Monday, May 29, 2017

Meeting Extraordinary People in Japanese Hot Springs



When naked in a hot spring, the layers of clothing that display our pretensions, our fashion statements, and our barriers no longer separate our bare selves from others. In a shared hot spring bath, with the right people and the right timing,  connections develop between strangers. The Japanese refer to this bathing phenomenon as hadaka no tsukiai, often translated as naked communion or naked friendship.

My Swiss friend and I, an American ex-pat in Japan,  experienced hadaka no tsukiai at Ogi Onsen Hot Spring Ryokan Kamemeso. First, we soaked by ourselves in the rock-lined indoor bath. Spacing out, I noticed patterns in the wooden walls that were stained by years of daily exposure to mineral-laden steam drifting toward the high wooden ceiling. Through wet windows, I could see four Japanese men in their twenties laughing and chatting in the rotenburu, outdoor bath. Not long later after flushing the stress out of my body and soul in a sweaty but cleansing indoor sauna, I wandered outside where my Swiss friend was smiling and chatting with two of the young men. I joined them. Above the bath, the heavens were cloudy and dark. Inside the illuminated bath, a current of friendship was circulating. Chatting, I learned that one muscular young man with natural black hair dyed lighter than mine was a professional dancer. His friend said that he was famous. I asked if I could take a photograph. He reached behind him and lifted a prosthesis for his lower left leg. He waved it in the air with gusto. He was brimming with confidence, the kind that comes from overcoming great odds and becoming a public figure. His name is Koichi Omae. Koichi san, representing Japan,  danced at the closing ceremonies of the Rio Paralympic Games.

Koichi was in Sadogashima (Sado Island, Niigata) to rehearse with members of Kodo, Japan's foremost taiko (Japanese percussion) group. Their performance was scheduled for two days later in Tokyo. We talked for a while about dancing and his injury. Koichi told me that his lower leg had been severed after a car struck him while he was taking a walk. Koichi also shared that representing Japan was stressful. Despite the hardships, by dint of hard work and practice, sometimes seven hours a day, he had overcome an incident that would have devastated most people. He truly is an amazing young man. I googled Koichi Omae and found two spectacular online videos. The first shows a graceful but powerful classical ballet style solo dance. The second video displays a more upbeat and acrobatic performance of Koichi drumming on his wheelchair, then dancing with it while slipping between  Kodo members as they beat their instruments.I am looking forward to attending a future dance performance by Koichi, Omae, an extraordinarily talented young man.
Photo provided by Earth Celebration Committee
Hot springs are doors to perception. In Japanese onsens, I have met many interesting people–politicians, yakuza, policemen, hot spring designers, painters, and more. These were colorful characters that I  would never have met if not for my hot spring addiction. Through getting naked in hot springs, I have gained insights into Japanese culture. Most of my experiences have been wonderful, but, to be honest, I have met a small number of weird people.

Ogi  Onsen Ryokan Kamemeso is a short walk from Ogi Port, Sado Island. Sado Island is Japan's sixth largest island. Despite having lovely mountains, picturesque beaches, superb seafood, rice, and vegetables, and a wealth of unique cultural attractions, Sado Island gets few visitors. Ferries leave from Myoko, Niigata, arrive in Ogi Port. Ferries from Niigata City bring visitors to the main port city of Ryotsu. Buses cross from Ryotsu to Ogi Port.

Bathing at Ogi  Onsen Ryokan Kamemeso was a delightful experience that I had almost passed up. The exterior of the building is a garish yellow color that gives a false impression to visitors. My friends hesitated to enter, but I convinced them to give it a try after looking at the interior. The inside is clean and artistically decorated with local paintings. You can stay overnight or just visit for a bath for 420 yen per person. Since I did not stay overnight, I cannot comment on the rooms. Click to see their website.

Thanks for reading. Please read other posts, and make comments.






