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.

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