Friday, June 7, 2013, 11:04
Soaked in tradition
By Andre Vltchek in Nagoya, Japan

Soaked in tradition
A private onsen in the courtyard of a Tokyo hotel. Japanese onsens are known for the curative effects of their waters, believed to help to treat heart problems and other medical conditions such as kidney diseases, ulcers and diabetes.
Soaked in tradition
Soaked in tradition
The scenic wilderness of waterfalls and volcanoes on Northern Japan’s island of Hokkaido provides a dramatic backdrop for relaxing in an onsen.

Masahiro Kobayashi, the esteemed Japanese film director, slowly submerges in the water of an onsen — a hot spring bath — in a village in Niigata, a prefecture on Japan’s most populated island of Honshu.

A powerful snowstorm is raging and the trees on the mountains are all white, as if covered by powder evenly spread across the countryside.

The outdoor onsen on the roof of an old, traditional hotel, known as a ryokan, is filled with extremely hot water.

“Sugoi”, sighs a perfectly content Kobayashi-san, meaning, “Wonderful!”

Snowflakes fall, encountering the hot steam ascending from the pool. They quickly melt and float into the pool in a light drizzle.

“This is certainly one of the greatest pleasures of life,” Kobayashi says proudly. “And maybe one of the main secrets why Japanese people have the longest life expectancy on earth.”

Ms Mioko Toshima, a local farmer also relaxing at the spa, explains how the onsen is part and parcel of their lives.

“We wake up in the morning on a very cold winter’s day (and) run to an onsen to get the energy to face a busy day ahead,” she says. “Then after a long day of work, we farmers soak our tired bodies in the hot spring. It is not only curative physically, but also important for our mind and soul.”

Japanese onsens, not unlike the famous spa resorts in Europe, are known for the curative effects of their waters. Some are believed to help to treat heart problems, others medical conditions such as kidney diseases, ulcers, blood pressure and diabetes.

Japanese spas exist to improve the physical and mental well-being of local people. They are part of the culture and folklore.

Many spas enhance blood circulation, and the water is often good enough for drinking. Patients sometimes travel hundreds of miles to visit the most renowned spas in Nagano, Gunma and Shikoku.

The onsen where Kobayashi is relaxing is hidden in the middle of nowhere, hardly found on any road map.

It is basic, but still represents the essence of what Japanese onsens have represented for centuries: leaving the insanity of urban life behind; reconnecting with nature; finding beauty; and giving one’s exhausted body a boost of curative mineral waters and fresh air.

Ideally, one gathers here with good friends, eats fresh local food, and indulges in metaphorical or abstract conversations — discussing nothing too concrete and certainly nothing work-related.

Discussions usually start with “how wonderful it is to be here”, or “how lovely it is to do nothing”, for some time. Philosophical conversations are reserved for well after the fourth or the fifth ice-cold beer.

One week later and hundreds of kilometers away, film editor Takeshi Hata is soaking in another hot water institution.

This time it is in Tachikawa, a Tokyo suburb, on the roof of a large concrete building. There is a commanding view of Mount Fuji, its snow and shape believed by many Japanese to be nothing short of perfection.

Hata relaxes after an exhausting week. His young son sits on his shoulders, above the hot pool. The weather is devilishly cold, but with a water temperature of around 36 C, the mood is comfortable and mellow. A huge cloud of steam forms around the pool and rises from the surface. The water and steam are protecting the bathers from freezing to death.

When asked how often he visits this onsen, Hata replies with a smile, “Every month of so. But of course, ideally, one should come every day. Although not more than twice a day.”

Takeo Mishima, a regular visitor, believes the onsen serves a very important role to help family and community members bond and strengthen ties.

“One thing I don’t really like is the ‘new onsen’ trend, (which) is so much about business,” he says. “It (erodes) the real feel of what an onsen is all about. In the past, we used to pay a very small amount for upkeep. We would drop a 100-yen coin ($1.05) in a box and jump into the pool. Now it is all much more formal.”

Each true aficionado has his or her ‘perfect onsen’. The ultimate onsen experience often comes with extremes in nature. Perfection could be found, for instance, in the wilderness of the north in the sparsely populated and dramatic island of Hokkaido. Here, waterfalls and volcanoes rub shoulders with mountains in seismic areas.

Picture the city of Wakkanai at the extreme north of the country. The enormous Russian-controlled island of Sakhalin is clearly visible when facing the sea.

Two mighty ferries shuttle people between the Hokkaido mainland and the islands of Rebun and Rishiri, themselves forming a national park with some of the best onsens in the country.

Soaked in tradition
Soaked in tradition
An onsen complex in Mie Prefecture is the latest trend for high-end Japanese spas. Left: An artificial island in a luxury hotel featuring live musicians performing Brazilian music for bathers to relax to.
Soaked in tradition
The view from a public onsen on a hilltop near Wakkanai, Hokkaido city in northern Japan. The spas here are considered among the best in the country.

The snow of Wakkanai often reaches heights up to 2 meters. The culture is a mix of Japanese and Russian, and the seafood is exquisite.

Driving towards Cape Soya, the northernmost part of Japan, with mounds of snow on either side of the road, is an exhilarating experience. The wind blows light, white powder over the surface of the driveway, and the sea, no matter how cold it gets, never freezes.

The onsens here are cozy and public, charging a nominal fee of around 200 or 300 yen per person. The view from the tubs, unless there is heavy blizzard, is simply stunning.

Most of the onsens along the shore are located on tops or slopes of hills.

Below, enormous waves batter the shore. They appear freezing cold and almost metallic. This is where nature shows its might.

But the mighty sea never turns to ice because of the complex underwater currents. Fishing boats are either resting on the shore, or inside well-protected harbors.

All this can be clearly seen through the slightly foggy, but huge windows of these magnificent wooden spas. Inside, the water is bubbling hot and the air is humid.

A poet, a dreamer, could rest here for hours, just observing the wrath of Mother Nature and the unpredictable beauty of the environment.

These are places to let imagination run wild. And ice-cold beer, as well as boiling noodle soup, is never too far away.