Onsen Dreams in Japan

I dream of onsen: steaming pools set by a mountain stream, the naked trees of winter rising from chest-deep snow. A wooden tub overflowing onto tile in a misty room. Hot water to my chest, as I float alongside a floor to ceiling mural of Mount Fuji. Bobbing, sinking, immersed. I’d always loved the mystic peacefulness of the hot spring, and in Japan I discovered an entire culture based around the soak.

In case you’re not familiar, this illustrated guide from the Naoshima “art” onsen I♥湯 (“I♥Yu”, “yu” meaning “hot water” in Japanese) demonstrates the proper etiquette to be observed when visiting the onsen:

Guide to onsen etiquette

Japan is a country of volcanoes, water steaming and bubbling beneath the ground. It pipes to the surface hot enough to boil you alive, in strange colours and textures, reeking of rotten eggs, sulphur strong enough to kill small animals, but sometimes it’s like a perfect bath, warm and buoyant and occasionally exotically scented. Going to onsen is social or solitary, businesslike or relaxing. You can lather and cleanse and rinse at the shower, then be with your thoughts in the rotenburo, outdoor pool, surrounded by nature. Or you can show up with a group of friends, wash quickly and gather together in the steaming water to chat in low voices, bodies weightless and relaxed.

My first onsen experience was in Kyoto. It was recommended as being one of few bath houses left in the area using natural hot spring water (as opposed to heating regular water– then the bath house is called a sento). While Japanese public bathing culture has declined since the rise of modern plumbing, I still found myself surrounded by older women, scrubbing each other’s backs, gossiping in the eucalyptus scented pool, floating side by side as their bent backs were massaged by pounding jets. These baths still hummed with a strong sense of community. I sat with the women in the sauna and watched sumo on a television behind a foggy piece of plastic.

In Sapporo, a city on the northern island of Hokkaido, I was reunited with a girl I’d met in Kobe. We drove out of the city, to a hotel where the pools looked out over a river nestled in hills ablaze with autumn. In Kobe my friend and I took the train to an onsen located in the parking lot of a shopping mall. We sat in a hot pool handily located near a television and watched prank shows and my friend, with great amusement, translated the commentary on the show by the women around us. I went to the island of Naoshima, filled with open air sculpture installations and small galleries, where you can soak at an onsen surrounded by playful modern art. The bottom of the pool is decorated with old photos and a taxidermied elephant strides the wall separating the men and women’s baths. The exterior is covered in a riot of patterned tiles, a submarine and a penguin statue, creating a surreal environment in which to be completely exposed among strangers and friends alike.

The first time I went to onsen with friends, we played coy about stripping off our clothes in front of each other. For us, unaccustomed to seeing your pals in the nude, it was a bit strange. We chatted casually as we showered but when it came time to climb the stairs to the rooftop pools, we all hesitated. Finally I strode ahead.

“Enjoy the view!” I called back.

The strangest place I ever went for onsen was an old hotel set in a solitary valley in the mountains near Nasu. I’d seen a photo of a pool there online. It was made from stained concrete and there were mouldering wooden ceiling beams and on the wall was an enormous red mask, of a demon known as tengu. It had a long nose and menacing eyebrows. I knew I had to soak beneath the gaze of the tengu. The hotel was a warren of ramshackle buildings, with some wings more than a hundred years old. It was built directly over the hot springs and indoor canals rushing with steaming water ran beneath creaking wooden walkways. There was an old fashioned iron kettle hanging over a brazier in the lobby and the halls were lined with yellowed prints and photographs and alcoves containing shrines with incense and Buddhas. One night an autumn storm rattled the old walls and I slipped outside to the large outdoor pool. It was made plainly of concrete and was only chest deep, but as I’d scurried down the path in the dark, the wind whipping at my yukata and my feet frozen in wooden sandals, I knew I’d be grateful to slip into the warm water. Seemingly the only woman staying at the hotel, I had opted to wear a bathing suit in the communal pools, but now, alone at night, I happily paddled about naked. The sky had semi-cleared and there were stars visible and clouds lit white-blue by the half moon were racing across the sky. I swam and swam, as great chilly gusts of wind whirled autumn leaves around me.

The most welcome place I soaked was in a hand built bath at a guesthouse on an island in the Seto Sea. I was in the midst of cycling the Shimanami Kaido, a 70-km highway that linked the mainland to the island of Shikoku via a series of bridges. I had been riding all day, sweating and ready to ease my aching muscles. The bath house held a rock pool, heated by a wood-burning stove, which was lined with plants, cedar walls and ceiling and large windows that looked out onto the sea and the islands beyond. The guest house owner stoked a crackling fire and the bath was all mine. I spent the evening floating in the warm water, windows open to let in the salty breeze, watching the sun set, turning the islands to layered silhouettes and the sky a mess of pastel pinks.

I’m still chasing the onsen dream back at home, looking for that perfect hot spring, even turning my gaze to other countries (like Iceland) to fulfill my obsession. Maybe it’s strange to travel so far just to sit in one place, doing nothing. But I’ve never retained such vivid memories and impressions of a place as Japan and many of these are the simple act of soaking at onsen. Perhaps the simplicity of the activity is the key to its strong impression: you’re stripped of all distractions, right down to your clothes, even the physical weight of your own floating, buoyant body. All that’s left is for you to take in your surroundings.

Some of the onsen mentioned in this story:

Kita Onsen – rough around the edges, difficult to access but a unique “off the beaten path” experience, set in a valley near a beautiful waterfall in the middle of nowhere. 

Setoda Private Hostel – simple and unpretentious and the perfect place to soak after hours of cycling the Shimanami Kaido. The bath is hand built by the owner and has the best views. 

I♥湯 – an eccentric place to relax after a day spent exploring the museums and art on Naoshima. 

Taikou no Yu – a fancy onsen in a cute hot spring town in the mountains above Kobe. Lots of different pools and luxurious experiences to try. Easy to access by train from Kobe or Osaka. 

Takaragawa Onsen – soaking along a rushing river, a long trip but easy to access from Tokyo. Very accommodating of English-speaking visitors. 

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