NAGANO, Japan – Bathing in Japan is not just about getting clean. It is as
much about transmitting culture as it is about relaxation. Children may bathe
with their parents until they are 7 or 8 years old. Friends will make an outing to a hot spring for a day of soaking and lounging, scrubbing themselves until their skins glow. At public baths, women soap up the cloths and wash each others’ backs and grandchildren do the same for their grandparents.
There is a sense of modesty and privacy even in communal bathing. A
washcloth placed just so, the dip of a shoulder, a body lowered beneath the
surface, a mother turning her child’s face back to their own washing. Not
everyone is built like Ichiro or Miss Japan either. Scars, abnormalities, and the
effects of gravity and time are taken in stride. Indeed, they are a natural part of life.
Living in Japan over many years, my husband and I have enjoyed both public baths
sento) and hot springs (onsen). Thus, it seemed fitting to celebrate our 30th
wedding anniversary in hot water. We chose Iwanoyu Onsen in Nagano.
We boarded the Shinkansen bullet train at Tokyo Station with comfortable velour
seats and large windows. Mount Fuji comes into view, majestic and snow-capped.
Rice paddies abut concrete apartment houses, and eventually give way to the red,
gray, and blue tiled roofs of rural Japan.
Snacking on our eki-ben (the ubiquitous railway boxed lunch), we arrive at Nagano
station one hour and 19 minutes later. A 20-minute ($60) cab ride leaves us at the
entrance to Iwanoyu. There hangs a vertical wooden sign with the philosophy of the inn, ”a place with treasured spaces and a relaxed atmosphere evokes your childhood home.”
A long bamboo fence lashed with deep brown twine frames the entrance. Pass
through the sectioned curtain and step onto a bridge over a rushing stream. Enter
the foyer and women clad in deep blue kimonos welcome you with gracious bows
and greetings in the most formal Japanese manner. We are ushered into a sitting
area that opens onto a garden with a pond. Green tea and a single Japanese sweet on earthenware are served to refresh us from the journey. This signals that the food at Iwanoyu will be as memorable as the waters.
Our senses are piqued: sandalwood incense tickles our noses, sweet red bean
paste plays on our tongues, the sound of cicadas buzzes in our ears, elegant carp
swim before our eyes. Soon our bodies will be immersed in the velvety waters of Iwanoyu.
Built in 1959 and later refurbished, Iwanoyu combines early-20th-century Art
Nouveau appointments and traditional Japanese design. We pass verandas
suspended over bamboo groves furnished with comfortable chairs just right for an
afternoon’s respite. We remove our shoes upon entering our room and will not put
them on again until leaving the inn.
The large, sunny tatami-mat room has a low wooden table, a television, and a
formal tokonoma shelf where a flower arrangement and hanging scroll stand.
Adjoining the room is an alcove with love seats and sliding windows overlooking
Our hostess showed us the yukata (cotton kimono), haori (short house jacket), tabi (socks), and zori (woven slippers) – all the clothing we would need for our stay and
worn everywhere. The staff lays out beautiful Japanese bedding (futon) on the
tatami each night. The pillows are filled with buckwheat kernels and the quilts are
Iwanoyu’s natural spring is in a cave. Men and women use separate entrances to
airy bathing rooms where they wash separately. They place their yukata in baskets
and pick up small rectangular towels for scrubbing and larger wrap-around towels
for use later in co-ed baths in the cave.
In this bathing area, steam is rising from a large pool situated next to sliding doors
that open onto a little garden with a ston de lantern and a bamboo waterspout. A
bank of low spigots lines two walls. On a cedar stool, bucket in hand, you set to
the business of washing yourself. The cool of the air meets the heat of the pool, and the mist floats around you.
Once cleansed, you slip into the clear water for an initial soak. Warmed and ready,
you wrap yourself in a towel and enter the cave to the co-ed area. The lighting is
low and the atmosphere warm. You step over a stone bank into a thigh-deep
underground field of lukewarm water.
Friends and perfect strangers glide together through a labyrinth of natural stone walls and man-made structures. One hand on the top of the towel, the other
holding the wall, you steady yourself and find a spot to submerge and sit – on a
rock or under a waterfall. We found a secluded waterfall that produced a relaxing
cascade, massaging head and shoulders. The water moved over our bodies at the whim of an unseen source deep in the mountain.
The moderate temperature and mineral composition of the water allow you to sit
for hours without shriveling. The innkeepers explain that the water is good for the
skin, and helps relieve arthritis and high blood pressure.
We return to the separate dressing areas. Dry, squeaky clean, and very relaxed,
we meet in the outdoor corridor and enjoy a cup of tea on a wooden bench.
Iwanoyu is known as much for its food as for its baths. The chef and his
apprentices combine textures and flavors with creative subtlety. Local mountain
greens and river fish are used profusely. As food in Japan is served in small
amounts with multiple dishes, an eight-course meal does not overwhelm. A
personalized handwritten menu (in Japanese on delicate paper) was presented with
Among the most memorable dishes were the young river trout, roasted on
applewood spears and served on stalks of bamboo leaves. Tender beef was
served on a stone so hot to be still searing it. Seasoned young bamboo shoots and fiddleheads were served in a hollow bamboo stalk. Plum wine sorbet prepared us for lacy tempura vegetables served on Japanese paper. Three plump grapes and a thin slice of translucent watermelon accompanied a swoosh of green tea ice cream
for dessert. Each course was a delight.
We were served at a low table in a private tatami dining room where a lantern, its
light diffused, hung outside the open window. The day’s soak, some sake, and an
exquisite meal all melted together.
