The hot list

Where to go and en­joy a thor­oughly ther­a­peu­tic soak


JA­PAN is in hot wa­ter. Lit­er­ally. The stuff per­co­lates up out of the ground from one end of the coun­try to the other. The Ja­panese word for a hot spring is on­sen, and there are about 3000 on­sen here, more than any­where else on earth.

So if your idea of re­lax­ation in­volves soak­ing your bones in a tub of bub­bling hot wa­ter, you’ve def­i­nitely come to the right place.

With so many on­sen, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing they come in ev­ery size, shape and colour. There is an on­sen on an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land in Tokyo Bay.

There are on­sen perched high up in the Ja­pan Alps and which can be reached only by walk­ing for a full day over moun­tain peaks. There are on­sen bub­bling up among the rocks on the coast — when the tide is just right.

In fact, some Ja­panese will tell you the only dis­tinc­tively Ja­panese as­pect of their cul­ture — that is, some­thing that didn’t orig­i­nate in main­land Asia — is the bath.

There are ac­counts of on­sen bathing in Ja­pan’s ear­li­est his­tor­i­cal records, and it’s pretty cer­tain that the Ja­panese have been bathing in on­sen as long as there have been Ja­panese.

Over the mil­len­nia they have turned the sim­ple act of bathing in an on­sen into some­thing like a re­li­gion.

To­day, the ul­ti­mate way to ex­pe­ri­ence an on­sen is to visit an on­sen ryokan, a tra­di­tional Ja­panese inn with its own pri­vate hot-spring bath. FIRST: re­lax. That’s what on­sen are all about. If you re­mem­ber just one ba­sic point, you won’t go too far wrong — the wa­ter in the pools and tubs is for soak­ing in, wash­ing, and it should be en­tered only af­ter you’ve scrubbed and rinsed your body.

This is the drill: pay your en­try fee, if there is one. Rent a mod­esty

How­ever, some of the finest on­sen in Ja­pan are free. Just show up with a towel, splash a lit­tle wa­ter on your naked body and plunge in. No com­mu­ni­ca­tion has­sles and no worries.

