Sunday, 19 April 2009

Baring it all at the Onsen

In Japanese philosophy, Onsen, Japanese hot spring bath, is the diametric opposite of everything in normal, hectic day-to-day life. Onsen blends the mysticism and spirituality of the East into the traditional sweat bath practice, lending it a Zen, meditative quality. This has been practised for thousands of years and is a major part of Japanese culture and lifestyle, providing a socially acceptable relief from the pressures of the contemporary Japanese twelve-hour work ethic. It represents an opportunity for the Japanese to melt down the hierarchical nature of society through mutual nakedness and intimacy. Hot springs are distinguished by the minerals dissolved in the water. Different minerals provide different health benefits, and all hot springs are supposed to have a relaxing effect on the body and mind. Hot spring baths come in many varieties, indoor and outdoor, gender separated and mixed. For most Japanese Onsen is not a regular part of life, but essentially a respite from it and is enjoyed throughout the seasons.Hill retreats like Hakone are famed for their ryokans (tradition Japanese rest houses) and onsen where residential facilities include 3 meals and a tatami-styled room where one sleeps on futons spread out on the floor. Kusatsu hot spring is widely recognised as one of the best quality spring waters rich in sulfur, aluminum, sulfate and chloride of high acidity. A traditional folk song sings the praises of the therapeutic benefits of its spring water that it is able to “cure everything but love sickness”.Tradition has been successfully commercialised in the major cities where theme park onsens thrive on the energy of the young and tourists. Its a matter of taste - modern design . . . . . . versus rocks and boulders.Additional attractions like Doctor Fish spas have been introduced to titillate the senses. Garra Rufa, a type of small tropical fish, are able to withstand temperatures of up to 43-degree hot waters. They eat dead skin (no they are not piranha) and are used for the treatment of skin diseases. Another intriguing spa therapy is the sand bath, originating from Ibusuki, Japan. Wearing a yukata (Japanese cotton robe) one is buried up to the neck in heated sand for 15 minutes to achieve the benefits of this detox treatment. Together with improved circulation, one feels surprisingly refreshed after a sand bath. Now comes the hot topic of etiquette. The onsen is not a place to cleanse oneself but rather to relax and benefit from its therapeutic effects. One is required to disrobe and don a yukata. In the bathing area, one must be prepared to bare all, and head for the washing station for a good scrub and wash. Good quality bath and hair shampoo and conditioner are provided. All you have is a small stool to hide your modesty which is a better option than standing upright in full view, belting out strains of "Obladi oblada..." as you would do in your own shower! Rest assured there will be a major uproar if there is nonconformance of this practice. Embarrassment is a given and not just because one is caught with one's pants down!
Armed only with a wash cloth, a meager 15 cm x 40 cm, which you are not supposed to immerse in the water but keep on your head, you wander to pools of varying temperatures and mineral content and gracefully immerse yourself without screaming as you embrace the hot water.

Very soon you do relax and enjoy the moment despite the obvious nudity all around you. For those of us who are not used to this practice, it is better to go to an onsen on your own, I think. You cut out the giggles and stress. After 30 minutes you imagine yourself on a different planet, feeling as light as a feather and drifting from pool to pool without a care. Perhaps this is what it must be like on the island of Lesbos or before Adam and Eve ate that wretched apple! Pure bliss.

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