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Onsens, Japanese Hot Springs.

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Shedding a lifetime of inhibitions; Hot springs, known as onsens, reflect Japanese culture's love and respect for beauty of nature

Saturday, January 16th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Canwest News Service

All in all, travelling in Japan isn't exactly a scary experience. There have been moments that caught me off-guard, such as stumbling upon a yakuza "transaction" in a dark parking lot, feeling my first earthquake, and being unwillingly squashed into the last square inch of a bullet train.

The most frightening experience, however, is taking the cultural and physical plunge into a Japanese onsen.

Onsens are natural, mineral-rich hot springs where the locals go to relax, rejuvenate and heal. Imagine a more structured, less debaucherous, version of the North American hot tub culture: tattoos are banned, food and drink are not permitted, washing and bathing are performed in a particular order, and everyone must be naked. That's right– stripping down to your birthday suit is a requirement, not an aftermath.

Practised for centuries, the tradition is as widely spread as the 20,000 hot springs found throughout the country's volcanically active islands. Most onsens reflect the culture's love and respect for the beauty of nature. They are commonly located in mountainous, serene settings free of neon lights and crowded streets.

After travelling just 45 minutes from Kyoto to Kurama, I find myself surrounded by cedar trees, a crisp winter chill and complete silence. The only sign of life comes from a little booth where visitors must pay their entrance fees.

In exchange for $15 worth of Japanese yen, an older gentleman with smiling eyes and no English points me in the direction of 100 stone steps and hands over a washing/modesty towel about one square foot in size. Which square foot of my body should I cover? So many choices, so little cloth.

It's helpful to remind oneself that exposing all your assets really isn't such a big deal. In Japanese hot tubs, soaking naked is a ritual meant to promote "hadaka no tsukiai," which loosely association through

translates to "nakedness." Families, friends and companies often arrange onsen retreats as a bonding experience.

After entering the women's section, all clothes and belongings are placed into one of the provided baskets. This is the point of no return. Exiting the comfort of the change room and entering the outdoor bathing area, I come face-to-face with a lifetime of inhibitions, Mount Kumara in the distance and an empty pool. Hello world. Here I am. And there's nobody here — hallelujah! The introduction is quite freeing, really. Like riding a bike, being naked outdoors just comes naturally.

Thoughts quickly turn to the below-freezing air temperature. Steaming, therapeutic waters are tempting me to pass on the customary pre-rinse. However, to the right of the three-foot shallow hot spring is a row of 10 perfectly aligned bathing stations waiting to be put to use. Each is equipped with plastic stools, buckets, toiletries and removable showerheads. But who would want to take an outdoor shower in this

weather? I guess it's really not optional.

After what would probably make the world record for the fastest rinse ever, I'm left feeling colder than an Aeroflot flight attendant. The equally chilly ground leaves me no option but to tiptoe and hop over to the onsen as if I were a rookie sadhu making his first jaunt across a bed of hot coals.

Using my toes to test the water temperature is a huge mistake. "Oh my god, mother of" -it's hot. One more degree and it would be boiling. The only factor pushing me into the onsen is the whole nudity thing, and that I would feel much more comfortable (mentally, if not physically) submersed in the modesty of the waters.

Suddenly, there are voices in the distance. As they get closer, it's a big deep breath in and into the water I go. It's all mind over matter.

Out of nowhere a group of four middle-aged Japanese women come sprinting towards the hot tub. Defying all rules, they bypass the showers, not even giving them a second look, let alone a first. All four happily jump into the hot spring, literally making waves. After some group chatter, one of the women turns to me and asks curiously: "Did you shower?" Unable to come up with a Japanese version of, "Is the Pope Catholic," I answer with a simple, yet proud, "Yes." Who's the rookie now?

Slipping into the onsen culture has proved to be as easy as slipping my nearly frozen body into the therapeutic hot springs themselves. It's a little painful and nerve-wracking at first, but with a warming payoff.

Alexa Love, 29, of New Westminster, back-packed through Japan for three weeks in December. She says of her trip: "Despite the images of Japan as a bustling neon-lit country, it proved to be a relaxing and easy place to travel."

(note: you can comment on this and we encourage all to do so!)

An onsen, I would like to try it.

Heading to Kyushu this weekend for some Onsen hoping. Planning on seeing Kurokawa and Yufuin. If anyone has been in the area I would love to know!

Going in spring next year. I'll take recommendations for good ones!

David B:
I would love to go someday. But i would have to find one that allows people with tattoos since most don't allow tattoos.


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