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.

Proudly Receiving  His First White Towel and Certificate from Beppu City Officials

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."

 

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, 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 coupons will save you much more money than the cost of the books. The former comes with an onsen map, but it is Japanese only. Be Beppu lacks a map, but you can pick up free ones at information centers and hotels.

Then, get wet, sweaty, and immersed in Beppu! Beppu has many hundreds of hot springs to enjoy. 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.




Friday, August 16, 2019

Shika Onsen is a 1389-Year-Old Japanese Hot Spring

Six Different Baths at Shika No Yu
If the sulfur-stained wooden beams and slats of Shika No Yu could speak, they would tell us about countless generations of Japanese Ainu, samurai, priests, farmers, merchants, and artists who have been healing their bodies and souls in the hot mineral water. 

Local residents discovered a natural spring and then built an onsen around it in the year 630. Over a millenium has passed since then. Cultural norms have changed tremendously. But our naked bodies have remained the same. Modern man, like many animals, still finds solace when soaking in natural springs. 

The name of the onsen, Shika no Yu, translates as hot water of the deer. Tales of hunters, soldiers, and travelers observing animals soaking in and healing injuries in hot springs are familiar across Japan. Such is the origin story of Shika no Yu. In the remote Nasu Highlands, during the coldest times of winter, the heat of the hot springs would have been welcomed by man and beast.

The wooden baths are divided by temperature--the coolest being a comfortable 40 Celcius or 104 Fahrenheit. I advise entering that bath first and slowly working your way up toward the hottest. Take breaks between baths. Most people cannot endure the hottest bath for long; the water temperature is a skin-searing 48 Celcius or 118 Fahrenheit. I have been bathing in Japanese hot springs for a quarter of a century, yet I could not stay longer than half a minute in that scalding bath. After jumping out of the bath, I gave the local elders a good chuckle. I spoke with a strong-looking man in his seventies. He told me that he could soak  for several minutes at a time, but the 46 Celsius or 114.8 Fahrenheit bath was more comfortable.  

Another onsen  with baths that reach or exceed 46 Celsius is Ootakinoyu in Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma prefecture, which many Japanese consider to be among the three top onsens in Japan.

Several locals who I chatted with and most of the other bathers I saw in the bathing facility appeared healthier than the average person. Probably, their fitness was a result of habitually visiting hot springs. 

Kaburi-Yu is the name of a special style of bathing that is unique to this hot spring. Visitors are advised to pour ladlefuls of hot water on their heads 200 times before soaking their entire bodies. Read the sign and look at the illustration above. I tried to follow the custom, but after pouring water on my head about twenty times, I did not have the patience to continue. My hot-spring-addicted body and soul needed a complete immersion in the thermal baths. Within seconds of entering, my stress melted and flowed with water out of the wooden tub.

When bathing, I sometimes imagine my stress seeping so deep into the earth that magma incinerates my worries and anxieties. Squeezed by the planet, the ashes of my burnt stress become sparkling diamonds. Nothing refreshes my body and soul more than a natural hot spring.

Shika No Yu is located in the tiny hot spring village of Yumoto, which is on the slopes of Mt. Nasu in Tochigi prefecture. Relatively few foreigners visit this village, which has a selection of several small, old-fashioned baths and ryokan. Unfortunately, I had time for Shika No Yu only.
My memories of the mineral water, the atmosphere of the small traditional baths, town, and nearby shrines, and the beauty of the nearby hiking trails and forested mountains are calling me back.

I plan to return and write more stories. Please return to this blog and read other posts, too. I would love to read your comments and questions about Japanese onsen. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sukayu Onsen: Mixed Sex Bathing in a Traditional & Relaxed Environment

One of Japan's largest indoor mixed-sex bathing onsen facilities is located in one of the best areas for nature exploration and outdoor sports: Towada-Hachimantai National Park in Aomori. After a beautiful day of forest bathing, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, or flower gazing, relax with your loved ones in a warm, safe, friendly environment where being nude is as natural as, well, being naked. In other words, men and women chill out while warming up and relaxing. The photograph below was taken for fun. The second illustration represents actual conditions.
 Happy Communal Mixed-Sex Bathing               Photograph Courtesy of Sukayu Onsen
Everyone should bathe at Sukayu Onsen at least once in their lives. The experience is an interactive history and culture lesson that leaves your body feeling as relaxed as a noodle. Sukayu Onsen is a hot and wet time machine. You'll float back to a time when people were more comfortable with their bodies. Staying in this onsen hotel, I remembered what I had learned about Japanese customs before almost everyone's homes had hot water and plumbing. Neighbors would bathe together. Vacations in Japan used to center around trips to hot springs with distinctive characteristics.

