In Hot Water: Japan's Onsen Culture

Takashi Yasui

Steaming baths are Mark Seal’s religion and his sport. The writer goes neck-deep to report on Japan's spring-fed baths.

I live in hot water.

Hot tubs are my passion and my inspiration. Born a Pisces, I have always been attracted to water. But once I became a writer, just out of college, immersion in hot, bubbling water led me through a door into another world: where thought went deeper and words came easier than on dry land, frequently arriving so fast and furious I had to scribble them down before they dissipated with the steam.

Whenever I became stuck on something I was writing, I would surrender the problem to the hot water, and answers would eventually come. Soon, I became an aficionado of Jacuzzis worldwide: from early days in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to the swimming pool–sized extravaganzas of Las Vegas, to the palm-festooned wonders of Miami, and, finally, to the shrine of the hot tub cognoscenti in Los Angeles’s Koreatown called Beverly Hot Springs. Here, an ancient spring bubbles up into pools of searing heat and intense mineral strength from the center of the city into arguably the best bathing experience in America.

All was mere prelude to a sacred pilgrimage I took last spring to the global capital of the steaming bath.

In Japan, hot spring–fed baths are called onsen, and this island nation has turned bathing naked in hot water into a lifestyle. “A rough calculation shows that if you visited one hot spring a week, it would take 40 years or so to sample them all,” wrote the authors of A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs. There are thousands of onsen in the country, both indoors and out, some beside bubbling streams, rivers, and oceans, others in sacred temples.

All of them called to me, “Come here!”

I had only one prerequisite: I wanted to bathe in the hottest, most mineral-rich water possible. I cast as wide a net as I could, and it was soon filled with a mind-boggling array of choices: Beppu, a fabled hot spring city on the southern island of Kyushu, filled with 3,800 natural springs with water hissing up in fiery geysers; Kusatsu, voted the No. 1 onsen town in various polls, whose scorching baths, it has been written, “can cure anything but love”; Kinosaki, a hot spring town with seven public bathhouses, each with a myth, including one about the town’s founding around the year 717, when a Buddhist priest received a vision to pray for a thousand days for the local people and “a hot spring shot up from the ground.”

I didn’t have a thousand days. I had only a weekend. I could bathe with snow monkeys in the onsen of Jigokudani, soak beneath Mount Fuji in the onsen of Hakone, or bask in a hot spring near Kaichoro, a ryokan owned for 17 generations by a family in Ikaho, “a hot spring town favored by many writers and artists as their sacred place of inspiration and relaxation.”

When I arrive in Tokyo, still undecided, I immediately take my quandary to my hotel’s hot tub, and as it always does, the hot water provides me with an answer: Yamanaka, a 1,300-year-old onsen town in the Ishikawa Prefecture, sometimes called “a mecca for onsens on the northern coast.”

“Greetings from sunny Yamanaka!” reads an e-mail that pops up on my phone as soon as I exit the bath. It is from Shuta Takeuchi, concierge and the youngest of four generations of owners of a ryokan called Kayotei (rooms from $435 per person; 1-ho-20 Higashimachi; Yamanaka Onsen, Kaga; kayotei.jp), only a short walk away from what I have been told is one of the most storied, oldest, and hottest onsen. “Forty-eight degrees Celsius!” Takeuchi responds when I quiz him on the local onsen’s heat, which equals 118.4 degrees Fahrenheit, making the 105-degree temperature that I once considered respectably hot seem frigid in comparison.

I know I have to go there, immerse myself in it, and see what inspiration the mythical waters of Yamanaka will bring.

A woman collects entrance tickets at the men’s public bath. (Courtesy Takashi Yasui)

The train ride is about four hours from Tokyo to a stop called Kaga Onsen, where a driver awaits with a sign bearing my destination: Kayotei, six miles away. We drive through the small city, where a towering statue of a goddess holding a child rises 250 feet from the ground amid a landscape of startling green. This is the Kakusenkei gorge, voted one of Kayotei spectacularly perches.

Standing outside, three of the four generations of owners are there to greet me, including Masanori Kamiguchi, the founder’s son. At 84, he credits his youthful complexion and longevity to daily bathing in the steamy onsen waters. Forty years ago, during Japan’s boom years, he says, he had a dream that changed his outlook. Instead of being revenue-focused, like most hoteliers, he would be quality-focused.

He reduced the size of his father’s hotel from 50 rooms to 10. Why? “I wasn’t looking to make a profit,” he says, preferring instead to surround his guests with nature. His father was furious, but Kayotei became an oasis, a Zen-simple but luxurious hideaway of blond wood, sliding tatami screens, and family heirloom antiques and artifacts. It has its own in-house onsen and is within walking distance of the even hotter public bathhouses.

Once checked in, I am given a map that leads me down a craggy footpath, and I walk a heavenly half mile beside the Daishoji River, past bridges, shrines, and natural attractions. I follow a winding red bridge called the Cat’s Cradle, a structure designed by a Japanese film director to resemble a sinewy cat’s back straddling the river. Across it, I enter the town of Yamanaka, whose two regal bathhouses, one for men and one for women, stand like Buddhist temples.