Sunday, May 7, 2017

Renting Private Baths at Onsens in Japan

Many tourists in Japan want to bathe in hot springs with friends and loved ones, but they do not want to expose their naked bodies to the eyes of strangers. Luckily, private bathing facilities exist in Japan. When visiting public onsens that offer both public and private bathing choices, newbies to Japan often do not notice that those two options are available. This blog post helps people who do not read or speak Japanese to bathe with just the people that they feel comfortable with when wearing their birthday suits.
Lucky Hotspringaddict in a Mixed-Sex Hot Spring Bath at Ryokojin Sansho, Kirishima, Kagoshima
First, you need to understand the meanings of Kashikiriburo and Kazokuburo, words which are defined below: 

Kashikiriburo - 貸切風呂: Couples, families, or friends who want to bathe together can rent a private bath for a limited period. Other people cannot enter.
          
Kazokuburo –家族風呂: This is basically the same as kashikiriburo above, but there is more of a feeling of family members bathing together.

Look for the kanji above when you enter a Japanese onsen. You could also practice the simple dialogue below so you can ask about the existence of private baths. 

Bather: Kashiriburo ka kazkuburo wa arimasu ka? (Do you have private or family baths?)
Bath Staff: Iie. Arimasen. (No. We do not have them.)
Bath Staff: Hai. Arimasu. (Yes. We have them.)
Bather:  Ikura desu ka? Soshite dono gurai tsukaemasu ka? (How much are they and for how long can we use them?)
Bath Staff: Ichi jikan wa______ yen desu. (One hour is ________ yen.)
Private Rental Bath at Ogino-yu, Sadogashima, Niigata

Baths that can be rented for private use are usually available for one hour. But it varies. Forty-five minutes is the shortest that I have experienced. Some onsen facilities limit the number of bathing guests to five, but others have no limit. After all, these baths are for families and groups of friends 

Some ryokans (Japanese inns) with kashikiburos and kazokuburos allow guests free access, but time reservations are usually required. Other ryokans might charge overnight guests extra for the private baths. According to my experience, day visitors to such ryokans pay between 1,500 yen to 3,500 yen for private baths. Hotel guests who must pay often receive discounts.

Kashikiburos and kazokuburos are becoming more popular across Japan. Some regions of the country have more than others. Private bathing options are unusually abundant in Oita prefecture. In fact, some onsen facilities only offer kashikiriburos.  In remote areas of Japan, such as Niigata, they are rarer. 

Nonetheless, it was on the island of Sadoshima in Niigata that I realized that my Swiss friends, a romantic couple, who love private bathing but do not read Japanese, had no inkling that they could bathe together. Because of my addiction to Japanese hot springs and many years of intensive bathing research, I could identify the kanji for the private baths. My friends had been to Ogino-yu Onsen, a public hot spring facility in Ogi Port, Sado, several times but each time had to separate from each other.

Hotspringaddict wrote this post to help people like them have a better time in this bathing-crazed nation. 

Be aware that Japan offers another way for friends to share baths. This type of bathing is called Konyokuburos - 混浴風呂: These are baths where everyone bathes together. Unlike kashikiriburo, anyone can enter.  You will probably end up bathing with strangers of other genders whether you want to or not. Konyokuburos have become scarce across Japan due to changes in social morality. One of my favorite locations for bathing konyakuburo style is Tsubame Onsen, which has two free outdoor konyakuburos that require short hikes. You will love them!

To learn more Japanese for bathing purposes, please click on the link to my Visual Japanese Onsen/Hot Spring Glossary.




Sunday, February 26, 2017

Baths With Great Tokyo City Views

If you are in Tokyo and want to bathe and enjoy spectacular city views while staying in a reasonably-priced hotel, keep reading. The main joy and focus of the Hotspring Addict are Japanese Onsens. However, non-onsen bathing facilities, if deemed outstanding, will receive due mention. The exceptional views from the foot bath and the outside baths at the Dormy Inn Express Asakusa, Tokyo, are worth praise. The rooms are also reasonably priced. (The author did not receive any money from Dormy Inn for this review.)  He just loves a great bath.
While luxuriating in the footbath, ashiyu, and the outdoor bath, rotenburo, you will enjoy an unobstructed view of the famous Tokyo Skytree. (Click here to access a glossary of Japanese hot spring terms.) When standing, you can see what Tokyoites affectionately and casually refer to as the Golden Turd Statue. The real name is the Asahi Flame,  a statue designed by the famous French artist Philippe Starke. The 360-ton Asahi Flame or Golden Turd lies atop the Asahi Beer Hall.
Tokyo's new and famous Skytree, a gaudy tower that most of the locals seem to love, is also visible from the footbath.

