A couple of months ago, after a particularly heavy night of drinking and partying (with my co-workers…it was a work obligation!), I awoke with a terrible hangover and stumbled into my kitchen in search of something to eat that would soothe my churning innards. Unable to locate anything inside my fridge or cupboards that screamed “eat me for hangover relief!”, I decided to head out in search of a suitable establishment that sold ramen noodles.
An hour later, I had slurped back a bowl of miso ramen with a side of pork tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) and fried gyoza (dumplings). Sadly, after a heavy night of drinking, not even a filling meal of Japanese goodness is enough to rid you of that nasty feeling you get when your liver takes a hit. I decided then that it was the perfect time to visit a traditional Japanese onsen for the first time.
What is an onsen? Well onsen 温泉、is the Japanese word for hot springs. However the term is also used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around said hot springs.
Because Japan is a volcanically active country, Japan is littered with thousands of onsens across the country.
My prefecture, Gunma, is known for having the three best onsen towns in Japan. These are villages that are centered on providing the authentic Japanese onsen experience for locals and tourists alike. I decided to pay a visit to Ikaho onsen town, which is one of the top three.
Ikaho, despite its reputation, is a decidedly quiet and sleepy little town with a population of under 4000. Curious looking houses and little shops that sold all manner of souveneirs and local foods lined the cobblestone steps, and old, hunched over Japanese shopkeepers exclaimed “Irashaimasse!”(welcome) as I passed. As I walked towards one of the onsens, a gentle mist floated down the streets and over the short orange bridges that overlooked a precipitous drop onto the streams where the onsen waters circulate.
The sounds of the running streams, the scent of the iron-enriched water and the mountain dew, and the cacophony of wind chimes filled my other senses as I watched the soft mountain mist drift and obscure the village before my eyes. It was very surreal and dream-like and I realized why Ikaho had its reputation.
Finally I came across Ikaho Rotemburo Onsen. It lies a scant few steps from the source of the hot springs, and is divided into two sections – men and women. Each section has two natural springs baths; hot and hotter.
In a Japanese onsen, most people sit and relax in the hot springs in the nude. However, you are usually provided (or bring with you) a small “modesty” towel (small being the operative word) that is supposed to provide you a modicum of modesty when walking between the wash area and the onsen bathing area. This towel is literally the size of a handkerchief, and most Japanese people don`t make too big of an effort to make use of it in the suggested fashion. Thus first time onsen goers are sometimes shocked at the level of nakedness present. However, in Japan, it is perfectly normal to be naked amongst total strangers in an onsen, as onsen bathing is an integral part of the Japanese psyche. In fact, many Japanese people make a habit or a ritual of visiting an onsen several times a month or week.
After washing and rinsing myself (guests are expected to thoroughly wash and rinse themselves before entering the hot water), I gingerly dipped into the almost scalding hot spring bath. Onsens, are essentially natural hot tubs, but there is something about sitting in a naturally occurring, volcanically heated spring that makes for a uniquely memorable and Japanese experience.
Onsens are also reputed to hold various medical effects, and many believe that a good soak can alleviate aches, pains, constipation, menstrual disorders and so on. It certainly did my hangover good. As I watched the steamy mist caused by the cool mountain air hitting the hot springs rise over the onsen, a light rain fell upon the water. I closed my eyes and felt all my worldy troubles wash away.
I realize now why Japanese people love onsens. Life (especially in modern Japan) is often busy, loud, difficult, and bothersome. The onsen is more than a place to have a bathe and soak – it is a place of temporary refuge from the world, where for the 20 or 30 minutes of your visit, you can slow down, leave your life in a small locker and just be. And it has been this way for thousands of years in Japan.
Eventually, I managed to drag my thoroughly raisined body out of the water and do some more exploring. I soon found myself at Misuzawa Temple.
Mizusawa Temple was founded over 1000 years ago. It has an important religious role in Japanese Buddhism and is one of the 33 sites of the Kanto Kannon Pilgrimage where devotees make it a mission to visit each of the 33 temples.
The temple is devoted to Kannon who is the goddess of compassion.
When I arrived at the temple, it was nearly empty. It continued to rain lightly and I listened to the soft pitter patter of the raindrops against the trees and temple roofs as I walked around and admired the history and aesthetic beauty of the temple.
I`ve done my best to capture the feeling and atmosphere of the temple visit in the following episode of the JET Experience vlog. The first few shots are from Ikaho Onsen Town and the rest are from Mizusawa Temple (be sure to watch it in HD):
Living in Japan never ceases to intrigue and inspire me.