A naked dip in Japan’s hidden hot springs
By Helen Wright
I press my face against the window and feel the cool glass on my cheeks. Outside, the weather in Matsumoto, Japan is drizzling with typical December charm. Inside the rickety coach, the heaters are on full power and almost everyone is asleep. We pass Matsumoto Castle with its cascading hip and gable roof reflecting in the dark moat that surrounds it.
I am on my way to Shirahone, a tiny ‘onsen’ village at the foot of the Japanese Alps. It’s only a two-hour bus ride from Matsumoto, which is on the main train and Shinkansen (bullet train) lines, making it a popular stop for international tourists. Matsumoto itself is small with not much to see other than its 400-year-old castle, the oldest in Japan, as well as some quaint shopping and nightlife areas. It’s worth staying a night to eat at the local café, Soba Club Sasaki where both their curried noodles and English is good. Afterwards, try a ‘fish waffle’ (don’t worry, it’s just a custard-filled pancake in the shape of a fish) from a stall on Nakamachi Street for 100 yen (60p) and explore the pretty fairy-lit roads.
We begin making our ascent into the mountains via a steep, winding road and the weather conditions are getting harsher. The mist of city rain has turned into fat, heavy snowflakes which pelt against the windscreen like rocks thrown from a bridge. The scenery is mostly forest, dotted with the occasional minuscule village to break up the canopy of trees. After an hour driving uphill, the weather outside has gone full-on ‘Elsa*’. The road, now submerged in thick fresh snow, follows tight, treacherous bends which stare down a steep ravine below. The driver seems unfazed by the frosty conditions but I grip tightly onto the arm of my seat.
CHIC AND UNIQUE
Japan is a fascinating country that everyone should experience in their lifetime. From the incredible and slightly weird food to the traditional customs and emphasis on zen-like calm, it’s one place I have visited in the world that manages to be totally different to anywhere else. The fiercely polite locals are unapologetic in their Japaneseness and despite very few speaking English fluently, they will do anything they can to greet and help you. If all that isn’t reason enough to pack your suitcase, it’s also breathtakingly beautiful and this road to my weekend retreat was no exception. Tourism is growing in Japan with 13.4 million foreign visitors coming in last year; the UK accounting for 220,110 of visits. I had already experienced Japan’s zany city culture in Toyko, Kyoto and Osaka so I wanted to try another Japanese custom – the onsen. Onsens are public baths designed for relaxing, not cleaning. Most are heated by one of the 3,000 hot springs across the country and are said to be an ideal way to be at one with nature, especially as clothing is not allowed…
Treacherous mountain roads aside, onsens are not for the fainthearted. For many visitors to Japan, hanging out in a bath of naked strangers is not top of the sightseeing list. There can be complicated bath etiquette – some are mixed, others are for women only and you have to wash before you get in but rules are always clearly stated in English and everyone is expected to follow them. As a volcanically active country, Japan boasts some of the best natural hot springs in the world. The waters are considered to have restorative properties with natural minerals that heal aches and pains, prevent illnesses and generally maintain good health. I had no idea what to expect, especially as the one I was headed to would almost certainly be surrounded by thick snow.
Shirahone is a small remote onsen village hidden in a valley at the foot of the North Japanese Alps. To help with your geography, it can be found nestled close to the more famous alpine nature spots such as Kamikochi and Norikura which are popular ski destinations during the winter months. Long revered for its healing waters, Shirahone literally translates as ‘white bones’, named after the milky colour of the hot springs in this area, which have naturally high calcium and magnesium content. Legend has it that drinking the water can cure gastrointestinal ailments – although whether it could settle my stomach after this coach trip remained to be seen. Weather permitting, the area is also great for hiking and wildlife spotting, including the magnificent Jigokudani Snow Monkeys. In autumn, the entire landscape is freckled with pink cherry blossom like sprinkles on a birthday cake.
Eventually, we pull into the path that leads to Awanoyu, a traditional onsen with tatami-matted floors, futons and paper screen walls. The smiling staff brave the side swiping snowstorm, literally walking in front of the coach shovelling aside the three foot blanket of snow to make it possible to pull in. Getting a proper view of the landscape in its full glory actually caused me to stop and catch my breath. I can honestly say I have never seen snow like it. The entire hotel, cars, outhouses and trees were covered, like someone had built a miniature village inside a tub of vanilla Häagen-Dazs. The manager introduces herself and we are asked to leave our outdoor shoes in the entrance (genkan) and change into some traditional slippers to wear throughout our stay. In Japan, outdoor shoes are commonly left outside to preserve hygiene and harmony inside and I was more than grateful to ditch my soggy boots.
