Onsen

The worst part about climbing Mt. Fuji doesn’t hit you until a day or two later. I hadn’t planned for this and it cost me half a day of my time in Japan and my day-trip to Kyoto. I had forgotten that after hiking up a 4km mountain for 8 hours and 2 hours back down at pretty quick pace would be a workout. And like all workouts the muscle soreness hits you 1-2 days later. Lets just say I couldn’t get out of bed because my thighs and calves were that tight and sore.

Thankfully another Japanese tradition came to my rescue. After hoisting myself out of bed and getting some ramen to nourish my body I visited the local Onsen. It turned out to be just around the block from my Airbnb and one of the most highly rated in Tokyo. For those who don’t know, an Onsen is a Japanese public bath house that is filled with natural hot springs.

Harking back to an era when most Japanese didn’t have baths in their house, an onsen was a communal facility for cleaning and bonding. At first it was a little weird for my western upbringing but pretty quickly I let the hot springs do their magic and I relaxed, opened up my mind, and embraced the concept. You see, an Onsen is separated male & female and done completely in the nude.

You start your onsen with a pre-rinse and then a shower where you clean up and get the grime of Tokyo off of your skin. You then can alternate between one of many baths including a Jet bath, a sea salt bath, a carbonated bath, a cold bath (freezing cold!) and a lie-down bath. There is also a sauna and steam room.

Now alternating between each of these baths, in the nude, can be a bit strange at first but you quickly realize that the experience is about letting your guards down and relaxing in a safe environment not often afforded in traditional Japanese culture. When you and your family were at constant war with other tribes and clans in feudal Japan there was a need for constant vigilance and alertness. For the samurai class, the onsen was one of the few places that they could relax and thus bond with their companions whom they trusted ont he battlefield.

Those same mentalities and attitudes continue today and it was an experience I was glad to have not only for the uniqueness of the tradition, but also because my muscles needed a break. I’m still sore today and am worried about being stuck at 35,000 ft’ for 12 hours this evening where I might have to get up and stretch frequently. However, I know that if I hadn’t have been able to spend 2 hours at the onsen I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the rest of Japan.