‘Hotto, Hotto!’ – A Japanese Onsen Experience

Kyoto, Japan

On a chilly, winter morning with snow flakes falling softly, and steam rising from the water, a Japanese women in her sixties looks at me and exclaims, ‘hotto, hotto’, smiling wide, her eyes creased with wrinkles, as she eases herself into the water of a Japanese outdoor hot spring (onsen). We exchange few words, but both of us savor the feeling of time standing still as we let the water work its magic on us.

An onsen is a natural, mineral-rich hot spring where Japanese people have gone to soak away their aches and pains for centuries. This national obsession makes sense, since they are more abundant in Japan than any other country in the world, with over 2,300 of them scattered throughout Japan’s thermally active islands.

Many of Japan’s best onsens are located in remote areas, such as Hokkaido. But, if you’re in dire need of a good soak somewhere within easy reach of Kyoto, Japan then a visit to the ever-picturesque Kurama Onsen is your best option. While certainly not Japan’s best onsen, Kurama is the closest to Kyoto, offering tourists visiting the old capital a good chance to experience one of Japan’s most distinctive customs – public bathing. It’s also a good place to go to get a look at rural Japan.

Entrance to Kurama Onsen
Entrance to Kurama Onsen
Tucked away in pine and cedar forest in the city’s northern mountains, just 30 minutes from Kyoto city, this hot spring has the option of bathing either inside or outside. Of course bathing outside, rotemburo-style, in cypress wood baths among dense pine and cedar forest is surely the way to go. With the scent of pine on the wind and Mt. Kurama to gaze at, bathing inside quickly loses its appeal.

Just close your eyes and sink into sweet oblivion or stare at the surrounding steep hillsides, thick with cedar and pine trees, as you let the revitalizing water work its magic on your body. If the water gets too hot, just step out and relax on the wooden ledges placed around the bath, and work up the courage to slip back into the water for one last soak.

In bustling modern Japan, the onsen offers relief from the hectic 12-hour working day that many Japanese deal with on a routine basis, and a chance to connect with community members. And, relaxing it is. Sitting in this bath, surrounded by trees and mountains, it’s easy to imagine you are in some remote, traditional village, instead of just beyond Kyoto’s outer suburbs.

Depending on the day, it can have a real family vibe. On a quiet Monday, I bathe with old ladies and young mothers and children. We wash together first, sitting on plastic seats and lathering lots of soap onto our skin and rinsing, before we slip cautiously into the near-boiling point water. Each woman breathes in sharply as the water hits her skin and the steam rises from the top of the murky white water. There is something primal and bonding about the moment. There is something about being stripped back to our natural state in the onsen that seems to level the playing field. Especially in a country obsessed with designer labels. There are no Luis Vuitton handbags or high heels, we are merely just women who come in all shapes, sizes and colours.

Of course, come the weekend and the bath is full of Kyotoites looking for a respite from their hard-working lives, and families on day-trips. Not so relaxing, making it very hard to claim your square metre, lending itself to bumping elbows and lots of invasion of personal space. A little intimidating, especially for a Westerner who has only just come to terms with stripping off the layers in front of a bunch of strangers.

Kurama Onsen, flanked by cedar and pine forests
Kurama Onsen, flanked by cedar and pine forests
If possible, try and make it up to Kurama during the week, when you can enjoy the experience at your leisure and you can enjoy walking along pathways that wind around streams in the village of Kurama. The village itself is picturesque, with lots of bamboo-slatted houses, and small eateries offering traditional fare. The train trip is also a highlight, with the seats placed facing the windows so you can enjoy the scenery as the two-carriage train winds itself up to Kurama village. You can also combine hiking with hot springs by walking from near-by Kibune through a valley and up to the Kurama-dera mountain temple, founded in 770AD, and then on to the onsen.

Just remember onsen etiquette. Make sure you wash your body thoroughly before dipping into the water, and make sure you don’t have a trace of soap on your skin when you enter the bath. Just watch the way the Japanese almost scrub themselves raw before dipping into the water. Finally, make sure to make your exit if you start feeling a little light-headed or faint. Most importantly, enjoy what is easily one of Japan’s most enjoyable and ancient offerings.

The bath costs just 1,100 yen (about $11 American dollars) and is open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day.

Getting There

Take the Eiden Eizan line from Kyoto’s Demachiyanagi Station. A one-way ticket costs 410 yen. For Kibune get off at the second last stop, for Kurama get off at the last stop on the line. There is a free shuttle bus which leaves every 30 minutes from the station to the hot spring. From Kyoto Station the trip takes about 46 minutes.

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