The Japanese taking bathing very seriously. I’ve taken my fair of soaks whilst abroad from Moroccan hamams to Korean Bathhouses (love those scrubs), but never have I been somewhere that I could go steam room hopping. Forget night clubs, the hot spring houses in Kyoto are open until 1am y’all!
Known as onsen, almost every Japanese town worth its wasabi has bath house. An they range from being a small basin in a hut to being a multi-pooled fun land that rivals the most extravagant theme parks. While I did go to a good local onsen in Kyoto, one of the highlights of my trip was to stay in Yudanaka – an onsen town. Here you can go to nine different onsens then relax in your ryokan (traditional hotel) and lounge around in eleven more.
Yudanaka is about an hour away from Nagano, and this tranquil town is also the home of Northern Japan’s Snow Monkeys. And surprise, surprise! Even the monkeys have a lil’ onsen of their own that was built for them in the National Park where they groom themselves, snack and soak all day before heading home into the mountains. I think they’re onto something. Ben and I spent half a day here hiking the beautiful park and watching them relax. By the end of it, we were inspired enough to get back to our own diggs and do some of our own bathing.
When we got to our ryokan we got into our robes and were given a key to the onsens – they had us slip on some wooden sandals and special socks that separate the big tow from the rest so that we could wear our flip flops without getting our feet cold. Now, the local onsen are separated by gender, so if you go with someone of the opposite sex, its not that easy – but Ben and I could hear each other from over the wall so could easily communicate when we were ready to leave each one. And if you decide to do any of your own bathing in Japan, be sure to wash before you get into the onsen – its just common courtesy.
Each onsen in Yudanaka is known for healing different things – some claim their waters treat skin disease, while other say their heated baths aid poor digestion. But yowza’s these were hot! We could only stand to dip in and get out – this was along with the other Japanese tourists so I didn’t feel so wimpy 🙂 The temperatures in our ryokan’s onsens were more bearable and there were two private baths you could book so Ben and I could chill out for a little time together. But I actually think that going to the womens’ only onsens were the most relaxing – especially the ones that were outside. I sent one hour in one at night under the stars, and its also really lovely being able to scrub up and shampoo outside too at the mini showers at the side of each pool.
The indoor onsens can be special experiences too – I really enjoyed soaking in traditional cedar baths, which smelled like healing as well as alternating between hot hot waters and cold cold dunks. This makes your body feel all tingly with circulation and your body does its own sigh when you slip back into the nice warm water after being jolted by the cold.
After a day of soaking, we had a nice meal prepared by the ryokan – and they say that staying at a good ryokan is a quintessential Japanese pleasure. We feasted on ten tiny dishes ranging from steamed local mushrooms to lightly battered tempura. It was a lavish affair – but a nice contrast to the hurried living-out-of-my-suitcase lifestyle I had been leading for the last two months. If you visit Japan, I suggest taking a couple nights to visit an onsen town – and Yudanaka knows how to get it done.