Monday, July 13, 2020

Bathing in a Japanese Onsen and Car Camping During a Pandemic

To bathe or not to bathe in an onsen these days, that is the question.  After Japan's state of emergency was lifted, I decided I would soak if I could find an environment that seemed safe. For several months, this hot spring addict abstained from entering the sacred waters of Japanese onsens out of fear of contracting COVID-19. Finally, though, the beautiful Arctic-blue mineral water of Manza Onsen in Gunma lured me into a bath—an outdoor one with a view of alpine greenery.
Gokuraku, the name of this bath, is also the Japanese word for the Buddhist heaven
As I stepped naked from the rustic wooden building housing the changing room, the beauty of the bath named Gokurakuyu and the surroundings caused me to take a deep breath and stand motionless. I saw the sky and bushes reflected on the still water. A jigoku, or "hot spring hell," appeared on the other side of the valley in front. Thermal water from deep underground was rising to the earth's surface. The steam, heat, and minerals prevented plants from growing on the slope near the jigoku. Above me, clouds lazily swam across the sky. The aroma of sulfur touched my nose. Manza's thermal springs reportedly have the highest concentration of sulfur of all Japanese hot springs.

For several months, fear of contracting CORVID-19 had me forsaking my most relaxing pleasure, which is melting within Japanese onsens. But I decided in June that I would bathe if I could find a facility in a location that was unique and appeared safe. Along the way, I would camp, maintain social distancing, wear masks when near others, spray and wash frequently. (If you are considering traveling in Japan now, you should study the Japan COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker.)

Morning coffee after a night of car camping with the hot spring addict.
In search of a famous-among-Japan-based-hot-spring-nuts onsen named Manza Onsen, my wife and I drove our van from our home in Niigata into the neighboring mountainous prefecture of Gunma. While driving, we passed many shuttered hotels, restaurants, ryokan, victims of pandemic economics. We kept climbing, trusting the Google navigation system, which screwed up big time. 

Late at night, we came to a four-way intersection in the middle of a forest near the top of a remote mountain. A metal gate blocked us from descending a road leading to Manza Onsen. Signage indicated that the road was closed because of a landslide. Leaf debris and plants bending over the road meant the road had been closed for a long time. One alternative was to return the way we had come and drive in the dark for several hours.

Instead, we decided to park our van under trees, heat up a package of instant Japanese curry with a gas stove, and sleep in the back. A breeze carrying sweet vanilla-like aroma cooled us. The Big Dipper and other constellations watched over us. A stream soothed us to a deep and pleasant sleep. After savoring our outdoor breakfast of cereal, fruit, fresh coffee, and a seemingly endless view, we washed with towels that we soaked in a tiny waterfall slipping down a nearby cliff, a superb way to start a day. Then we called a hotel in Manza and asked for directions. 

The correct route led us on roads that curved by serene green and blue ponds and waterfalls as high as skyscrapers.
Tiny hot springs, like Hotaru Onsen, which was puffing thick clouds of mineral-thick steam, diverted my attention, causing me to pull over, gape in wonder, and take a ridiculous number of photographs.
Steam naturally issues from the earth.

The hot spring addict taking a steam bath.

One of the most photographed spots along the route known as Shiga-Kusatsu Kogen Route Kokudo 292 is where a rock sculpture informs passersby that they are at the highest peak on the highest road in  Japan. Though the view at an elevation of 2,172 meters was breathtaking, I gave in to my impulse to climb the monument for a better vantage point. 
From there, the road spiraled downward into the tiny, quiet village of Manza Onsen (elevation 1,800 meters). Few cars were on the streets of the quiet hamlet. Hotels and ryokan were separated by plenty of space. Some of the few hotels and ryokan were closed. I stopped to ask a walker dressed in hiking garb for a recommendation. She said that the outdoor bath (rotenburo in Japanese) at the Nishinkan Hotel (also called Manza Hotel) had a spectacular view. The location on the edge of a hill and next to a forest was promising. I decided to enter the hotel and scope out the hygiene. If I felt uncomfortable, I would go somewhere else. 

Bottles of hand spray were at the doors and in the hallways and at the front desk. The few guests that I saw were wearing facemasks. I peaked into the dining room, which I noticed had a buffet. The staff in the dining room and at the hotel check-in area wore masks and plastic face covers. A front desk clerk asked if I would mind if he took my temperature. If I had a fever, I would have to leave. These precautions comforted me. I said to my wife, "Wow, these people are as cautious or as paranoid as I am. I can bathe here, but let's eat lunch first."