My two friends and I are shown to our room which has delightfully simple Japanese design. The spacious room is separated by shoji walls (sliding paper doors), light tatami reed mat flooring, a low blanket covered table and not much else. Our hostess speaks no English but gestures for us to sit at the table as she serves tea. Sliding my legs under the blanket I was surprised by a divine rush of heat that engulfed my toes. An English card on the table explained that this was a ‘kotatsu’ – a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon or rug and underneath is a heat source, often built into the table itself. The kotatsu, or as I now call it, ‘the world’s best ever invention for people who hate being cold’ are only really used in Japan, which is a travesty. I make a mental note to recreate this at home with my coffee table, duvet and a pile of hot water bottles. We are given traditional yukata robes to roam the hotel. Western clothes are allowed but virtually all guests wear the robes for the duration of their stay. Since there’s nowhere else to go, dinner, drinks and entertainment (there is a karaoke room) is all included. We all shuffle to the dining room in our yukata and slippers where guests have their own private eating cubicle and waitress. Dining in Japan is an adventure in itself but especially so at hosted ryokans (traditional homes), onsens and remote hotels. The banquet style buffet (Kaiseki) is a delicate mix of tiny unidentifiable things on pretty mismatched plates. The waitresses are well prepared for confused westerners and when translation is lost they have cards to help determine each item. If you’re not used to Japanese dining, there’s nothing to be afraid of (it’s unlikely you’ll be served raw eel and wasabi slices without warning). But I admit, I had packed some emergency cereal bars and crisps just in case…
While we’d been at dinner, our futon beds had been made by the Kaiseki (housekeeping) in the same room as the hot blanket table which had now been stored in the corner. Lights are dimmed and early nights are encouraged. Still buzzing from the adrenalin-filled journey and unique surroundings, we play cards until the early hours.
LET IT GO
The next day, the snow on our square of balcony is as white, thick and soft as a giant feathered pillow. The view of the landscape from our window is as shocking as the freezing wind on our cheeks. It’s the stuff movies are made of; the scene as perfect and delicate as the inside of a snow globe. Temperatures outside may have dipped to -7 degrees but there was no delaying the inevitable. We had journeyed here to experience the natural hot springs in the pool outside. Getting nuddy with your buddies isn’t commonplace in England so it was already going to be an odd morning. But peeling off a vest, two cardigans, thermal leggings and my yukata gown in the below freezing temperatures was the thing that really got my heart racing. I’m not going to lie – it was cold. Really, really cold.
The onsen itself, luminous in the lustre of the snow, looked more like a fairytale pirate cove or a scene from a Disney cartoon. Idyllic turquoise water complete with wisps of steam and scattered waterfalls pouring from the flurry-covered rocks above. Despite the mythical healing benefits of taking a dip here, it was really just amazing to witness such naturally occurring beauty. Desire to plunge headfirst into the tranquil water makes you forget the biting cold and we braved the outdoor changing room and stripped off. Standing naked surrounded by knee deep snow was fantastically liberating and certainly a moment I won’t ever forget. Thankfully, in the polite Japanese style of which we’d become accustomed to, there was a private entrance for women to submerge themselves in the water before swimming through a curtain into the open spa. Once in the milky water, modesty is preserved with just bare shoulders facing the cold air. I was willing the onsen to give me that burning hot tingle you get from dipping your toe in a hot bath and as I dunked under the water swaddled me like a warm hug. The spring is not as hot as you’d like it to be,but with Narnia practically spilling into the water I wasn’t expecting boiling. Some onsen can be quite strict and serious but this mini lagoon was laid back with just a few tourists all having the same surreal experience. We were the only westerners but everyone speaks the language of ‘slightly awkward, yet exhilarating grinning’ so we were all joined in our mutual enjoyment.
I can neither confirm or deny the health benefits of the hot spring here (I didn’t drink any) but the creamy water does leave you with silky smooth skin and hair, so that’s good enough for me. After dinner I went back for one last dip under the stars. The wind had picked up and snow was landing on my face quicker than I could brush it off. The majestic Norikura Mountain was glowing white in the distance and I marvelled at what a wonderful corner of the world I had come to. Even the memory of the crazy coach trip had turned into one of adventure and excitement and I vowed to definitely come back soon. Taking it all in, I stepped out and took a moment before reaching for my towel. The cold never bothered me anyway…
Some info you might find helpful…
We booked the Awanoyu Ryokan with booking.com and paid £210 per night (rooms sleep up to four people).
Flights from London to Tokyo (with an easy stop in Hamburg) were £640 on Lufthansa which had unlimited fizzy wine in economy… just saying.
Staff at the bus terminal in Matsumoto are really helpful and senior managers speak decent English so will be able to make sure you are on the right bus. Ask them to write out the name of your stop so you can show it to the bus driver who will likely only speak Japanese. Link to the timetable here Fare was £22 (Yen 4220)
The cheapest way to travel by train is to buy a ticket before you leave the UK. Since this is a tourist only pass, you cannot purchase it once in Japan. We were reluctant to part with £160 in advance too but our ticket was from reliable and official sellers Japan Travel Centre
* in case you didn’t get my Elsa reference… click here