It is 5 P.M., the bathing hour, and the locals are dressed in their yukata: thin cotton kimonos of swirling colors, all heading to the baths. I approach as a pilgrim would a shrine, striding up to the men’s bathhouse. Both it and the women’s are officially called Kikunoyu; kiku means chrysanthemum. The name was bestowed in the 1600s by the legendary poet Matsuo Basho, who wrote that bathing in the waters of Yamanaka was “more rejuvenating than a drink from the mythical dew of eternal youth that Chinese chrysanthemum fairies gather from the chrysanthemum flowers.”

Yusuke Shimoki is one of just a few qualified sake sommeliers. His tiny bar, Engawa, is reason enough to go to Yamanaka—and a necessary stop after the onsen. (Courtesy Takashi Yasui) 

I take a deep breath and step inside.

A friendly woman sitting behind a glass-walled counter nods to a coin-operated ticket machine. The sign reads 440 yen. I slip in coins—less than $4.50, a cheap price for a religious experience. A ticket pops out, and I enter the dressing room. Inside I find walls of standard-issue lockers, into which I deposit my clothing.

I’m standing in the locker room wearing only a towel when an old man, rail-thin, red-faced, and slick as a seal with sweat and mineral water, collapses in a heap on the floor, apparently fainting from excessive exposure to the hot water inside. An old woman rushes in and lifts him to his feet and then gingerly guides him onto a bench, where he lays flat as she revives him with tiny cups of cool water.

Thirty minutes later, I will be flat on my back on that same bench, having almost collapsed and similarly being given tiny cups of water by that same benevolent attendant.

But I am getting ahead of my story...

Having read the strict rules for onsen etiquette, I know that I must thoroughly bathe before entering the sacred waters. I tighten my towel around my waist, open a sliding glass door, and enter the bathhouse of my dreams.

It is a huge room, engulfed by a massive, deep, and steaming pool ringed by a row of small plastic stools facing large mirrors. These are the bathing stations. At almost each one, Japanese men sit washing every inch of themselves, both before and after bathing, with a thick and foamy lather, which they spritz off.

I find a spare stool and lather up, washing myself completely. Now I am ready to enter the bath, the only gaijin in a room filled with Japanese men. The room is reverentially silent, except for the sound of running water and a woman’s high-pitched, mystical wail bleeding through stereo speakers in an ancient folk song called “Yamanaka Bushi,” which plays in an endless loop.

I cautiously stick a toe in. Do I hear the snicker of a fellow bather? Then comes defiance, arrogance, and Western swagger: to hell with this! I’m a professional! A seasoned veteran of hot tubs worldwide! I boldly plunge in, submerging myself to my neck, which immediately convulses. This water isn’t merely hot; it is scalding. Searing my skin, burning my soul, simultaneously invigorating and a little scary. When I bob to the surface, I see a mural, which fills an entire wall. Dating back a thousand years, it depicts a scene identical to what is unfolding in this pool now: Japanese men submerged in hot water, surrounded by pilgrims, all headed to the bathhouse. Dragon heads are etched on glass walls and concrete dragons spout hot water, piped in from five different mountain springs above the town, hot water from the depths of Japan.

I hear the wail of that haunting, high-pitched folk song. I see a swirl of 30 men bathing, 30 more in various stages of soaping up. Then, having been in the water for less than a minute, a dizzy thought arrives: not words of inspiration but escape.

Am I about to faint?

I slither out of the pool and collapse on the side, my heart banging thunderously in my parched throat. I can’t cool down! Then another word bubbles up: water. I must drink water now! I rise unsteadily and teeter back to the locker room. I make it as far as that bench where the old man had been led after collapsing, and on which I now lie prone, the old woman frantically feeding me water in those tiny cups.

Maybe I’m in a meditative state, or maybe the scalding water has steeped all senses out of me like boiling water does a tea bag. But my mind is blank. No ideas arrive, no words to write down or remember. When my heart stops racing and my nurse returns to her station, I revisit the water, this time with reverence and respect. My one-minute limit stretches to two, then three, but that’s all I can bear. Afterward, I meet with the municipal administrators of the bathhouses, who tell me that the limit for even the most seasoned bathers, onsen regulars since they were babies, is 15 minutes.

I have to return. The water is like a drug, addictively luring me back into its depths, seducing me with its intense heat and healing minerals: calcium, sodium chloride, sulphate, and more, which the hot spring’s literature claims can help cure 16 maladies, including fatigue, muscle and joint stiffness, dry skin, symptoms of stress, high cholesterol, hypertension, and poor circulation. I spend several days going back and forth, from Kayotei to the onsen, extending my time underwater. The heat delivers me to a higher plane: I feel cleaner, lighter, calmer, and better than I have ever felt after a bath before. My skin is rejuvenated. I am somehow younger, more energetic and alive. And I am eager for a drink. I head to yet another magical spot in Yamanaka, sandwiched between the bathhouses and a temple: Engawa, a five-seat sake bar. It is owned and operated by Yusuke Shimoki, 32, whose dedication to making, serving, and preserving the finest local sake led to his renown as the Sake Savant.

Every night after my bath, Shimoki, ever-elegant in his black slacks, white shirt, tie, and plaid wool vest lines up the glasses and pours sake made from the same sacred waters that flow into the onsen. I drink, and the sake burns just like the bathhouse waters did. Finally, at last, inspiration bubbles up, followed by words. But they pale compared to this magical town filled with gloriously hot water and natural wonder, and I neglect to write them down.

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