Ancient Japanese hunters are said to have stumbled across bubbling mineral hot springs as they chased their wounded prey. Instinctively drawn by the soothing waters, the dying animals led them to these onsen [hot springs], and birthed the ancient belief that animals were the Gods’ messengers.
Volcanic Japan is studded with springs that are renowned for their healing properties, which gained popularity when Buddhism arrived from neighbouring Korea, bringing with it rituals of cleansing and purifying the body.
In comparison to European spas, onsen weren’t segregated by gender. I encountered one that was mocked up to look like an ancient Japanese Edo village (complete with wooden storefronts) and the visitors: a mix of students, tourists, and locals, were all dressed in informal, hired yukata [summer kimono], and walked barefoot on the tatami mats, which lined the simulated street.
We plunged into the gurgling pools. The water was milky and pungent but immediately intoxicating. We hopped between still water and turbulent, eventually making our way outside to bathe under the dark night sky, it was glorious.
The Japanese bathhouse is addictive. Arriving in Kyoto (a city close to, but not actually containing any onsen) I instead took to the waters of the Sentō. Sentos are public baths: the onsen’s pragmatic, urban counterpart.
Every neighbourhood has its own, to ease the deep freeze of Japan’s winter. And to accommodate the workers of Japan’s relentless office culture, sentō open from late afternoon until the early hours. They’re no fuss but certainly not no fun. They’re made up of a variety of jacuzzis, showers, whirlpools and tubs. Almost serenely quiet, the pervading atmosphere is welcoming, but never intrusive. Locals bring their jumbo bottles of shampoo and shower gel, their own towels, toothbrushes and razors, all signposting the sentō’s indispensable nature.
Shorthand as it is for gay sex, the sauna is the bratty brother of onsen and sento. The debate over niceties like gay marriage rights haven’t even reached the shores of Japan, but then again, neither has the Anglo-American mania for incessant homophobia. Many Japanese gay bars don’t allow foreigners in, so the sauna has become a meeting place for wanderers to mingle.
The sauna I visited was open 24/7, and was populated by men in towels wandering around like hungry ghosts. The pot-bellied pursued the untouchable twinks, the twinks chased the hunks, the hunks hunted the kinky daddies, in an endless carousel, round and round, in and out of the steam rooms. Unsurprisingly the facilities here were the least conducive to bodily restoration!
By 4am the place was almost exclusively populated by the heavy-eyed. Upstairs, the beds were packed, traffic-jam style, with hundreds of sleeping guests. A few lost souls, orphaned by the train service (which doesn’t reopen until dawn) crashed on the floo. Even in the sauna itself (the nominal excuse to visit) guests snored, and sleepwalkers staggered in and out. The bath tubs and showers, in which sleep was actively impossible, became base camp for a more genteel kind of getting to know you, involving more traditional formalities like the exchange of names and eye contact. Kinda romantic.
Removed from the obsession with commerce, and the abundance of technology that typify Japan’s big cities, stripped, quite literally of societal insulation, Japanese bath houses offer up a casual, relaxed, and occasionally explicit insight into this most rarefied of cultures. Whilst it’s probably unnecessary for the casual visitor to take quite such an immersive plunge as mine, dipping a toe into the onsen is an essential experience for any visitor keen to understand more about the land of the rising sun.