The men's outdoor bath comes with a cute replica of Mt. Fuji from which hot water pours. So you get to enjoy three of Tokyo's popular attractions while bathing. What could beat that?

Whether passing through or staying in Tokyo, Asakusa is a must-see location. Sensoji Temple, Tokyo's oldest temple; Namamise Dori, a road tightly packed with small curio shops; and Asakusa Engei Hall, a theater where you can experience traditional rakugo, manzai, and acrobatics, are just some of the great places to visit.

Unfortunately, one of Tokyo's oldest hot springs, just a short walk from Sensoji Temple, went out of business. I hope someone will fix it up. If I were a rich Tokyoite, I would turn it into an onsen museum. Luckily, though, a fantastic small community onsen, Jakotsuyu (蛇骨湯), still exists in Asakusa. To refresh yourself after a busy day of visiting various sites, I recommend a refreshing bath Jakotsuyu. You will see an overlooked part of Tokyo. Few tourists know about this hot spring. You will learn how the locals let their hair down and get clean at the same time.






Friday, January 6, 2017

Best Japanese Hot Spring in Nature

This year's best Japanese hot spring in nature award goes to Yunohira Onsen, a hot spring hidden away in the distant reaches of remote Shibata, Niigata. Hot water drains from cliff cracks into rocky baths at the bottom of a gorge. Crystal water churns white as it plunges down the path of a winding river in front of the baths. Butterflies and birds flutter, with their own secret purposes, between the gaps of narrow, verdant cliff walls. Only hardy hikers and hot spring addicts reach this sublime location.

The first three hours of walking toward this hidden hot spring will take you along a broken, cracked one-way concrete road that runs above the river that empties into Kajikawa Dam, where you left your car. Only the vehicles of dam workers are allowed. Driving along the road would be a scary experience. In many places, a wrong turn or lapse of attention could send a car and its passengers tumbling hundreds of meters downward. Only the bases of rusted bridge railings remain on bridges that appear ready to disintegrate.

Arriving at one of Japan’s “hidden hot springs,” after trudging nearly twelve kilometers of forest trails, crossing swaying, rickety suspension bridges, and ascending steep trails, by hand and foot power, gives hot spring addicts a high greater than any legal or illegal drug. To learn more about the journey to this source of a natural state of bliss, click to read a longer article I wrote about Yunohira OnsenTo read about three other remote hot springs in Niigata, click the following links: Renge Onsen, Private Hidden Hot Spring, and Tsubame Onsen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Most Amusing Japanese Onsen Video

Hotspringaddict's choice for the most amusing Japanese onsen video award goes to the city of Beppu, Oita, for a hot promotional video that went viral. Check it out. Then, plan your trip to Beppu.



It is a smile-inducing video of a fantastic, steamy, and almost surreal hot spring town that warms your heart and body no matter how often you visit. In the video, Beppuins, as I affectionately call the people of Beppu, are shown riding roller coasters and Ferris wheels brimming with hot mineral water. Others stroll or eat ice cream while water splashes over their towel-clad bodies.

At the end of the video, Beppu's mayor, wearing a business suit while sitting on the rim of a rocky hot spring, promises to create a real onsen-theme amusement park in Beppu if the video is seen by over one million people. The viral video surpassed one million views, so the mayor will be in boiling hot water if he does not keep his promise. The video was filmed in a Beppu amusement park, but water was added just for the video.

Hot springs are an integral part of Beppu culture. Beppu is blessed with so many onsens that you could spend years enjoying the indoor and outdoor springs without ever bathing in the same bath twice. You can try bathing in hot sand. Beppuins have even mastered the art of cooking with hot spring steam. Another wonder of Beppu is the variety of naturally-colored mineral water that waits for you.