And, even if you must pay to en­ter, it’s usu­ally just a mi­nor snip, av­er­ag­ing about Y=700 ($8) a per­son. Oedo On­sen, Mono­gatari, Tokyo: On the ar­ti­fi­cial is­land of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, this gi­ant su­per-on­sen is mod­elled on an Edo-pe­riod town. There is a huge va­ri­ety of tubs, in­clud­ing out­doors, as well as restau­rants, re­lax­ation rooms and shops. You can spend a whole day here soak­ing away your cares. Ji­nata On­sen, Shikine Is­land: The set­ting of this on­sen could not be more dra­matic: it’s lo­cated in a rocky cleft in the seashore of lovely lit­tle Shikine Is­land. The pools are formed by the sea­side rocks and it’s one of those on­sen that ex­ists only when the tide is right — spend a few lovely hours here watch­ing the Pa­cific rollers crash­ing on the rocks. There are two other ex­cel­lent on­sen on the is­land. Ki­nosaki, Kan­sai: On the Sea of Ja­pan coast in north­ern Kan­sai, this is the quin­tes­sen­tial on­sen town. With seven pub­lic baths and dozens of on­sen ryokan, this is the place to sam­ple the bathe-sand-stay ex­pe­ri­ence — re­lax in your ac­com­mo­da­tion while tak­ing the wa­ters and, when you get tired of your ryokan’s bath, hit the streets in a yukata (light cot­ton robe) and geta (wooden san­dals) and visit the pub­lic baths. This an edited ex­tract from Lonely Planet Ja­pan (12th edi­tion; $47.99); © Lonely Planet. Takara­gawa On­sen, Gunma Pre­fec­ture, cen­tral Hon­shu: The lo­cals of­ten pro­nounce Gunma pre­fec­ture’s on­sen to be the best in the coun­try. Dif­fi­cult for us to ar­gue. Takara­gawa means ‘‘trea­sure river’’, and its sev­eral slate-floored pools sit along sev­eral hun­dred me­tres of river­bank. Most of the pools are mixed bathing, with one ladies-only bath. The al­ka­line wa­ters are said to take care of fa­tigue, ner­vous dis­or­ders and di­ges­tive trou­bles. Lamp no Yado, Noto-hanto, cen­tral Hon­shu: Noto-hanto is about as far as one can go in cen­tral Hon­shu is­land, and the sea­side is about as far as one can go on this penin­sula. A coun­try road takes you to a nar­row 1km path, from where you have to climb a hill. Sit in the rotem­buro (out­door bath) and en­joy the Sea of Ja­pan views through craggy rocks. Urami­gataki On­sen, Hachi­jo­jima: Even in a coun­try of lovely on­sen, this is a real stand­out — the per­fect lit­tle rotem­buro next to a wa­ter­fall. Sit­ting in the bath as the late-af­ter­noon sun­light pierces the ferns is a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Did we men­tion that it’s free? Shi­ra­hama, Wakayama Pre­fec­ture, Kan­sai: There is some­thing pe­cu­liarly pleas­ing about dash­ing back and forth be­tween the ocean and a nat­u­ral hotspring bath — the con­trast in tem­per­a­ture and tex­ture is some­thing one can never tire of. At Shi­ra­hama, a beach town in south­ern Kan­sai, there is a free on­sen right on the beach. And Saki­noyu On­sen is just spec­tac­u­lar: sit in the tubs and watch the Pa­cific surf break over the rocks a few me­tres away. Kawayu On­sen, Wakayama Pre­fec­ture, Kan­sai: If you like do­ing things your own way, you’ll love this nat­u­ral odd­ity of an on­sen in south­ern Kan­sai where the wa­ters bub­ble up through the rocks of a riverbed. Choose a likely spot and dig out a nat­u­ral hot­pot along the river­side and wait for it to fill with hot wa­ter and, voila, your own pri­vate rotem­buro. In win­ter, bull­doz­ers turn the en­tire river into a 1000- per­son on­sen. It doesn’t hurt that the wa­ter is a lovely translu­cent emer­ald. Nishimu­raya Honkan, Ki­nosaki, Kan­sai: If you want to sam­ple the ul­ti­mate in top-end on­sen ryokan, this is the place. With sev­eral fine in­door and out­door baths and el­e­gant gue­strooms, a stay here will shed some light on why lo­cals con­sider an on­sen hol­i­day the ut­most in re­lax­ation. Nozawa On­sen, Nagano Pre­fec­ture, cen­tral Hon­shu: What could be bet­ter than a day spent on the slopes, fol­lowed by a soak in a jacuzzi? Well, how about mak­ing that a nat­u­ral hot spring? This lit­tle ski town boasts some first-rate ski­ing, re­li­able snow, rip­ping alpine views and 13 free on­sen. Best of all, the on­sen are scald­ing hot, which feels won­der­ful on a tired skier’s legs. This an edited ex­tract from Lonely Planet Ja­pan (12th edi­tion; $47.99); © Lonely Planet.


towel, if you don’t have one. Take off your shoes and put them in the lock­ers or shelves pro­vided. Find the cor­rect chang­ing room or bath for your gen­der, strip and put your clothes in the bas­ket pro­vided and then into a locker. Take the mod­esty towel into the bathing area.

Find a place around the wall to put down your toi­letries, wash and rinse. You’ll note that some lo­cals may dis­pense with this step and just stride over to the tubs and grab a wooden bucket (there are usu­ally Takara­gawa hot springs in cen­tral Hon­shu, among the best on­sen in Ja­pan some around) and splash a few scoops over them­selves. Some mis­cre­ants can’t even be both­ered with this step and plunge right into the tubs un­washed and un­rinsed.

Frankly, I like to think th­ese peo­ple will be rein­car­nated into a world where there are only cold-wa­ter baths.

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