Safe and Warm Mixed-Sex Bathing in Japan                   Photograph Courtesy of Sukayu Onsen






















Even hot spring addicts who have been to hundreds of hot springs within Japan will realize these baths are exceptional. First of all, the mixed-sex bathing area that is named Sennin Buro, or "bath of a thousand bathers," is one of the largest I have ever seen. You won't actually encounter a thousand bathers, and the  2,669-square-foot communal bath guarantees adequate privacy and space to stretch out. Second, the water contains an unusually thick mix of minerals, including sulfur, which feels terrific on smooth, healthy skin. But it causes skin cuts and the eyes to sting. The mineral content also reduces water visibility, which adds to the privacy of your privates. The third point is the utterly relaxed attitude to public nudity. Hundreds of onsens in Japan still allow communal bathing, but there is something about the local culture and the size of the baths that keep people mellow and respectful of others. Finally, the old beech-wood building and steamy air combine to create an old-fashioned healing atmosphere. The hot spring has a history of over three hundred years. In addition to the large bath that men and women share, there are smaller single-sex baths for people who prefer not to mix.
Jigokunuma or Hell Swamp in Winter        Photo Courtesy of Shintaro Takada
Winter was in full bloom when I visited Sukayu. Over nine meters of pristine snow covered the mountains, valleys, and roads in late March. In winter, Sukuya Onsen attracts snowshoers, skiers, snowboarders and other snow lovers. The hotel rents equipment and will set you up with guides. The active volcanic soil emits boiling water and volcanic gases year round, so walking with a guide is recommended. Trails lead from the onsen to numerous breathtaking natural attractions. The nearby Hakkoda Ropeway gondola flies passengers up to the Hakkoda Ski Area. If you have the guts and a knowledgeable guide, you can descend down the back of Mt. Tamoyachidake through woods to Sukuya Onsen, where the hot baths wait to refresh and reinvigorate.
Jigokunuma or Hell Swamp in Fall       Photo Courtesy of Shintaro Takada
As the two photographs above prove, the area around Sukayu Onsen is gorgeous all year round. My first trip was in winter. I am planning to return in autumn to see the previously white-capped mountain ranges explode with fiery colors.

Dinner Sashimi
A satiating meal in your room is part of the Japanese ryokan experience, and the staff at Sukayu will make sure that you are so stuffed that the only thing you can do afterward is chill out with friends or heat up in an onsen. When arriving at the hotel, the staff ask what time you would like to dine, so you can go out skiing or soaking and return to your room at that time to discover that your room has been prepared for a scrumptious dinner. There is no need to get dressed. Relax in the loose Japanese robes that are in the closet. Pick up the phone to order drinks that hotel staff will quickly deliver to your room. My friends enjoyed Aomori beer and sake. Since Aomori is famed for the best apples in Japan, I ordered bottles of Aomori apple juice that were the real deal: unfiltered, unsweetened, unadulterated natural appleness.
Local Aomori Beef
The hotel rooms are unpretentious and comfortable. The building has been rebuilt and expanded during its long history. My room faced a courtyard filled with snow during my stay. But I was warm and snug under a thick, heavy blanket on a soft futon placed on the tatami floor.
My Warm, Snug Futon
In My Imagination, The Snow Outside My Room Looked Like a Whale
The hotel is spacious and decorated with Japanese art, photographs, and stuffed wildlife, which might disturb some foreigners, but these displays are quite common in mountainous hotels and ryokans. Consider the decorations to be a part of the local culture. If you are lucky, you might encounter live animals in the nearby forests. 

Be sure to amuse yourself and friends with a photograph taken while you stand behind the cute photo cutout board. See below. The Japanese reads that only two more people are needed to reach 1,000 people.

For more information about the hotel, check out https://www.en-aomori.com/hotspring-008.html or http://www.sukayu.jp, the webpage of the hotel. Unfortunately, that page is only in Japanese. You can click on this site to make reservations in English, or use your preferred hotel reservation service or travel agency. I do not get any kickbacks for this positive review. I really had a great time during my stay. Short-time visitors can use the baths for six hundred yen.

Getting There: Scroll down this page for bus information. 

Another outstanding hot spring hotel in Aomori is the Aoni Inn.

An excellent report on winter sports in Aomori is here.




