Japan’s northern most island, Hokkaido, is a lot like my native Wisconsin. There are four seasons and the landscape is a patchwork of farm fields and forest. Agriculture is big here. We are visiting in autumn and trees I recognize from home, aspen and maple, are beginning to blaze. Unlike the American Midwest however, Hokkaido is a mountainous place and the mountains are often volcanic. New mountains rise from former farm fields and vast calderas mark places where entire volcanoes blew their tops leaving large, lapis lazuli lakes.
Japanese culture involves ritual evening baths. Day’s end is time to unwind and a soak in a hot tub does the trick. At the intersection of bath and volcano lies the onsen or Japanese hot spring spa. Natives and foreigners alike flock to Hokkaido to visit a Japanese onsen, bathe in outdoor hot tubs and soak in nature’s beauty.
We are at the Choyo Resort Hotel in Sounkyo which is in the Daisetsuzan National Park right in the middle of Hokkaido. The Choyo sits at the base of Sounkyo Gorge where the Ishikari River rips its way through crystallized, columnar basaltic cliffs. Hot springs percolate up along the Ishikari and it is here where Joanne and I will take the waters.
We take a resort-provided bus from Sapporo and during the three hour ride we relish the feeling of being world travelers again. I hear a lot of Japanese and a little Chinese being spoken. No other Americans here. We are trepidatious without much Japanese language under our belts, but I can order a beer and ask where the toilet is in several languages (Joanne is much better than me), so we plunge in, confident our Japanese hosts will look after us and after all, how much trouble can you get into at a spa? The answers to my obviously set-up question is…some. There are rules and they start right after check-in when we get to our room.
Slippers. It is well known that when you enter a Japanese house you take off your shoes. Often, you will be provided slippers. At our onsen, we don slippers as soon as we enter our room, but wait! Five feet further forward the flooring is tatami mat. Tatami mat is a woven rice straw and found in traditional Japanese digs. The rule is never wear footwear on a tatami mat floor so no sooner did we get slippered-up than we quickly de-slipper to walk on the tatami. A separate set of slippers is provided for the toilet. They have Japanese characters on them that I imagine say “toilet slippers”. I also imagine it is considered gross to wear your toilet slippers elsewhere in the onsen.
Pajama wear. Pajamas are appropriate garb for the rigorous routine of bath, nap, eat, repeat. They are provided. You can wear them everywhere and all the time, even outside and around the town. While I am on the record for being completely against pajama wear outside the house in the USA, I happily accept onsen jamminess as a matter of “when in Rome…”
Meals. At our excellent onsen, breakfast and dinner are provided. They are all you can eat buffet affairs. The Japanese call this “Viking Style”. The food is great and ranges from pizza, hamburgers and pasta to all manner of Japanese fare including sashimi (raw fish) and a variety of Japanese noodle dishes. Coffee, some soups, and soft serve ice cream are dispensed from machines. The machines have paragraphs of Japanese instructions with little or no English. We managed fairly well, but at one point I apparently started to use the coffee machine overflow tank (really it looked like a large mug) as my drinking cup but was quickly corrected by a nice Japanese lady who directed me to the appropriate vessel.
The bath. The baths are the hub around which the onsen turns. There are separate baths for men and women. Upon entering the spacious bathing area you remove your pajamas and store them in a basket. There are two rules here: 1) You must shower before you enter the baths and 2) no soaping or scrubbing up in a bath. (There is another obvious rule: no photos in the bath. A sign says they’ll call the cops on you for that.) You get a big towel for drying off after you’re done and a little towel. You hold the little towel over your nether regions as you walk from bath to bath and wear it folded on your head when in a bath. There are several baths, some outside in nature, others inside. I really enjoy the natural experience. As slightly sulphurous-smelling, opalescent water streamed into the natural rock pool I felt a deep sense of well-being take over. Perhaps it is true that the waters have healing properties. It was raining outside and my pool looked out over a scene of autumn yellow trees and mossy rocks. In my mind the gentle staccato beat of rain on stone segued into the plucking notes of a shamisen and the tableau was complete.
Joanne and I thoroughly enjoyed our onsen experience. Rain kept us from some of the other attractions like taking the cable car from Sounkyo town up the mountain but we enjoyed the down time. Travel in Japan can be hectic. We had recently come from Tokyo and found it to be crowded and overwhelming at times. Our onsen visit was a contrast. The rushing river cascading through a tawny, wooded valley provided the backdrop for a deeply relaxing, satisfying cultural experience. As we boarded the bus back to Sapporo the onsen staff gathered and waved to wish us farewell. We waved back and I melted into my seat still warm from the waters and the genuine Japanese hospitality.