🇯🇵 Japanese Onsen

January 20th, 2017

Friday is my last day to explore Japan and I'm on my own. The forecast calls for rain all day and it looks dreary outside. I should go to an onsen I decide. It's the perfect day for it and if I don't go, I'll wish I had.

A Japanese Onsen is a hot spring or hot public bath. They are typically created around natural hot springs, though many of them are indoors.

I'm excited, but also nervous. This adventure will be interacting with a foreign culture more deeply than walking around or shopping. I'll likely have to interact with people. Traveling alone certainly has benefits, but there are times when the moral support of a friend is invaluable.

I have a lot of questions. Will they speak English? Will they serve foreigners? (Some places don't.) The map on the website has three areas: a garden pool, a patio pool, and a swimming pool. Are all of these open to me? The site makes it sound like they might be. Do I need a swimsuit? The website says they rent them out. Are the pools mixed gender? (Many aren't, but some are.)

I try to glean as much from the webpages as I can, but it's mostly just beautiful photos of empty pools. Luke helps translate a couple lines from the website before he leaves for work. It sounds like a couple of the baths are closed for one reason or another. I find a second onsen on Google maps for a Plan B in case this first one falls through. Then I take a deep breath and head to the train station.

The ride from Anasaki to Yodoe takes about 40 minutes. Yodoe is west of Anasaki and the short local train is practically empty. I write a little in my journal and look out the rain splattered window for most of my ride. There's a heater under my seat, but I'm still cold.

The station at Yodoe is small. I check the directions on my map, it's a 10 minute walk to the onsen from here. I look over the tracks in the direction indicated on the map. It looks like a field from where I'm standing.

A walkway along the tracks leads to a road with a shoulder for walking or biking. I cross the tracks and continue for a quarter mile or so before turning down a side street. It's cold and on the verge of raining again. The mountains to the southeast are barely visible through the haze. The landscape is a mixture of flat brown and green fields.

湧くわく天然温泉ラピスパ is the name of this Onsen on Google Maps. It's described as a Day Hot Spring. I have no idea how to pronounce the Japanese, so mentally I call it rapi-spa, since that is the url of the website. (Also ラピスパ is the wording on their sign.)

The building has a stucco style and tall square tower which I associate with South American architecture. The grassy area lining the sidewalk is still strung with Christmas lights and and festive decorations. I go in through the automatically sliding glass doors. Japan has a lot of sliding doors in these parts. It's something I really like.

Entering the warm building is a relief. The lobby is light with cream colored carpet and high ceilings. I approach the counter and smiling woman behind it. The first thing she does is lean over the counter, or try to, she's a bit short and the counter is high, and point downward. It takes me a moment to realize she's asking me to take off my shoes. She points over to a small alcove of shoe lockers.

I apologize and walk quickly over to the lockers to remove my shoes. Suave, quick-thinking, culturally-aware Phil would have immediately removed his shoes and carried them over to the lockers. It's probably not a big deal, but the small details matter and I make a mental note about how I want to react next time I'm in this situation. #alwaysroomtogrow

Shoe locker 218 takes my shoes and relinquishes it's key to me. I take it to the reception desk where the lady takes it from me. She doesn't speak much English, but she punches in the number to show me it'll cost ¥1295 with tax. Now's the chance for me to ask a couple of my questions. There's a rate sheet on the counter and I point to the area where it lists the swimsuit rentals. I show her my phone, Google Translate has the word "swimwear" translated to Japanese for me. I make a questioning face: do I need this?

She says some things in Japanese which I don't understand and points up to the clock. Then she pulls out a map of the spa and points to the pool section. She circles the pool with her finger and says some more stuff. I think she's telling me the pool isn't open yet. I catch the word "onsen" as she talks.

"Yes, onsen." I repeat back to her. In this moment I am proud of my ability to communicate, but this lasts only a second before I realize how pathetic I really am. However, I've learned what I needed to know: no swimwear required (or possibly allowed) for the Onsen.

I pay for my stay and she gives me an orange bag that contains one large and one small pink towel. She also hands me an orange wristband with a locker key attached to it. With that she points me towards the changing rooms. Smiling and bowing, I head to the lockers.

Cloth barriers hang at the end of the lobby where the hallway splits in two. The Japanese name for these dividers is noren. Typically blue is used for men and red for women. The cloth is cut into strips part way down to allow for easy passage. They are decorated with kanji or hiragana indicating gender. It also says "gentleman" in English.

Garden Pool map and Swimming Pool

The men's locker room opens out into the Garden pool. I later learn from the calendar on their website that the women's locker opens to the patio garden and the locker rooms are switched at the beginning and middle of each month. The pool area resides in between these two onsens.

The Garden pool has a number of different pools and amenities. There's a large circular pool that's a couple feet deep. A smaller circular pool. A small square pool with two reclined seats and water jets that pummel your back with the force of a small ogre. There's a small room off to the side with some sort of tile stone that will bring you health if you lay on it. (At least that's the sense I get, I can't ready any of the signage.) This is all inside.

Outside are four more pools and a rounded wooden cabin. One of the pools is closed off, covered with a PVS style fake wood patio. The larger pool is a couple feet deep and has round metal cylindars to rest your head on. There's a small square pool near the back. The small round pool by the wooden building contains cold water.

I move from pool to pool, enjoying the warmth on my stiff neck and shoulders. When it starts to rain, I stand outside and let myself cool down a little as the cold sky water pelts me. A couple other locals are here, but mostly the place is empty.

The round building turns out to be a sweat lodge. There's a drinking fountain inside the entryway and mats for you to take for sitting on. I step inside and the hot air hits me like a fist. In a good way. The air stings the inside of my nose. I can smell the wood, something like cedar, but not quite. The wooden floor is almost too hot to stand on. The benches are just as hot, I'm glad for the small mat.

A small TV is playing some sort of news show inside the wall by the door. Above the inset tv is a thermometer which reads about 94 degrees and I really can't tell if that's F or C.

The wall the TV is on turns to a brick half-wall. Coals on the far side are the main source of heat. On the opposite wall is a clock. Upon closer inspection I realize it only has a minute hand and a second hand. It takes me a while to notice that it's not a normal clock. For each revolution of the red second hand, the long black minute hand moves the equivalent of an hour. Basically this clock is a 12 minute timer. I stay in the sweat lodge for five or six minutes before heading back outside.

I spend about two hours at the onsen, taking time to relax and enjoy being warm. I'd love to spend even more time there but my hands are getting wrinkly and I'm starting to get hungry.

As much fun as it would be to stay and eat lunch here, I have the feeling it's going to be expensive and I only have a little bit of cash on me to make it home, unless I can find an ATM. As I put my shoes on in the entryway I regret needing to go back out into the cold. After a few minutes I'm ready to move on with my day.

The onsen experience can be a little nerve wreaking at first, but the chance to relax and sooth away your stresses is wonderful.