“So, what are going to do when we get to Kusatsu?”
It had been a long car ride already, and I was not entirely sure where we were going or what we were going to do once we got there.
“We’re going to take a bath.” My friend Yoshi tells me.
What? “…and then?”
“And then we can take a nap or read a book and then take another bath.”
I had embarked upon the Onsen Ryoko, which consists of a trip to the mountains of Japan, where people go to bathe in natural hot springs. A typical day on an Onsen Ryoko consists of bathing in the hot springs, eating breakfast, a hike in the mountains, an afternoon bath, followed by a nap, dinner, and another bath after dinner. Many hot springs will have a variety of different baths, including: indoor baths, cold water baths. hot water baths, outdoor baths, green tea baths, and sulphur water baths (I’ve even seen an “electric bath” which gives small electric shocks in the water).
The natural hot water springs is full of rich minerals that are very good for one’s skin and provide a variety of other health benefits. Japanese records show the onsen being used by the emperor as early as 640 AD, and research on the health benefits of the onsen began during the Meiji era in 1912 (for more about the naming of eras in Japanese history seehere). Today, onsen bathing is used as a form of holistic medicine to supplement other treatments for diseases. Relaxing in the onsen after a long day to forget the busy hustle and bustle of everyday life can be a great calming therapy.
When I have traveled in Japan with American friends, many of them have been very apprehensive about bathing in the onsen. It is, after all, a communal bathing experience. Many of my American friends are uncomfortable being naked around each other, and I think this demonstrates yet another interesting difference between Japanese and American cultures. The Japanese can be very comfortable naked around one another, and there is even an idea of hadaka no tsukiai (naked communion). Hadaka no tsukiai breaks down social and hierarchial boundaries between individuals and allows for uninhibited and relaxed conversations. The nakedness can be awkward at fist, but once the awkwardness is overcome, the bathing experience is really quite pleasant.
My experience that weekend in the bathing in the mountains of Japan was perhaps one of the most relaxing vacations I have ever had. Getting away from the busyness of Tokyo to spend a few days bathing and relaxing in the countryside made for the perfect getaway. If you ever have the chance to visit Japan, I would definitely recommend visiting the onsen at least once, you won’t regret it!