Click to read a Japantimes article about this exciting, creative project.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Adventures On the Way to a Bath

Traveling impulsively to hot springs brings unexpected rewards: often the journey is as relaxing or as interesting as the bathing. I often encounter novel aspects of Japan's ever-changing culture, such as young men doing acrobatic revolutions in the air after jumping on stability balls.

Recently, at Hamamatsu Train Station, I realized after exiting the shinkansen (bullet train) that I had time to kill before a meeting. Over a week had passed since my last bath in a Japanese hot spring. My hands were shaking. I needed to sate my onsen addiction.

Could I locate a bath, travel there, bathe, return, check into my hotel, and get to an important meeting within three hours?  In geologically active Japan, being further than one hour away from a hot spring is almost impossible. And Japanese information centers are amazingly helpful. The bilingual staff in the station information center showed me a chart with information on local hot springs, told me the train and bus schedules, and also expressed their preferences. We narrowed the list down. I boarded a local train that left a few minutes later.

After a twenty-minute ride on a  two-car local train, I arrived at minuscule Bentenjima Station, exited, walked across the street, turned right, and entered The Ocean Hotel, which stands between the train station and a sandy beach.

I stepped into the tatami changing area and saw through wide windows a quintessential Japanese view: A horse-shoe shaped bay lay before a raised highway spanning the bay. Alone on a spit of land stood a traditional reddish-orange shrine gate, torii. Modern-day Japanese cars and trucks slid across the highway. The colorful shrine gate  and bland modern concrete and steel bridge were juxtaposed before the sun-illuminated blue sea. I moved closer to the window, looked down, and saw young men twisting and somersaulting in the air after bouncing off an exercise ball they had partially buried in the sand. "Ah, Japanese creativity," I said to myself before enjoying what I consider to be Japan's premier cultural accomplishment—the onsen.
The worries of work, airplane transfers, long bus rides, computer problems all melted out of my psychic pores and flowed down the drain. The contrast of modern and tradition Japan was right in front of me. I stretched and smiled. What problems did I have? After experiencing the indoor bath, I still had my choice of the white porcelain bathtubs on the deck outside. All this pleasure cost just 1,000 yen to use the hotel and about two hundred yen each way for train fare.

Settled into my clean warm bath with the bright sun warming and the gentle wind caressing my skin, I could watch the acrobatics, fishermen,  sailboats, and light scintillating off the crests and troughs created by passing  speedboats.
After drying myself, I still had a few minutes to try out the simple foot and back massage. I could not resist the siren call of these Japanesque technological beauties.
I was alone for almost all of the time that I made use of the bathing facilities. Perhaps, the sign above kept the riffraff away.

Did I get to my meeting on time? Of course! And my presentation was all the better because of the revitalizing power of the Japanese hot spring.






Friday, April 29, 2016

Beautiful Views and Japanese Bath at the Cloud Sea (雲海) Hotel

As the white-tipped mountains east of my home are being eclipsed by shades of greens and browns, I am reminiscing about a two-day trip to a Japanese onsen two months ago. I indulged in excessive (for most people) bathing, studied environmental issues on a mountain with a nature guide, relished  gourmet Japanese vegetarian food, and marveled at the giant snow sculptures of the Tokamachi Snow Festival in Niigata.
Am I obsessive? When staying at a Japanese ryokan or a hotel with hot spring baths, my routine is to bathe immediately after checking in, take a walk,  bathe again, eat dinner, walk, read or play games, take an evening bath, sleep, wake up, bathe, eat, explore the nearby vicinity, have a final bath, and check out. If I am not distracted, I might soak five times within twenty-four hours. The result is that I become a very flexible and sated hot-spring addict, who is refreshed enough to deal with the stress of normal life.
The photographs above show a small section of the bathing area at Unkai, a Tokamachi, Niigata, hotel with an outdoor bath that faces mountains, valleys, stars, and, when I visited, a full moon. Unkai, written 雲海 in kanji, means cloud sea. When weather conditions are just right, the hotel seemingly floats on a sea of clouds (click on the link above to see photographs). When I visited, the sky was cloudless; instead, I was treated to a daytime panaramic view of snowcapped peaks, snow-decorated villages, and ski resorts, and a nighttime sea of stars.                                             

The vegetarian meals we requested when making hotel reservations were exquisitely presented, prepared with fresh local ingredients, and as delicious to the tongue as they were impressive to the eyes. We were pleasantly surprised by the willingness of the staff to accommodate our special request.