Wednesday, April 24, 2019

One of Japan's Best Hot Spring Inns

This is one of Japan's Best Hot Springs
When people learn that I have bathed in about 600 hot springs in Japan, they usually ask for my favorites. At the end of March, I stayed at Aoni Onsen.  Now, my answer is that this is one of Japan's best hot springs. It has everything that I want in an onsen. But it also lacks something that almost all hotels provide and that most people cannot imagine being without. A significant part of the allure of Aoni Onsen is that absence.
Private Dining at the Traditional Aoni Inn
Look at the photographs above and below. What is missing that you would find at almost every other hotel around the world today?
A Hot Bath in an Old Wooden Barrel amid Snow
The answer is electric lighting. Kerosene lamps are what you are looking at. The rooms do not come with electricity.  Forget about TV,  video games, phone calls,  email messages, distracting beeps, and electronic vibrations.  What you will get is time well spent with friends, time being aware of your body and your surroundings, and time that seems to slow down. Call it mindfulness if you wish.
Another Great Bath. A 30-Meter-High Waterfall is to the Right.

One of my travel companions described his reaction to the Aoni Inn: "I was worried at first that the loss of connection to the outside world would make me jittery. But it proved unfounded. What a relief I felt. My checking, minding and concentrating days are gone. I have never imagined that being untethered was so therapeutic. And the onsen. The clear hot water looked no different from the hot tub at home. But it felt so soft, and a couple of minutes in the tub warmed my body from the core. Based on my seat-of-the-pants understanding, there are two kinds of onsen; stimulating or soothing. Aoni onsen belongs to the latter and completely matched with the ambiance of the lamp-lit inn."
Stream By the Traditional Ryokan
Why doesn't the Aoni Inn have electric lights and outlets? The manager explains that the inn was built before any homes or buildings in that remote area had electricity. The nearby town got electricity years before the Aoni Inn did. Remember that the Aoni Inn is in one of the most remote regions of Aomori prefecture, Japan. When electrical lines were finally connected to the Aoni Inn, the connection was weak and unstable. In the meantime, people around the world were becoming unhealthily addicted to Internet services. Visitors were amazed by the depth of relaxation that they experienced when they were cut off from electrical appliances. Guests started calling the Aoni Inn as the Lamp Inn. People love the atmosphere of the kerosene lamps and heaters. The hotel management decided to limit the flow of electricity to just a few machines in the main office. Word spread about this old-fashioned oasis.
Simple Rooms with Super Views                Photo Courtesy of Jiji Press
Rooms are simple. You'll sleep on a soft mattress on a tatami floor. The screens are traditional paper screens. Both the lighting and the heating are powered by kerosene. The heat and intensity of illumination are easily changed. My room did not have a private toilet, so I walked down the hallway to a shared one. It was clean. When I opened the window and briefly looked upwards before sleeping, I had a glimpse of the sparkling Milky Way. Secluded in rugged mountains, the Aoni Inn's skyscape is unaffected by light pollution.
Exquisitely Prepared Mountain Delicacies            Photo Courtesy of Jiji Press
And the food! The chefs are experts. They transform river fish, mountain vegetables, and local farm products into gourmet dishes that are deceptively simple in appearance. The flavors are rich and natural. These are meals that showcase pride in traditional Aomori cuisine. You will not be served coffee or bread or cereal. Immerse yourself in the food culture just as you do the bathing culture.
Spring Shifting into Summer Along the Aoni River     Photo by the Aoni Inn
I experienced the Aoni Inn in winter. My dream is to return in spring, summer, and fall. Each season will provide different colors and temperatures. So much to sense!
The Aoni Inn Dressed for Autumn      Photo by the Aoni Inn
The long six-kilometer private road that leads to the inn is a perfect place for strolling, flower viewing, and spotting wildlife. You can also walk to a nearby dam. Do not worry about traffic jams.
This is the Same Bathing Area Shown in the Third Photograph from the Top           Photo by Aoni Inn
The Aoni Inn is one of the top ten best hot springs in Japan because of the stunning natural beauty of its surroundings, because of the excellent preparation of local Aomori foods, because of the variety of baths with different views, and because of the simple, natural lifestyle that it reminds us to enjoy. The Aoni Inn did not take long to detoxify the stress of modern living from my soul. I honestly did not want to leave. The Aoni Inn did not pay me for this positive review.
Clean Thermal Water that Runs Without Stopping                        Photo by Aoni Inn

Address 1-7 Aonisawa Takinoue Okiura Kuroishi-shi Aomori-ken 036-0402
Tel 0172-54-8588

For rates, click this link to the official webpage of the Aoni Inn.

For directions to the Aoni Inn and for information regarding activities in the area, click this link to a site run by the Aomori government.