Breakfast was just as delicious and beautiful. We chose between Japanese and
Western-style meals. The Japanese breakfast included miso soup, roasted fish,
salad, hot buckwheat cereal, and pickles. Breakfast and dinner are included in the
price of your stay. Alcohol is extra.
If you don’t speak Japanese, don’t worry; the Iwanoyu staff knows some English
and wants you to feel welcome. When we booked the reservation, my husband
was asked his height so that an appropriate-sized kimono and futon could be
At approximately $200 per person per night plus a service charge and tax,
Iwanoyu is not inexpensive. But it is no more than the cost of dinner alone at a
fashionable Tokyo restaurant. There are no hidden costs and tips are not
customary in Japan.
Disneyesque spa park
HAKONE, Japan – Is nothing sacred? Even a deep tradition like attending hot springs resorts is fair game in the quest to grab the attention, changing tastes, and yen of the Japanese seeking leisure.
Self-described as a Mediterranean-style spa theme park, Yunessun, associated with Kowakien Hotel in Hakone, a White Mountains-like area in the shadow of Mount Fuji, provides a different experience from the hot springs in Nagano. It is not necessary to stay at the hotel to attend the spa, and is an easy day trip from Tokyo. Here you enjoy natural hot springs in a variety of Disneyesque spaces – Turkish palaces, water slides, Roman spas, as well as sake, coffee, and green tea baths. Bathing suits are required in these areas. There are also traditional Japanese outdoor baths (rotemburo), enjoyed in the buff and segregated by sex. Weather is never a factor.
From Shinjuku Station my Japanese friends and I took the red and white Romance train – more expensive than local rail – to Hakone Yumoto. The train has large picture windows and speeds through suburbs into the countryside. Once again, Fuji’s silhouette is in full view. In one hour and 20 minutes we arrived at the station. From the station, either take a bus, which stops at Kawakien, or a taxi for under $25.
Helpful sales clerks explain your options in this multiplex-like compound. Bathing suits, loungewear, and towels are all part of the deluxe package. My friends and I chose the traditional bath. Ticket prices vary depending upon your choice.
We received bar-coded wristbands upon entering. As at any tourist attraction, we had to go through a huge gift shop before getting to the main area. It was raining but my friends said, ”Debbie-san, that is part of the experience. It makes it more beautiful.” And so it did. We stow our clothes and, wearing only our wristbands, we carry a strategically placed 1-by-2-foot towel into the baths. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors open to the garden, with its many outdoor baths.
Amidst groups of chattering women, we spend time having a wash and then head outside to the cool air, where steam rises above the water. Mountains with low-lying clouds are visible in the distance. The paths lead to stone pools of natural spring-fed water – cool, hot, very hot, and super-hot.
Lowering ourselves into the heat until the water hit our chins, we were embraced by water above and below. Meticulously groomed pine boughs formed a multi-tiered backdrop, as if painted on a golden Japanese screen. Bathers turn to each other to murmur ”Doesn’t this feel wonderful?” What an understatement! Pains, stress, anger – whatever ails one – seep out of the body.
You rise when your temperature does, and dip into one of the cooler pools. Rain slinks down a roof downspout, and you watch drops join the pool around you.
Back in the locker room, you don Yunessun’s version of Iwanoyu’s cotton kimono, a lime green tie-dye lounging pajama issued at the door. Same concept, with an updated look.
Two electric paws knead the knots out of you in the over-sized massage chair. Masseuses are also available.
At first my friends were skeptical, thinking we were in for a tacky time – Hakone can be very commercial – but they ended up being impressed. Young couples, extended families, groups of twentysomethings, and gaggles of seniors all were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
IF YOU GO
How to get there
Most major carriers have a daily flight to Japan, with one stop, out of Logan
Airport. Airfares checked with Travelocity.com and several airlines range from
$950-$1,230 round trip. Prices are lower in off-season, mid-January through
With a bilingual Japanese staff, Boston International Travel specializes in trips to
Japan. It can arrange international interior travel and hotel reservations. It quotes
fares as low as $600 round trip, depending on season and availability.
There are many ways to travel from Narita International Airport to downtown
Tokyo. The least expensive is Friendly Airport Limousine, a bus stopping at
downtown hotels for about $28. You can then take a taxi to your final destination.
026 245 2453; fax 026 248 0047
Susaka City,Nagano, Japan
From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Nagano Station.
Round-trip reserved seat is about $150. Purchase tickets at the station or Japan
Travel Bureau outlet near any big hotel. Staff often speak English. The ”Green Car”
is more expensive; larger seats with more leg room, but unnecessary.
There is a bus from Nagano station that stops in front of Iwanoyu. We took a taxi
for about $56. One night’s stay including breakfast and dinner ranges from
$180-$330, plus service and tax, per night, per person. Prices are lower for children.
0460 (2) 4111
Deluxe package $38 adults, $19 children. Theme park baths $32 adults, $16
children. Outdoor bath $17 adults, $8 children.
From Shinjuku Station take the Romance Car on the Odakyu-line to Hakone
Yumoto. Reserved seats about $50 round trip. Taxi from station to Kowakien, $25.
Note: Train and subway travel in Japan is wonderful. Tokyo’s massive subway
system is clean, punctual, and you can get yourself anywhere. This multi-tentacled
system can be confusing, even for the Japanese. But people who don’t speak
Japanese do fine. The subway maps are available in English. Station personnel
often know some English, and there is almost always some one willing to help a
lost-looking foreigner and even escort you to the appropriate platform.