The healthy Japanese buffet lunch was delicious, hygienic, and only 1,000 yen (around US $9). Management asked the guests to wear disposable plastic gloves when taking food from the buffet. The dining room was spacious, so we could distance ourselves from others. Through opened windows, I could see tall trees and hear bird cries. Comfortably full, it was time for a bath. 

Day-trippers can partake of the pleasures of both the indoor and outdoor bathing facilities, also for just 1,000 yen. The indoor bathing area named Choujunoyu has five different varieties of baths containing various herbs and mineral concentrations. Be sure to click on the link and read the descriptions. 

Perhaps, I was overly cautious, but I reasoned that if any guests were positive for COVID-19, the outdoor bath would be the safest because of the exposure to breezes. So I decided to save Choujunoyu for a return trip after the pandemic. 

Bathing in Gokurakunoyu, the outdoor bath, was such a splendid experience. Most of the time, I was alone. Two other bathers came for a short time. The bath was big enough for us to separate ourselves by several meters. Being extra-cautious, I  moved upwind from the others. My wife was alone in a bath in the women's section on the other side of a fence. 
Looking down on Manza Onsen

We lazed in our healthy environments for almost two hours. Sitting in the bath, I could look down on the jigoku. Walking trails and small shrines were alongside the hells. The trails around the hells take around an hour for physically fit people who are likely to stop and take many photographs.
After bathing, we found hiking trails leading up into nearby mountains. We ended up enjoying several hours of walking along streams, through patches of snow, and up ridges with views that encompassed great distances. While walking, we surprised two rabbits that hopped away at an amazingly fast pace. The next morning, we strolled around Ushike Pond. Reflections of green trees, blue sky, and white clouds lay on the surface of the clear water.
The hiking hot spring addict crossing a field of snow in June.
As night approached, we slept  in our van under trees off to the side of a road in Manza Onsen. In the morning, we visited the Manza Onsen Nature Center, which has educational exhibits and information about the local ecosystem, including hot springs and local wildlife. As we were driving away, we spotted one tanuki (raccoon dog) and several deer. The nature center staff has a map showing the dates and locations of recent bear sightings.
Ushike Pond with its incredibly clear water and reflections. The water is too acidic for fish.

Information for car campers: Be sure to bring enough food and water. When we visited, we did not see any convenience stores or supermarkets. Also, fill your car with fuel way before heading up. There are no gas stations within or close to Manza Onsen.

Caution: Follow the advice on signs around hot spring areas, especially jigoku. A few hot springs release poisonous gases in addition to thermal water. Bathe and hike safely!

To read more posts about Japanese onsen in Gunma, click the links below:

Music, Singing and Kusatsu Onsen

Sainokawara Onsen, One of the Best Japanese Hot Springs

If you love Japanese hot springs or have questions, please leave comments.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Japanese Hot Spring Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Japanese Onsens?

Thinking deeply about hot springs
Choose the best answer for each question. Scroll to the bottom to read the correct answers. Click on the links to read informative posts and boost your knowledge of Japanese hot springs. 

1. What do city officials in Beppu, Japan, award to bathers who soak in 88 different hot springs?
a.  A black belt b. A black towel c. A black T-shirt d. A black bar of soap

2. What is special about Hirauchikaisen Onsen on the island of Yakushima, Kagoshima?
a.  It is only accessible at high tide b. It is next to a live volcano c. Monkeys bathe there  d The water is dark red

3. The famous bathing "hot spring monkeys" of Nagano, Japan, are ...
a.  Japanese macaques b. Japanese squirrel monkeys c. Japanese gibbons d. Japanese marmoset
Searching the sea for the answers

4. Which healthy substance has been added to just a few hot spring baths in Japan? Perhaps the best example of this can be found at a hot spring ryokan in Ureshino, Kyushu.
a.  citrus fruits b. vitamins c. green tea d. protein powder

5. Which Japanese city made a promotional video that showed amusement park rides turned into hot spring baths?
a. Hakone b. Sapporo c. Kyoto d. Beppu

6. Taking a sand bath (sunayu in Japanese) means ...
a. Rubbing sand on one's skin b. Being buried in hot steamy sand c. Experiencing a dirty bath d. Soaking in a bath that has a sandy bottom

