The Japanese like to bathe, but not as we know it. They frequent the 'sentô' (public baths), partly because their apartments are so tiny, but above all because they like to come and relax and chat with family or neighbours. This is another precise and delicate art form that will make any trip to Japan a truly unforgettable experience.
Not far from Tokyo is one of Japan's most amazing experiences: the country's famous onsen hot springs. Whether by the seaside or the mountainside, you're never far from an onsen bath in Japan, fed by a hot spring where water gushes from the ground at almost 80°C. The water is guided towards outdoor pools and arrives at around 40°C, as steam curls up into the blue sky above. This thermal water is rich in sodium, fabulous for treating burns and ideal for a relaxing soak. Slipping cautiously into these natural warm pools, at first you may feel like a lobster heading for the pot. However the almost amniotic-like liquid and overall experience is very relaxing and restful: from putting on the cool cotton yukata (a type of kimono-like gown), to getting help from a friendly fellow bather in the locker room to properly tie it, and accepting a hot cup of tea as part of the ritual - a gesture that communicates so much in Japan that it doesn't even require words.
In urban public baths or outdoor springs, you never bathe to bath but rather to relax and socialise. There are separate baths for men and women, and foreigners are accepted with the usual reserve, but with a modicum of kindness thrown in. Make sure not to bathe bringing any bad Western habits, but rather follow the onsen rituals, which haven't changed since the dawn of time. First of all, it's about getting clean. While Japanese women tend to be very modest, laughing and eating while hiding behind their hands, and certainly not showing any cleavage, here they squat entirely naked on a small wooden stool on the ground. Brush, exfoliating glove, shampoo, soap: everything's scrubbed spotless. Only after this can they immerse themselves in the communal pool, a hollowed out rock in the village filled with thermal water, or in the cypress wood tub of a nearby ryokan inn.
A place where no one goes...
Writer John Ashburne described a village onsen scene: 'bathers stay in the water for a whole month, a stone on their knees so they do not float in their sleep.' The pools at Kurokawa, enveloped in morning mists. make you want to do just that. Imagine a small village at the bottom of a narrow valley in the Kyushu mountains, no train station, no concrete and no cash machines, only about thirty ancient ryokans stretching like a snake along a river, with sumptuous outdoor pools. Everyone taking the waters here walks around the village in yukata robes, going from onsen to onsen.