Following breakfast, we met Tomotaka Koyama, who works as a local nature guide for the Shinano River Outdoor Tourism Promotion Association. Friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about teaching others to appreciate and protect the nearby flora and fauna, he led us on an enjoyable trek through the lovely local woods. To learn more about his snowshoe and other ecotours, read this article.
The Tokamachi Snow Festival is one of the best winter festivals in the world, yet it is a relatively unknown event outside of Niigata. If visiting Japan in winter, you really should not miss this special festival that combines art, food, winter sports, and much more. Be sure to enjoy the nearby ski resorts, snowshoe trails, and (most importantly) Japanese hot springs!




Japanese hot spring addicts who want to combine bathing with snowshoeing and other winter sports, may want to read posts about Tainai, Myoko, Hokkaido, Tsukioka, Renge, Zao, and Jidokudani.

My recommendation of the hotel and festival above were not paid for. This blog reports my honest opinions.




Monday, February 15, 2016

Great Apres Ski or Snowshoe Hotel in Tainai, Niigata

Sports and hot springs are Japanese family members, but the coldness of winter strengthens the familial connection. If a healthier après-winter sport's activity than soaking in a hot mineral bath while breathing snow-cooled air exists, I don't know what that could be. There simply can't be anything better for the soul and body.
That's why I was soaking in the baths at the Royal Tainai Park Hotel in the quiet town of Tainai, Niigata. The Thainai Ski and Snowboard Area sits on the other side of a small valley from the baths. Bathers in the farthest bath outside the hotel are close enough to watch the action on the slopes, but the distance is too far for the skiers to see the faces and other body parts of bathers.

There is only one hotel and only one ski resort in this farming region below the higher mountains in this area. Except for the music emitted by speakers at the ski resort, it is a relaxing and quiet area.
Which makes it also a wonderful area for snowshoeing. The Tainai Ski Resort offers snowshoe tours, but we just wander by ourselves through the nearby healing woods.
 My wife and I had just spent a few hours walking through milky-white forests with our dog, and we encountered no one at all. In a park closed to everyone except snowshoers, the three of us strolled up to the top of a two-story snow-clad A-frame cabin and slid down.


As the sun started to set, we wrapped our dog/daughter in a warm blanket in the car and went for a dip. I would have invited her, but she doesn't like water that much and bringing a dog into a hot spring is not culturally acceptable behavior in Japan.

Non-staying guests can soak for just eight hundred yen, or six hundred yen if you have a ski ticket from the nearby ski resort. Considering the setting and quality of the baths, this is one of the best deals in Niigata.
Besides the indoor bath and sauna, there are two outdoor baths, My favorite is a wooden bath perched on the side of the hotel so that we can look down into a placid river that reflects the colors of the sky. Close to sunset, those colors change in a slow motion from blue or gray to orange and red and finally slip into blackness until stars spark up the evening.

The water is transparent, but it feels slick because of the mineral content. The Japanese use the onomatopoeic phrase "nuru nuru" to describe this sensation. After bathing, your skin feels smooth, or "sube sube." The more you bathe in Japan, the more onomatopoeic phrases you will learn. That is just one more great reason to enjoy a Japanese onsen. To learn more Japanese for your next intercultural bathing experience, visit the Visual Japanese Onsen/Hot Spring Glossary.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Intercultural Experience in Hokkaido Outdoor Hot Spring

