Sunday, 9 October 2011

What's a Bath Between Friends

If you spend a little time in Japan you will become more and more acquainted with the tradition of visiting an onsen. The onsen is a traditional Japanese bathing house and they can be found throughout the country, often in a range of interesting and exotic locations. They may be set indoors or outdoors and are frequented by people of all ages, families and children. Most often they are segregated into male and female areas, who commonly share the enjoyment of bathing together in natural thermal springs. For the Japanese it is a long held tradition of escaping their generally hectic lives and getting to know people better in a relaxed and very informal manner. All this is very new to Jules and myself and we have only just begun to experience this unique Japanese tradition. Arriving here with our western sensibilities, the idea of communal nudity is a concept that takes a little adjusting to, but we have been prepared to give it a try. On our recent visit to Shirahama we experienced the Shakino-yu onsen, which is regarded as one of Japans oldest and highest rated hot springs. What makes it particularly significant is it’s location, sitting in a natural rock formation directly at the waters edge. From here, waves often crash over the rocks to combine with the heated waters that rise from deep below the earth. It also has historical significance, as the springs are mentioned in early texts from the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794) in which it is written that Emporers Saimei, Tenji, Jito and Monmu all bathed here while passing through Shirahama. Although it was a humble and unpretentious establishment, the staff were clearly used to the odd visitor from foreign shores and were more than welcoming. As I entered the male bathing area, they informed me that I could either plunge into the comfortable 32 degree pool or the slightly more exhilarating 40 degree pool. As it happened I tried both and I found them both equally relaxing as I laid back and admired the picturesque outlook out to sea. After we were done we headed off to enjoy another Shakino-yu onsen tradition of eating boiled eggs that are cooked by using the same spring waters that we had been bubbling in ourselves just moments ago. In a little hut on a laneway leading to the onsen, older Japanese ladies serve you soft boiled eggs in their shells. These are pulled out of a large tub shaped like a turtle and handed to you, top removed and ready to be swallowed in one gulp. It was a nice way to conclude such a unique experience and one that has certainly enticed Jules and I to explore the wonderful world of onsens a little further.

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