For information about other fantastic hot springs in winter, check out these links:  Shirohone Onsen, The Cloud Sea Bath, Hot Springs for Swallows, Zao Onsen, Intercultural Bathing in Hokkaido, Various Winter Springs, Black Onsen Water in Myoko Kogen, and Tainai, Niigata. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Multisensory Pleasures in Hot Springs on the Izura Coast

A Japanese saying is "Food is meant to be eaten with the mouth and the eyes." Likewise, the best hot springs are multisensory. The hot spring baths at the Itsuura Kanko Hotel pleasure and relax the eyes, ears, nose, skin, and heart.
Outdoor Public Bath at the Itsuura Kanko Hotel's Bekkan Building
The Itsuura Kanko Hotel is perched on a cliff above the Izura Coastline of Kita-Ibaraki. From the baths, sea- and skyscapes are visible. Watch the colors of water and light play and dance while you are warm and comfortable.

Private Outoor Bath that Comes with a Suite
Since all of the baths are close to the sea, the sounds of waves, wind, and birds roll over you as you bathe. The feeling is akin to an auditory massage that melts stress away. The Izura Coastline was selected by the Japanese government for inclusion in a list of the best 100 soundscapes within Japan.
Public Outdoor Bath at the Honkan (Original Building)
You'll find yourself breathing slowly and deeply, a feeling that comes when you are miles away from the hassles of life. Breezes off the ocean, carrying traces of the salty sea, linger around the baths before disapating into the atmosphere.
The Hotel Manager Standing By Main Lobby Flower Display
Under the soothing influence of the natural onsen water, you'll experience your skin becoming smoother and more sensitive.
Choose Japanese Traditional Bedding or Western Style Bedding

Refreshing Views of the Sea

High-quality food, service, and excellent baths enrich the hearts of visitors. I stayed just one night, but I wished that I could have stayed longer. The Itsuura Kanko Hotel in located in Kita-Ibaraki, which is barely visited by foreigners. My friends and I were probably the only Westerners enjoying the facilities that night. If fine service and Japanese traditional luxurious surroundings are what you want, I recommend this hotel.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Nagoya's Newest Healing Hot Spring Space

Nagoya, Japan's fourth most populated city, delights visitors. yet few foreign visitors know Nagoya's many attractions. Located between Kyoto and Tokyo, high-speed trains fly from Nagoya to Kyoto in thirty minutes and wing to Tokyo in just over ninety. Nagoya Castle, Atsuta Jingu (Shrine), and the Tokagawa Art Museum introduce visitors to local and national history. Nagoya is also home to the World Cosplay Tournament, and the subway system that circles the city is fast and tourist friendly. When I go to Nagoya, I always drop into one of Japan's best and newest contemporary hot spring facilities. Raku Spa Garden's specialty is healing the bodies, minds, and spirits of locals and travelers.
Outdoor Baths
Raku Spa Garden, Nagoya © Raku Spa Garden
Raku is Japanese for relax, take it easy, or comfortable. Traveling is exciting but tiring. Cleanse the travel dust off your body, be one with the hot water, and give your mind and body a soothing time.
Pleasurably Melting into the Floor in a Hot Sauna Room

The Japanese have applied their renowned work ethic towards perfecting the art of relaxation. Give yourself at least several hours to try out Japanese methods of bathing that most people in the world have never experienced. Your stress level will plunge, your body will thank you, and your heart will be rejuvenated. 


Ganbanyoku, Healing on Hot Rocks

Raku Spa Garden comprises a healing collection of a dozen unique baths and saunas. Indulge in baths of hot carbonated water, baths that send electrical impulses through the water, baths with low- and high-intensity jets, and outdoor baths with stone walls, baths that exude the smell of the cypress wood. Then, give the dry saunas a try. You will energize your body and soul.
At Raku Spa Garden, you can bathe, nap, eat delicious food, drink juices and beers from around the world, read books and manga, swing in hammocks, space out, play games, and chat with friends for hours, even all day, for reasonable prices.  The rates for adults and children on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays are 1,680 yen and 700 yen. The weekday rates are 1,480 yen and 600 yen. A morning bath special of 600 yen and 400 yen is available on weekends and holidays. Children five and younger are free.
Bathing in water is done in bare skin in sexually segregated bathing areas. Men and women enjoy the dry saunas together. Everyone wears colorful robes that they choose when entering.
Airy, Stylish, and Filled with Greenery
Getting to Raku Spa Garden by bus is easy. For access information, read this Japanvisitor.com article. If you read Japanese, go directly to the Raku Spa Garden website.
TV Addicts Get Their Own Chairs and TVs
Other wonderful bathing spots in Nagoya include the international airport, one in downtown which has a delicious lunch with bath special, Dainagoyaonsen, and Ryusenjinoyu. Raku Spa Garden, though, is Nagoya's newest and greatest temple of relaxation.
 
One of the Many Dry Saunas and Relaxation Spaces