7. Which type of Japanese bath is connected with the story of a thief who was boiled to death?
a.  Goemonburo b. Uchiyu c. Rotenburu  d. Kazokuburu

8. Some hot springs were reportedly discovered after hunters noticed animals such as cranes and ___________ bathing and healing injuries.
a. Rabbits b. Eagles c. Deer d. Turtles

9.  The thermal water in hot springs is sometimes ...
a. Clear b. White c. Black d. Green d. Tea-brown e. Red f. All of these are correct  

10. Yunohana are substances that are collected from some hot springs. Yunohana are often sold as souvenirs.What are these?
a.  healthful bacteria b. soap c. algae d. mineral deposits
Hotel hot spring in autumn

 Answers and Links to Related Posts: 
Question 1 B. A black towel
Question 2 A. It is only accessible at high tide
Question 3 A. Japanese macaques
Question 4 C. Green tea
Question 5 D. Beppu
Question 6 B. Being buried in hot steamy sand
Question 7 A. Goemonburo
Question 8 C. Deer
Question 9 F. All of these
Question 10 D. Mineral deposits

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Enjoy Yoga or Stretch Pole Exercises Before Bathing in a Japanese Hot Spring

Japanese hot springs promote mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Add yoga exercises or stretch pole exercises to double the health benefits. The folks at Senami Onsen in Murakami, Niigata, have a plan to help you lose stress and loosen up your body with healthful stretching.
 From the right angle, the thermal mineral and ocean waters merge. This is one of the baths at Taiseisou.
One-hour yoga or stretch pole sessions start at 2:00 and end at 3:00 on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month. Stretch pole events are almost always on the second Saturday. The teachers are professionals hired by the Senami Onsen Association. Although the yoga teacher did speak English, the two Israeli tourists and the one American who joined her session participated by following her movements. The two Israelis said that they had a fantastic time and felt wonderful! One added that doing yoga in such a beautiful location was so far the highlight of her trip. Our yoga and bathing healing session took place at Senami Onsen Resort-Hotel Taiseisou. The kanji for Taiseisou is 大清荘。

The views from the baths and the yoga room were almost identical:  panoramic perspectives of light blue sky, dark blue water, and relaxed, smiling faces.
These events happen at various hotels within Senami Onsen. Check the schedule to learn specific details. Unfortunately, the plan is in Japanese only.  Contact me in advance if you need help. Yoga mats are free. The rates are the following: 600 yen for Senami hotel guests, 600 yen for members of the association, 1,000 yen for day participants with reservations, and 1,100 for participants who drop in. Hotels will charge for towels. We brought our own. The fees above include access to fantastic baths.
I met him after yoga and a bath. Look how calm he is.
Senami Onsen is a walkable hot spring village along the Sea of Japan on the northern end of Niigata Prefecture. Trains run from Niigata City to Murakami. Murakami has a long history of fishing, salt-making, agriculture, and cooking with seafood, especially salmon.  Very few foreigners visit Murakami. Local festivals are unique. Most hot spring baths face the sea, and the sunsets are legendary. For those reasons, I recommend visiting Murakami and bathing in Senami Onsen.

Hotels and ryokans range in price from 6,000 to just over 50,000 yen a person per night. Breakfasts and dinners are usually included in the price. Three other recommended Senami bathing spots are Taikanso Senaminoyu  (大観荘せなみの湯), Shiomiso Inn, and Haginoya.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Onsen Hotel with Hellishly Good Hot Spring Hell Images

The Japanese use the word hell (地獄, pronounced jigoku) for both the mythical area where humans suffer for their sins and an area where enormous quantities of hot water and steam issue from Earth.

Shiraike Jigoku

Situated on one of the most active regions of the Ring of Fire, Japan has its share of large hells. On Mt. Unzen and in other locations, samurai boiled Christians and other criminals to death in those hells. But that was long ago. Today, many are tourist attractions. Beppu, Oita, has seven hells. It was a hell of a surprise to discover that Seikaisou, a reasonably-priced hotel in Beppu, gave me a room with its own hell. It was hellishly good, and I slept like an angel

Hot Spring Addict relaxing after relaxing
Seikaisou is unusual for installing lovely hell images in rooms but also for having tatami (woven-straw- mat flooring) in the rooms with baths. Another guest told me that the tatami flooring is soft, so she feels good about bringing her children there. If they fall, they won't bang their heads on hard surfaces.

