Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sainokawara Onsen, One of the Best Japanese Hot Springs

Although the air temperature was -6°C, I was lying naked on a submerged wooden platform in the center of one of the best outdoor baths in Japan, Sainokawara Onsen. The exposed hairs on my chest and head were frozen, but my body was comfortably hot. It was the afternoon before Christmas Day in Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture, a town that is renowned throughout Japan for being one of the top three onsen resort areas in Japan.
Air Temperature was -6°C
I turned over and rested on my stomach. My face, just barely above the water, was turned to the side. I could look around without the bluish-green sulfurous mineral water stinging my eyes. About a dozen men were relaxing, meditating, or maybe melting, in the large oval hot spring bath. It was approximately twenty-five meters long by ten meters wide. A hundred men or more could stretch out without bumping into another.

Rocks of varying shapes and sizes were perfectly arranged around the bath to make it seem like a pond. The location was a quiet snowy valley surrounded by Japanese pine trees with branches laden with white snow. Here and there, hand crafted stone lanterns evoked the atmosphere of a Japanese garden. Steam swirled a few meters in the air before dissipating. At one end of the bath, hot water cascaded down a small waterfall into the pool. Except for the sound of moving water, there was silence in the valley.

Hot water also poured from bamboo pipes into the bath, providing a water-powered massage, known as 打たせ湯 (utaseyu). I sat under one of the spouts of water, expecting to be able to enjoy a back and shoulder massage from the force of the falling water, but the temperature was almost too hot to endure, so I moved to a few inches away. When I later went to the dressing room, I saw that everyone’s skin below the neck was boiled-shrimp red. I neglected to ask the management for the temperature of the water, but from experience, I estimate the cooler areas to be approximately 41 degrees with the hottest sections at around 44 degrees. The hottest temperatures were close to the thin line between pleasure and pain.

Taking photographs of hot springs for this blog is not easy. The steam often fogs the camera lenses or obscures the beauty of the baths. I also hesitate to take photographs that show other people, since I should respect their privacy. However, there was one very nice man who took my photograph for me. We chatted for a few moments, and I found the courage to tell him about this blog and asked his permission to take his photograph. He allowed me to take photographs and to use them here. If he is reading this blog, I want to tell him again that I am grateful for his assistance.

In addition to experiencing the unique Sainokawara Onsen,Kusatsu has many reasons to visit: lovely traditional buildings, other fantastic baths, hiking trails, mountainous vistas, and a museum about hot springs. Kusatsu also has a musical tradition, related to hot springs, that does not exist anywhere else. Until then, happy bathing! If you can’t wait to learn more about Kusatsu Onsen, click here.