The heat of Osaka made a great hike all the more satisfying! The smell of the humid forest accumulated with the scent of the earth, trees, plants, and flowers. Cicadas hummed, leaves crunched, and the water rushed by. Sweat dripped, knees protested and the smile never left my face. All my senses were enjoying this Friday trek through the Settsukyo forest. My body felt stretched, used, and appreciated, my mind alert yet reflective. Gratitude engulfed me as I pondered my ability to visit Japan, to be hiking, to have a totally relaxed schedule, to be able-bodied, and to be healthy. Delighted it was the three-week anniversary of my arrival in Japan, my mood was festive and celebratory. It was time for reward and reflection – I calculated it was eight weeks since I had some major surgery; I was slowly but surely regaining my physical strength. Eight weeks meant I could now be submerged in water – the possibility of an onsen (hot spring) was so thrilling!
When I lived in Hokkaido, Japan, from 2002 to 2005, onsens were probably my favourite thing – after snowshoeing, after musical practice, after hiking, for any reason, really. A Japanese hot spring or “onsen” is a beautiful thing. Going to the onsen is often a family bathing experience for the Japanese. There are onsens as public baths, as part of a hotel, or in the outdoors with no real facilities. They are in cities, and in rural areas as well. I have been to some which involved driving many kilometers up a gravel road on the side of a mountain. And I have been to some in the middle of an urban sprawl. Generally, taking an onsen, you proceed naked with a small hand towel to sit on a small stool with a portable shower and a large bucket and wash yourself off. As you are sharing the hot spring with others, everybody should help keep them sanitary. The hot springs are all-natural, and have no chemicals. After washing yourself off, you can use the hand towel to cover yourself and head to the spring. Soaking in the natural springs is relaxing and also good for your skin. Some onsens have different features such as scented springs, springs with electrical currents in them, and hot/cold springs.
At the base of my hike there are two onsens – one is called Sansuikan 山水館(Mountain Water Place) and Shofuen美人湯 (Beautiful People Bath) – Sansuikan is on the side of the river and I had only seen the roof as the road passes by it from above. Shofuen, I have been told about by many people as being a great onsen. It is just outside Settsukyo park. I contemplated and decided I wanted the riverside onsen experience, and so proceeded down. I figured if I went to an onsen with a Japanese friend I would end up at Shofuen, and I felt like celebrating – the nature immersion was what truly attracted me. Found out Sansuikan also has a Japanese style inn/hotel as part of it, so it was a little expensive – $14 for a soak is high. The woman at the desk explained that I had until 2:45 to use the onsen, and it was 1pm – perfect timing. I donned my indoor slippers, paid my money and off I headed. Turns out I had the place to myself, and the females have the rotenburo (outdoor onsen section) until 2:45 daily, which was a sweet deal. This particular onsen had a gorgeous rock formation built into the side of the pool, two large pouring down streams to sit under for a shoulder massage, a pressure point jetted area, and another area which I couldn`t get to work. And then the rotenburo! The washing area looked onto the river, though the water condensation beaded onto it, and there were bamboo blinds for privacy. Afterwards, as typical, I ate – enjoyed some iced tea and curry & rice, a typical Japanese style of curry – popular in many restaurants and one of my favourites.
I felt clean, refreshed and relaxed. The water cascaded down, the pool rippled around, and I took in deep breaths of the mountain and forest air in the rotenburo. Small acorns were minimally scattered at the bottom of the pool, I sat upon large smooth boulders, and the rush of the river played a lovely melody. Sheer heaven. Joyful celebration, contemplation and indulgence to me!
My skin was silky smooth, my mind content, my belly full and my smell delightful. A lovely tradition – one I treasure each time. Here`s to another visit soon to an onsen. One of the best parts of Japan, in my opinion; a package of pleasure for all your senses. Truly heaven on earth. Belinda Carlisle called it.