My Dad likes to tell jokes. But alas, like all good comedians, he has only a very limited range of jokes which he will repeat over and over ad tedium. One such joke is produced every time I say I’m going to go and take a bath or a shower. ‘I’m going to take a bath’, I’ll say, to which my Dad will routinely reply, ‘Ah, its that time of year again, is it?’
I’m telling you this because, yesterday, I took no fewer than seven baths. I didn’t take seven baths because I was extremely dirty or unusually smelly, at least to the best of my knowledge. Rather, I took seven baths because I was staying in the Japanese onsen town of Kinosaki.
An onsen is a Japanese public bath, featuring baths filled with piping hot water heated using the natural volcanic heat of the earth below. Kinosaki is a small and exceedingly picturesque little town, two hours north of Kyoto. Its main attraction, and indeed the reason we went there, are the seven onsen spread out along a mile long stretch of road running through the town centre. Our aim was, in the day we were staying in Kinosaki, to visit all seven onsen and take a bath in each one.
On the face of it, this sounds easy. The onsen open from 7am in the morning and close at 11pm at night, so even after a particularly robust lie in that took us beyond midday, we felt like we had plenty of time to visit each of the seven baths. After all, how hard can it be to simply sit in a bath half a dozen times?
Thus we were lulled into such a false sense of security, ignorant as we were of one overarching fact: the water in an onsen is hot. It’s very hot. It’s piping hot, to the point that you can only just about get into the water in the first place, and find after just a few minutes you’re already struggling to stay put.
Onsen etiquette dictates that, before immersing onself in the steaming hot water, one must first spend five minutes sat beneath a shower to one side of the bath in question having a quick wash, in order that any lingering sweat or dirt isn’t carried into the pool with you. One is then required to soak in the hot pool for as long as one wishes (or dares, in this case), before emerging and again having a good old scrub in the shower.
Thus for every bath you also need to take two showers. The whole ritual can take anything up to an hour, allowing a good deal of time to soak in the actual bath in the middle. In bath number one – we started in the onsen next to the train station – we did indeed spend about an hour in total, washing and soaking. In the second onsen a few hundred metres up the road, we spent around 45 minutes. By the third, the hot water was beginning to take its toll: I was feeling light headed, a little faint, and after getting out of the bath I had to sit in the changing room with a cold towel on my head for several minutes, steadying myself with a few deep breaths before standing up again.
It turns out that sitting repeatedly in very hot water for any amount of time is, actually, rather difficult to do.
Bravely we ploughed on, and allowing time in between baths to rest, cool down and eat, we finally emerged from our seventh and final onsen at around 10.30pm, a solid seven baths and nine hours after entering the first. We felt relaxed, we felt sleepy, we felt warm. And we felt very, very, very very very clean. Seven baths and fourteen showers in a day will do that to you, I suppose.
Needless to say, this was an experience like absolutely none other. Kinosaki itself is such a beautiful little town, an idyllic microcosm of a place spread either side of a slowly ambling river, barely a mile from one end to the next. Guests using the onsen in Kinosaki are usually issued with yukata by their hotel – essentially a Japanese dressing gown – and bathers wander from one onsen to the next thus robed, often also wearing solid wooden clogs that clip-clop rhythmically up the street. I never thought it was possible to wander around outside in my dressing gown and not feel the slightest bit self conscious, but this did indeed happen yesterday. To say the experience was other-worldly is perhaps an understatement, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Japan seems to specialize in making things feel that way.
It is possible to stay for just one night here and still experience all seven onsen in Kinosaki, but I’d urge you to spend two nights, as did we, and give yourself time to really soak up (no pun intended) the atmosphere. If you do decide to come this way, here are the Adam’s Grand Tour Top Five Tips For Coming To Kinosaki Onsen For A Bath (I love catchy titles):
Adam’s Grand Tour Top Five Tips For Coming To Kinosaki Onsen For A Bath
- Give yourself time
You might think that taking seven baths doesn’t take too long. You’re wrong: it does! We started at around 1pm, by the time we finally got out of bed, and by 10.30pm and our final bath, we felt like we were rushing. Start early (or at least earlier than we did) and allow yourself the whole day.
This probably goes without saying, but you’re going to sweat a lot in the baths. Thus, taking on plenty of fluid is an extremely wise idea. Some of the baths have water fountains, and all have vending machines where you can buy a drink. Make sure you drink plenty between baths, else dehydration awaits.
- Pace yourself
Perhaps a mistake we made was to spend a whole hour in our first onsen, which had the effect of leaving us both feeling a little light headed early on. You’ll naturally want to spend ages wallowing in the first bath, and it sometimes feel a waste of time to no more than dip into a bath on account of its heat. But think about it: if you only spend 10 minutes in each onsen, you’ll still spend well over an hour in the total trip immersed in very hot water. Take it easy early on, and you’ll reap the dividends towards the end.
- Don’t be shy
I can’t be sure, but I think it was my Granddad who once said, “we’ve all got ‘em”. Each onsen in Kinosaki divides guys and girls into completely separate sections, so there’s really no need to be shy. The locals will wander around bollock naked, and there’s really no reason to not do the same yourself. Don’t be shy and, for ever desperate want of a better phrase, let it all hang out.
- Stay in a ryokan
I’ll write more about our beautiful lodgings in a separate post. But for an utterly authentic experience, stay in a ryokan, sleep on a futon laid across tatami mats, and let them serve breakfast in your room as well. Some of the ryokan also have their own baths – a great way to warm up (again, no pun intended) before taking on the seven public baths Kinosaki has to offer.