Turning Japanese: Hot Springs, Cool Blossoms

Article by: unknown author

Wed March 28, 2012 | 00:00 AM

650px-Onsen_in_Nachikatsuura,_JapanPermission Chris73 via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re going to make the floral pilgrimage to Japan to witness the annual Hanami festivities, my number one recommendation is that you pair this with a tour of a few onsen (hot springs inns). There are 1,800 onsen around Japan, most of which are family-run, but imagine spending the day in visual splendor with the cherry blossoms and then the evening in sensual splendor witnessing the stars come out while in a rejuvenating hot spring next to a creek or on the ocean.

During our weeklong onsen tour, we experienced a historical property in the mountains, Fukuzumi-ro, a more modern property on the ocean with stunning rooftop baths, Senoumi, and then we topped it off with one of my top ten favorite resorts in the world, Seni onsen, near Nagano, the spot of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Seni’s vaulted claim to fame is its underground mine shaft that’s both a cavernous hot and warm pool oasis with waterfalls full of baking, healthy minerals. Their meals were a Japanese version of the famous Napa Valley gastronomical mecca, French Laundry. Although, beware, at most onsen the dinner meal can go on for two to three hours with as many as 20 courses. At Senoumi, they kept bringing out fish dishes with the animals still moving on the plate. You do grow weary of our underwater friends at some point.

In sum, Japan’s tourist economy is rather moribund. We were in Singapore just before coming to Japan and the difference is stark. Singapore has 5 million residents but 13 million foreign visitors per year. Japan’s comparable numbers are 127 million residents and just 6 million visitors. Why? Japan is a sweetly insular culture. It’s not easy getting around as few speak English and most signs are only in Japanese. And, many of the customs – like the cherry blossom festival – are deeply embedded in the Japanese blood. But, I have to tell you, around our speeding-too-fast world, almost all of us long for a soak in a bucolic hot spring topped off with a massage.

Photo: Chris73 via Wikimedia Commons