A Midnight Winter’s Dream

In the cold of the winter, one of my favorite pastimes is visiting the onsen, or geothermal springs, that dot the countryside. I had the idea of doing a review of an onsen blog but couldn’t rummage up one that didn’t seem to lack the quiet, non-commercialized serenity of a truly enjoyable onsen experience. Who knows, I might have to start an onsen review site, someday. It would certainly require more than just one writer, because it would take me my entire life to get around to all the onsen in Japan.

Although there are some onsen in the cities, I find that they pale in comparison the ones you’ll find in the country. Nothing ruins the experience for a peace-loving person like myself like settling down into a steaming pool, almost reaching a state of complete relaxation and then having a tourist group walk in. Most tourists seem to visit the onsen in or near the cities and it rather ruins the experience for me. Plus, the ryokan (traditional Japanese inns, often cute bed-and-breakfasts) built next to the onsen in the country are far more quaint and rustic than the attached facilities found in the city.

There are many kinds of onsen, usually differentiated by the mineral content of their waters. Most are piping hot, but never too hot so long as you take your time getting in. As to particular minerals, I have yet to find a kind more preferable than the other – well, asides from the iron onsen. I chalk this up to growing up with rural ground water and never losing my taste for water with a bit of iron in it. There’s a certain metallic smell about these onsen that reminds me of hot showers on cold winter nights back home.

At any rate, it’s wonderful to escape the hectic and harried life in Tokyo for a trip to an onsen in the countryside. I prefer very cold evenings – in fact, my most pleasurable experience was on a night when it was snowing quite heavily. I first soaked in the onsen indoors to warm up for the trip outside. After a little while, I made my way to the rotenburo, or outside onsen. The sky was aglow with that peculiar light of a full moon hidden behind an overcast sky, and snowflakes were lazily floating down onto the hot water and remaining for a fleeting second or two before melting. It was well below freezing, but my previous onsen bath kept me warm long enough to slip into the still waters, where the cold air was almost unnoticeable. Not a single soul was with me, and I was alone to contemplate the flurries above. Absolute heaven – when you take in a draught of that cold, country air, it seems more crisp and fresh because of the wisps of steam rising from the water around you. It’s delightfully peaceful, and leaves you with the feeling that it is good to be alive.

Times like that remind me of things that are all too easy to forget in the bright lights and big sounds of Tokyo. They make me remember a quieter and simpler way of living, of not being so caught up in the moment that you let it pass by unsavored. In the weeks after an onsen visit as good as the one described above, I find myself indulging in the little things a bit more and working to leave myself some spare time in the day to just think and enjoy life. A proper onsen visit does both mind and body good.

Dominique

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~ by Japan Blog Review on February 28, 2012.

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