You should get naked in Japan as often as you can, not just because soaking in Japanese hot springs revitalizes your body and soul, but because Japanese onsens are places to observe and participate in cultural observation. If anybody implies that you are lazy for soaking for hours, just tell them you are doing sociological research.
Fukiage Onsen in Tokachidake, Hokkaido, is one of my favorite outdoor hot springs in Japan. There are no changing rooms. Men and women bathe together in the two mixed-sex, konyokuburo, stone baths on the side of a mountainous forest. Meters of snow surround  the small baths in winter. The air is crisp and clean. In spring, summer, and fall sunlight filters through layers of colorful leaves. Distant vistas appear between gaps in branches or spaces between trees. Breezes carry earthy forest aromas.
My last visit was a window into the comfort zones of various peoples. As I walked down a  shoveled-path of deep snow toward the baths, I saw one Japanese man in a deep state of hot-spring-induced tranquility. My wife and I greeted him and he responded with a warm smile. We spoke about the water quality and the atmosphere of the hot spring like two wine lovers would converse about a rare bottle of priceless French wine. Our conversation drifted to comparing and recommending onsen across the span of Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu.  He was one of the most knowledgeable and experienced hot spring fanatics I have ever met. While we were speaking, a group of six Australians joined us in the bath.
This was the first time to bathe with strangers for several of them. One had prepared in advance by wearing a swimsuit under his pants. Two kept their underwear on. The others were naked, which is how bathing in outdoor springs is commonly done in Japan. Without saying anything, the Japanese man grabbed a snow shovel and started shoveling snow into the bath to cool it down enough for the inexperienced foreigners. It was still too hot for one man who only lasted a few minutes. Not long afterward the others followed him. My wife, the Japanese man, and I stayed for at least half hour after their departure.He had already been there for several hours, soaking in the baths, soaking up the forest ambiance, and soaking into tranquility.

Our conversation about Japanese hot springs continued until we all headed up the hill. Later in the parking lot way  above the hot spring, he showed us photographs that he took out from his car. We saw him and his hot-spring-addicted friends building rocky baths around natural springs in various forests. He was rightfully proud of the baths that they had constructed in remote woods. The baths were simple baths constructed from natural materials. The people I saw were members of a Japanese subculture, people who relish relaxation in natural surroundings and are willing to work hard for their sensual pleasures. I love the springs built by such people. For me, natural hot springs are the best part of Japanese culture. Anime, manga, and cosplay are interesting, but it is the hot spring culture of Japan that touches my soul and warms my body.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bathing in Tea: One of Japan's Most Soothing Hot Springs

Why not combine two healthy, revitalizing, and soothing activities: consuming tea and bathing? The Warakuen Hotel in Ureshino, Japan, has green tea hot springs. A really tearrific experience!
Every day kilograms of green tea from the nearby fields are placed in large stone tea pots through which naturally hot mineral water passes. The hot water flows with the essence of tea into the baths made of artfully arranged stones in a Japanese style garden. The water is smooth. Tea bags are also placed near the bath. Soak them in the water and then rub them across your skin. Your skin will thank you. After bathing, you will smell of fresh green tea.
Ureshino is a small town in Saga Prefecture that is known throughout Kyushu for the quality of its tea, which is grown in mostly small family plots. The town is small enough to explore in a couple of days. While there, walk through tea fields, hike in the nearby mountains, eat meals prepared with tea and other local ingredients, shop for Saga prefecture's pottery, which is acclaimed across Japan, and bathe in the fantastic baths at Warakuen and various free foot baths waiting for you all over town.
Ureshino is a place that brings foreigners into contact with a more relaxed and healthier side of Japan than visitors encounter along the tourist routes in Tokyo and Kyoto. The people of Ureshino are extraordinarily, and rightfully so, proud of the quality of their thermal waters, forest-scented air, and green tea, whether it is in an artfully crafted cup, a luxurious bath, or growing in a pastoral field.
Approximately fifteen years ago, I first visited Ureshino and bathed in several different hot springs scattered throughout the small town. The green tea bath was so memorable that when I decided to start writing travel and culture articles for international magazines, I realized that it would make a great story. As a result, I visited again (it was a fantastic trip) and wrote two related articles for thedailytea.com. One article is about a master potter who uses green tea to paint pottery. Another is about experiencing the beauty, including the tea bath, of Ureshino. The latter was recently published in a printed magazine. If you like tea, take a sip of http://www.thedailytea.com/.