Seikaisou's rare bathing area with tatami
From the baths, one sees and smells the sea and hears seabirds singing. This is partly what Japanese bathing is about. As I soaked, I noticed a lone fishing boat moving across the horizon. I looked to the right and discovered Mt. Takasaki, which is famous for a monkey park.
Mt. Takasaki on the right
I recommend Seikaisou for its cleanliness, location, service, and delicious meals. We ate dinner out, but our breakfast was delicious. And from our table, we also saw the ocean. Our simple room was less than $100.00 for two people. Prices vary depending on room location and type. The most expensive rooms come with private onsen baths on the balconies.

If you are looking for a  super lunch experience or a luxury hotel in Beppu, read about this fantastic location. Want to know more about other Beppu hot springs and ones across Japan? Write Beppu in the search field. did not receive any discounts or preferential treatment. I wrote this positive blog post because the hotel impressed me.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Bathe and Dine Like a King in Beppu While on a Middle-class Budget

Many high-class Western and Japanese style hotels in Japan welcome day guests into their gourmet restaurants and luxurious bathing facilities at reasonable rates. Those in the know can luxuriate in enchanting hot springs and partake of mouthwatering meals at surprisingly low prices.

Case in point, the new ANA InterContinental Beppu Resort currently (as of October 2019) has a special deal that allows middle-class travelers to enjoy a high-class experience. For 3,400 yen (around US $30.00) + service charge, you will be able to partake of a semi-buffet lunch and use the bathing facilities: sauna, outdoor baths, and indoor baths. A similar experience in the US would cost at least three times that much. The views are as exhilarating as the spa area is relaxing and the food is exquisite. Feast on the pictures.

Here are some tips for getting the most enjoyment out of this particular deal. First, ask if you can be seated on the outdoor patio, which has the best views. The wide vista embraces a vast stretch of Beppu from the mountains that slope to the blue sea. You'll love the swirls of steam that rise out of hot springs in many parts of the city. The clouds of steam seem to dance before dissipating.
Second, eat before bathing. Soaking in hot springs when very hungry or thirsty can lead to fatigue and dehydration. Keep this point in mind when deciding the time that you will get to the hotel. Making a reservation in advance is best. The lunch & bath combination is not available on weekends. Some hotels refuse admission to daytrippers if they have many guests during holidays.
Third, give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the outside views and to appreciate the artworks on display in this elegant hotel. Oita prefecture is famous for bamboo artisans. The hotel has a fantastic collection of intricate works of art crafted with bamboo.

To make a reservation by phone from within Japan, call 0977-76-8258, or you can click on this link. Look at the top left corner and click again where you see the words Book Table.

I search for lunch and bath combinations like this to celebrate special occasions or to pamper myself when I feel that I need pampering. The bath and lunch combination was better than I had imagined it would be.

Many hotels and ryokans that have lunch and bath specials do not always advertise them. Look carefully at their websites. If you do not see useful information, write or call.

Here is another blog post about a similar deal in Niigata, and this hotel in Nagoya has a very reasonable lunch and bath combination.

The Hotspringaddict did not receive money for this positive review. If you have gone to this hotel or will go in the near future, please share your impression with other readers.

Monday, September 16, 2019

To Become a Master Bather in Beppu

Beppu is the only city in the world that officially certifies worthy bathers as onsen (hot spring) masters. From free neighborhood bathhouses to first-class hotel spas, from muddy thermal water on a mountain to mid-town springs, from jacuzzi baths to ones in the sand, Beppu has a plethora of training locations.


What is an Onsen Master?  Beppu City created a  program that transforms ordinary humans into Onsen Meijin. Meijin is an honorary term for a person who has mastered a valuable skill or art. In Beppu, which bills itself as the onsen capital of the world,  an onsen meijin is a person who has taken the time and effort to bathe in 88 hot springs scattered across Beppu from its coast to its mountains. It is sweaty work. I know. I have become a master twice, and I am working on my third black towel.

You read that right. Black towel! The Japanese phrase Onsen Meijin is sewn with gold letters on my towel. I immediately framed it, and now I display it on my living room wall. Only bathers who have traveled a path called the Beppu Hatto Onsendo deserve black towels. By September 17, 2019, just 8,072 people in the entire world had achieved black towel status. Two proud holders of black towels display their golden-lettered-cloth trophies.

