Ah, onsen. Hot springs may be my favorite part of Japanese culture, combining three of my greatest passion: hot baths, chilling out, and public nudity. During my first trip to Japan, I was only able to visit one onsen, but the memory of the hot water and relaxing atmosphere is still vivid. (Thanks, Steph!) I fell in love with onsen during that trip. What’s the big deal about a hole full of hot water? an American might ask. Oh, poor friend. Unlike many American hot springs that feature dirty rocks and naked hippies showing off their handstand push-up skills, Japanese hot springs are clean and comfortable, often more similar to a luxury spa than an hole in the ground. This is even more true when they’re combined another fantastic Japanese invention: the ryokan, a traditional luxury hotel that replaces ostentation with wabi-sabi grace. Our ryokan of choice for this leg of the trip?: Hotel Senkei.
After sleeping a good 12 hours to recover from my 37–hour day and my evening being a lame guest, we jumped onto the shinkansen to get us to Hakone. (A dumb idea, being neither cheap nor direct, but it’s the shinkansen! I gotta get my fix where I can.)
Unfortunately, after sleeping way in and because we took the shinkansen instead of the more direct Romancecar, we were running quite late. I called the hotel, and although the concierge didn’t speak English, my still-exhausted Japanese was enough. He understood that we’d be late—8 or 9 rather than 5 or 6—and said he’d hold our room. I bought our Hakone Free Passes at Odawara Station and climbed on the train to Moto-Hakone.
It was quite dark by this time, already past 6, and we still had several stops to go before we arrived in Hakone-Yumoto. By the time we arrived at the station, only the faintest glow of sun could be seen over the mountains. We buffered the map on Jason’s tablet and made our way to the hotel.
We walked twilight streets with few cars, narrow old houses rising on both sides, their toes edging up to the street. We took a corner over a bridge where the lights on the two shores shone down on the river like silver, the red paper lanterns of a distant soba shop dancing in the breeze. We followed twisting roads snaking up into the mountains until we arrived at Hotel Senkei: a four-story hotel built right into the mountain, pine and maple boughs swaying over the roof tiles. A huge mural of Mt. Fuji greeted us in the lobby. After checking in, a maid led us up to our rooms on the third floor. The rooms were incredibly beautiful: seven tatami mats in size, with a small table in the middle where a teapot and hot water dispenser were already set out. The large tokonoma featured a lovely scroll, and through another set of paper screens was a sitting area with two chairs, a small balcony through sliding glass doors beyond it.
Being a fantastic guide possessing bone-deep knowledge of Japanese culture, I promptly set an example of what not to do by getting so excited I walked onto the tatami mats with my slippers.
After giving us a chance to drop our bags and reminding me that no shoes of any kind are allowed on the tatami, the maid sat with us and explained the rules of the hotel and the onsen: the hours for the rotenburo (open-air hot spring) and sento (public bath), which sexes were allowed in which bath at which times, a quick overview of washing instructions, and a reminder to not place things in the tokonoma. She also mentioned that the only restaurant open in the hotel, a ramen shop, would close within the hour. Finally, she asked when we thought we’d go take our baths so she’d know when to lay out our futon. We decided to eat dinner, then come back to regroup before hitting the baths in about two hours. The maid excused herself, leaving behind a small tray of cakes.
After a quick dinner at the ramen shop, we reconvened in Shannon’s and my room, making tea and opening the lovely little cakes the maid had left behind. Tearing into the white and purple paper, we found perfect little brown mochi with a single piece of gold leaf adorning the top of each. Our Portland foodie sides sprang to the fore as we spent ten minutes trying to take the perfect photos of them and our tea, but it was to no avail; no photo could capture how fantastically beautiful (not to mention delicious) those little cakes were. Resigning ourselves to their fleeting beauty, we ate them slowly as I explained how to put on yukata and gave tips for the bath.
When I stepped out to visit the rotenburo, it was quite late—probably 10 p.m.—and I was alone. I shed my zori at the entrance to the changing room, then my yukata and obi, leaving it all with my small towel in the changing baskets. The room was cozy with a double sink, a small water cooler, and a chair with a foot massager. I took a sip of the cold water, then stepped through the door into the bath.
The cold November air raised goosebumps all over my body, the wind blowing over the mountains to fall on my naked skin. To my right was the wash area; ahead, the square bath was set down into the rock. On the far end of the tub the walls and even a section of rooft were completely gone, a fence just visible beyond the end of the tub about 10 feet away. The black sky and blacker mountain were huge and wide beyond the fence.
I washed quickly with the hottest water I could stand, the damp wood freezing cold on my butt, then approached the tub and put a toe in. It was hot, but not so bad that I couldn’t stand it. I stepped in slowly, then sat, the water coming nearly to my neck, water sloshing out quietly. The bottom was paved with natural stones, bumpy on my butt, but not rough. The water heated me through almost instantly, and the cold wind blew on my face, a singularly refreshing sensation. I scooted closer to the opening in the far wall, hoping to see the stars.
Something moved against my hand.
I almost jumped out of my skin, probably splashing a person’s worth of water in my effort to get away from whatever it was. I looked down in horror to find—
A leaf. A little red maple leaf had floated in through the open space, become waterlogged, and sunk to the bottom of the pool where my hand brushed against it.
