by David Applebaum
Hot and invigorating. That is how I like ‘em.
…Onsens- that is.
Welcome to my brand new column all about onsens. When people ask me what I like about Japan, I always feel a little bad. I am not into manga, anime, or games. I’m hopeless at judo, karate and kendo. I struggle to understand ikebana, origami and tea-ceremony. I am really not a big fan of karaoke. I don’t think I could name 3 big J-Pop idols from recent years. I do love Japanese food- but who doesn’t?
But onsens… that is where my true love lies (or bathes as the case may be). I am an onsen-オタク. Onsens are amazing. I love ‘em. Some people ask me if I have gone skiing this year, but the only real reason that I can see to go skiing is to have an onsen afterwards. The skiing is just a way to get to the onsen. It’s like Canadians and maple syrup. When you ask a Canadian what they eat maple syrup with, they will always tell you “pancakes”. The reason we eat the pancakes is because it would look weird just drinking a glass of maple syrup.
Onsens are quintessentially Japanese. Other countries have hot-springs and hot-spring resorts, but Japan has onsens, and Japan has a unique onsen-culture. There are many things that foreigners, like myself, find odd about Japanese culture, and onsens are probably in that category. Introducing onsen-culture to foreigners often results in scrunched up noses and the inevitable reaction of “wait, you have to be naked?” or “wait, you get naked with a bunch of old guys and have a bath with them?” The answers of course, are “yup” and “yup”.
I remember my first onsen… sigh. So many years ago… my 教頭先生took me to an onsen my first week in Japan. I had just met this man, and he was kinda my boss, but there we were, lounging in a bath together naked. And the rest (as they say) is history…
I spend a lot of time at onsens, and so I will attempt to write about a different onsen every article. I feel it is only fitting though that I should begin with the great Sukayu (酸ヶ湯温泉). Sukayu is amazing. It is well-worth the trip there, even if you are not staying overnight. If you are thinking about staying overnight though, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that it is not expensive. The per-person rate with no meals is only about 円3000!! There is also a campground nearby for those who are looking for something more in-tents (hee hee).
Sukayu is a hot-spring that is nestled in the Hakoda mountains. It is a region that supposedly gets the most snow in the whole world…whether that is true or not is debatable, but it definitely gets a ton of snow! There is a ski-hill not far from the onsen and what better way to end the day than to soak in a hot-spring.
The hot-spring waters of Sukayu have been accessed by people for over 300 years, and in the 1930s the current buildings were built. The buildings are all wooden and old-fashioned. This is a great place to escape for the weekend. If you are planning to stay overnight on weekends in the winter, you should book well in advance, but you can definitely go any time for just a day-visit. In fact, Sukayu claims to have a 1000-person bath. I think it would be really squished to have 1000 people in the bath at the same time and as much as I love nakedness… not sure how I would feel if I had to be squished up with a bunch of strangers, or friends for that matter. That being said, they do have a large bathing area. There are 3 sulfur baths, all of which are indoors. Unfortunately there are no outdoor baths. There is also no sauna, because this is not that kind of onsen. This is the real deal. The waters are constantly being renewed and are completely natural hot-springs. There are all kinds of health benefits, but really, the best way to sum it up… is that you feel so darn good afterwards.
If you go for a night, or just for the day, make sure you try the food! Sukayu is well-known (among onsen-people at least) for its sukayu soba and ginger miso bamboo oden.
Oh… um… I forgot to mention one small detail about this particular onsen… it’s a mixed onsen… meaning that men and women use the same bath, meaning that you might be naked with people of the other sex (most likely older people). Women have the option of wearing an onsen-robe, which looks like a frock. But hey, “when in Rome…”, take off yer’ clothes and get in the water… this is Japan, and you don’t want to miss this amazing, amazing onsen! In the words of the great Sylvia Plath, “I am sure there are things that can’t be cured by a good bath but I can’t think of one.”
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