Bernie Goldman, a visitor from the UK, spoke about his bathing experiences in Beppu: "With my passport in hand, I was determined to acquire a set of towels and a prized certificate to say I had visited onsens. I have to say it’s was properly the most varied baths I’ve come across in Japan. We managed about 4 onsens a day, so I was well on the way to receiving my certificates and towels which I treasure to this day."
Proudly Receiving  His First White Towel and Certificate from Beppu City Officials

What is the Beppu Hatto Onsendo?

Eight different hot spring areas are within Beppu city limits. A long time ago, they were separate entities. Each hot spring area has distinguishing characteristics: mineral content, temperature, location, color, and more. These different areas are collectively referred to as Beppu Hatto. Onsendo is the way or the path of the hot spring. Traveling and bathing in the eight bathing areas cultivates health and happiness.

The First Steps on the Onsendo

First, get your body to Beppu Train Station, Oita prefecture, Kyushu. Then buy a Beppu Hatto Spaport and a hot spring guidebook. Choose either the Beppu Hatto Onsen Book, which is in Japanese only, or the Be Beppu, a guidebook written in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. They are not the same, but the content is similar. The books explain about bathing customs and local springs and include discount coupons. The money that you save with the coupons will be more than the costs of a spaport and guidebook. Plus they come with useful maps and photographs of the hot springs, so you can easily plan your bathing route.

Get wet, sweaty, and pleasantly immersed in Beppu! Beppu has hundreds of hot springs. Bring your spaport. At each bath that participates in the program get a stamp pressed into your spaport, which is similar to a passport. Stamps are proof that you have entered the baths. Some free or almost free neighborhood bathing facilities are unstaffed. Look for a stamp and ink pad and stamp your spaport yourself after putting coins into a box for coins.

Beginners can earn a Beppu Hatto Onsendo handkerchief after receiving stamps from 2 qualifying facilities, which is ridiculously easy. But you need 8 to qualify for a white towel, 24 to for a green towel, 40 for a red towel, 56 for a blue towel, and 88 for the towel that shows the world that you have the discipline and the motivation to reach meijin status.

Explore Beppu and the Baths

Beppu is unique. No other Japanese city that has such a wide variety of baths close together. In one afternoon, you can have yourself buried in steaming sand along a beach, walk uphill and soak in sulfur-rich water, and after that soak in a hot spring that is within the grounds of a temple, and ascending higher, find a bath where you can smear warm healing mud on your body.

The author Ursula Le Guin wrote, "It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end." This pithy quote applies to the path toward becoming an onsen meijin. This road led me into conversations with strangers from Korea, Japan, Australia, Thailand, and other locations. I saw three generations of one family scrubbing each other's backs. I walked along tiny alleys and into bars and restaurants that I would never have entered without my hot spring map.


Cooking with Hot Springs

Fortify your body with delicious local dishes prepared with steam. The people in Beppu have perfected the art of cooking with steam. You'll encounter people cooking crab, shrimp, potatoes, greens, and more in various locations, and some Japanese ryokan and hotels specialize in this way of cooking. They call it Jigokumushi, which roughly means cooking with the hell steam. You can rent steam cooking facilities and purchase ingredients cheaply at Jigokumushi Kōbō Kannawa, or you can choose dishes from a menu. The most popular dish is named Treasure Box Steamed from Hell.

Most Popular Item on the Menu
Cooking with Steam


How Much Time Does the Path to Meijin Status Take?

I recommend taking your time and going at your pace. If your itinerary prevents your entering 88 baths, set your goals toward another towel, and remember, you can always come back. Beppu will not run out of hot water this century. Bathe slowly, sense your body, appreciate your surroundings. Enjoy your life and the path known as Onsendo.

A  Simple, Clean Bath
Contemplating the View from a Hotel Bath

Hot Sand Bath
Steam Vents Near Holy Monument

Concluding Thoughts

Some who might say that the pursuit of certificates for bathing is a trivial pursuit. They might add that the world has too much suffering because of social injustice, environmental problems, and terrible politics. I agree with them, but bathing in hot springs refreshes my mind, my heart, and my soul. Invigorated and recharged after bathing in hot springs, I am stronger and more able to be an active citizen who tries to make the world a better place for all bathers.

For More Information: Beppu City Official English Webpage