My first onsen experience
Trudging along the snow-covered village streets, I’m unable to look up and take in my new surroundings. The snow on the ground is thick and crunches underfoot. Discreet patches of ice wait for the unwary. I’m doing my best not to slip and fall. Usually, I’m a curious observer, but today I’m cautiously following my friend’s snowy footstep tracks, like a puppy following its owner, as we make our way to an onsen.
With a name like Nozawa Onsen, it would be sacrilege to not have at least one onsen experience. This traditional Japanese village is located in the northern part of the Nagano prefecture, on Japan’s Honshu island. Nozawa Onsen (meaning hot spring village) transforms from a town of about 4,000 locals, into a ski town, brimming with visitors in winter. At only four hour’s drive northwest of Tokyo, Nozawa is a popular destination for anyone after a unique Japanese ski experience. During the peak months of January/ February the town swells with tourists from many countries, hoping to catch some of the powder, referred to as “japow.” And two of my lads and I are doing exactly that!
It is mid-January and we’d been making the most of the powder on the slopes – three metres had fallen since our arrival a few days earlier. But with my skiing over for the day, I was seeking a more relaxing pursuit and something the travel brochures declare is “a unique and traditional Japanese experience.” We’re trudging through the snowy back streets of Nozawa in search of relaxation – Japanese style!
Below Japan’s ground surface lies an extensive network of geothermal-volcanic activity filled with underground springs and a ready supply of naturally hot water. Tapping into this natural resource, the Japanese have created bathing facilities around locations where they’ve engineered to draw the hot water from underground. Because of its origin (from the ground,) the water contains traces of minerals including iron, sulphur and metabolic acid. These are said to have therapeutic value to the body, including removing the ache from limbs, perfect after a day’s skiing.
Onsens are scattered throughout Japan’s islands and Nozawa boasts 14 public hot spring baths (soto no-yu). Today we’re trying one called Furusato No Yu, which opened in December 2011. It’s not easy to make out the ornate Japanese architecture through the heavily falling snow but my friends, announce we’ve arrived. We step under the awning heavily laden with snow and slide open the doors. Embraced by warmth we shake the snow from our coats and beanies. The first step towards relaxation and we haven’t even removed our clothes!
Not all public onsens require an entrance fee, but this one does. We pay the 400 Yen to the smiling ladies at reception and head to our separate change rooms. (Ours is not a mixed onsen – the men and women bathe separately which is usually the trend, but not always the case, so best check if you feel uncomfortable being naked with strangers of the opposite sex.)
Onsen etiquette requires undressing in the change rooms, down to your birthday suit. One must shower first before entering the spring baths and thoroughly “cleanse” one’s self. Plastic stools in front of each shower cubicle are to sit on while showering (it’s rare to find a standing shower I’m told.) There is little banter among the showering patrons – must be the place for quiet contemplation. A small hand towel (size of a face washer) can be taken into the baths. I note from watching the locals, it is customary to place these teeny towels on your head (apparently not for covering body parts!) A sign indicates the water temperature of the first bath (atsuyu) is 42°C. I cautiously step into the water, wary of the intensity of the heat. It’s way too hot for me, so I quickly exit.
Time to investigate the outdoor bath (rotenburo.) I pad across the wet stone floor, taking a minute to locate the handle on the steamed-up glass sliding door (42°C creates a steamy room!) I step out in the brisk air into a welcoming openness where there is less of that pungent sulphuric smell. To escape the cold I slip quickly under the warm water. This bath temperature is more appealing, at around 39°C. I look out at the the snow-capped Kenshai mountains, hugging the village in a huge embrace, just like the warm embrace of this outdoor onsen. Conversations from other women in the bath are hushed, preserving the tranquillity, respectfully allowing us to absorb our magical surroundings. Watching the snow falling beyond the timber roof awning, and feeling the warm mineral water ease my aching joints, I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
Japan is a hierarchical society based on formal rituals and tradition. It’s suggested the naked communion experience the onsen provides, is a way of helping to break down those traditional barriers. Stripped of our clothing, we are all the same. Beyond that, the soothing heat and minerals work magically on aching muscles – a truly divine experience.