spring of the heron). It is said to have about 1,200 years of history, having been first discovered by En-nin-houshi, a high priest who was guided by an injured white heron (thus the name).

Anyway, we took a three-hour bus ride from Kyoto to Okayama and were met by a fantastic washoku (traditional Japanese) lunch, complete with multiple courses and far more food than I could eat. There was sashimi, tempura, baked fish, nabe, shabu shabu, and various bite-size tidbits, including a river crab meant to be popped into your mouth whole (which was actually pretty tasty, after you got past the crunchiness of the limbs and such). It was a veritable feast.

After stuffing ourselves silly, we transitioned over to the baths. It was the first time at an onsen for a number of people, which can be kind of scary, since you go into the baths totally naked. You undress and take a quick shower before climbing into the hot water. In my opinion, the nudity is surprisingly unproblematic–it’s not too much different than being in a gym locker room. But everyone is different about these things, you know. When I was on JET, onsen trips were a staple, particularly in snowy Niigata, so perhaps I’m a bit desensitized. But I might still balk at going to an onsen with my coworkers—that is something of a tradition in Japan, though I never had to do it. Then again, when I taught English in Niigata, most of my coworkers were 10-30 years older than me, so maybe it would be less awkward now that the age gap is narrowing.

Anyway, obviously pictures are off limits in the onsen, but here’s a snapshot of us preparing for our traditional Japanese feast:

Yay for onsen!