I forced myself to sit down, trying to laugh at how funny it was that something so small would spook me, trying to think about how poignant it was to find the perfect symbol of autumn in the tub with me, trying to reassure myself that this tub was cleaned a minimum of twice a day and by no means contained any living creatures. I sat and put on a good performance of relaxation for my audience of zero, but it was hard to truly relax anyway. I stood to walk to the far end of the tub—somehow the few stray leaves I encountered were less creepy to feel against my feet than my hands or butt—then cleared a spot to sit and watch for the stars to come out.
I relaxed like this for several minutes, blissing out as much as I could manage, what with the leaf monsters still skulking around, when I heard the door slide open. I looked up. A wrinkled face looked back at me, and I realized that someone else was trying to come into the bath. Not wanting to be rude, I turned my head to look back at the sky, but left the door just inside my peripheral vision. The face remained there for a few moments, then pulled back and the door closed. I heard undecipherable chatter, then the door slid open again and another face poked in. I didn’t turn my head, just watched from my peripheral vision, as the woman studied me for a few seconds, then pulled her head in and closed the door again. Moments later, the door opened again and the ritual repeated, as though she hoped that I would disappear when the door closed. I didn’t, and after this last long look at me, I heard the woman and perhaps two others walk out of the bath entirely.
What a terrible way to be treated! One of Japan’s more prominent and less famous attributes is chronic racism. I’ve seen it and felt it before, but it was a cold slap of reality right in the middle of my nice hot bath. There was no way they could know by my face that I’d been studying their culture and language for over a decade, or that I could hold down a pleasant conversation, which is exactly the point. One look at me, and they “knew” right away that I was a gross foreigner who was probably sullying the bath water by washing in it.
A few minutes later, as I sulked and tried to forget about the racist old ladies, I heard someone else walk into the changing room. One rejection in a night is bad enough, but two would be too much. Onsen is an experience best shared, and I’d have loved to share it! The idea that I’d probably be abandoned again without so much as a word… I decided that if I was rejected again, I’d leave and go to bed. I sat still, staring at the mountain, but turned my head a little so that I could see the door again in my peripheral vision.
The door opened, and without a moment of hesitation, a woman stepped through. She looked to be in her late 40s. She walked to the taps to wash, and as she was setting up her things, she asked in Japanese how the stars were.
“They’re not out yet,” I responded, also in Japanese. “The mountain is beautiful, though.”
She nodded, showing no sign of surprise at my ability to understand her or respond. She washed herself, then climbed into the bath without any drama. We sat quietly together for a few moments, then she asked in Japanese, “Are you an American?”
“Yes. I’m here on vacation.”
“Your Japanese is really good!”
“Hahaha, not really. But thank you.”
“Where did you study?”
“I studied at the University of Oregon mostly, but also took a study abroad trip to Waseda back in 2003.”
“Oh, you’re from Oregon?”
“I’ve heard Oregon is lovely! My sister lives in California.”
“Oh, cool! What part?”
We continued our small talk for a few more minutes eventually allowing it to peter out, letting the hot water and cool breeze and simple human companionship relax our bodies. After about 10 minutes, my new friend stood and said good night, then left the bathing area. I didn’t stay much longer. My companion had helped reestablish some of my faith in Japanese people, and besides, the hot water was draining all my energy so that I was minutes from falling asleep in the tub. I dried and dressed, then wandered back to my room.
Address: 592 Yumoto, Hakone-machi, Ashigara-Shimogun, Kanagawa Prefecture 250-0311
Get there: Turn right as you exit Hakone Yumoto Station (Hakone Tozan line) and follow the pedestrian pathway across the skybridge, then take the stairs down to the big main road, Tokai-do Street. Turn left on Tokai-do Street. Cross two short blocks and walk one long block before turning left. You should see a bridge about a block ahead. Cross the bridge and take your first left. Cross another bridge and turn right. Continue until the sidewalk ends (about 1000 feet). Hotel Senkei is on your left.
Price: Prices vary wildly depending on the season, room, number of people, and whether you choose no, half, or full board. Check out Hotel Senkei’s website (English) to enter your preferences for a quote.
- Know how to take a Japanese bath before you go to an onsen. Cliff’s notes: take your shoes off as soon as you see a step up into a room, not stepping onto the clean upper surface with your shoes; undress fully in the changing room (no bathing suits); leave your clothes in the basket but bring the small wash towel with you; wash at the provided stations, being careful not to splash the other patrons or get your cleaning water into the bath water; rinse well; soak in the big tub! Bring your well-rinsed wash towel with you, but avoid getting it or your hair in the bath (consider tying your hair up with the towel, or placing the towel on your head, like the Japanese do). When in doubt, follow the cues of the other bathers and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Don’t take the shinkansen to Hakone. Figuring out the shinkansen for the first time is hard enough without having to also navigate Tokyo Station, and it’s much less direct than the Romancecar anyway, meaning it’ll take longer to get there despite the shinkansen‘s speed.
- Do as I say, not as I do: no shoes or slippers on the tatami.
Based on my diary entries from November 10, 2013.