Everyone's familiar with the frenetic energy of Tokyo, but fewer people have discovered the area's ancient, calming waters.Photographs by Geoff Johnson
Central to the human condition is our capacity for self-befuddlement. For example: Never before did I think I would travel 7,000 miles just to take a bath.
Yet here I am, a grimy pilgrim from the West at the doorstep of the Bunzan Ryokan, a hushed dwelling nestled deep in the autumnal magnificence of the Gunma Prefecture in central Japan.
The sweet-faced, kimono-clad woman at the front desk speaks as much of my language as I do of hers. I know enough to take off my shoes. She studies the fax from the reservation agent and mumbles out the phonetic rendering of my name: "Ro-bo-to."
Then she stoops, carefully wipes the invisible dirt off of the wheels of my suitcase, and conveys it and me to my room. One hour later, I, Ro-bo-to, am standing outdoors in a sweltering pond of water, disrobed in the presence of dozens of Japanese strangers, and they in mine. It's how we'll be all weekend. Hadaka no tsukiai - a naked relationship. Never did I think that I would have such a thing, much less that I would want one.
The Japanese are known for many virtues: fastidiousness, order, teamwork, modesty, manners, cunning craftsmanship, and a peerless gift for reinventing the technological wheel. One tends less frequently, however, to associate them with pleasures of the flesh. This is a mistake. Sensuality in Japan may be, by Western standards, of the quiet and measured variety. But it is no less real; the onsen, or hot springs, are proof.
Bathing in Japan is at the same time a meditative and social event. Wandering through bland postwar neighborhoods in Tokyo or Osaka or Nagoya, you find smoke huffing from the chimneys of unelaborate buildings, which inside reveal fine tiled floors, wafts of vapor, and hordes of nude, reposed locals. In such a public bath, or sento, the clock stops, tongues are stilled, and all urban imperatives are shed in the seething water. But the real meccas for steam dwellers are the 2,300 or so onsen scattered across Japan. Some of these are primitive campsites; others feature modest traditional inns, known as ryokans; still others have become gussied-up resorts that can run up to $1,000 a night. But even the latter onsen shun Vegas-like grandiosity or Michelin culinary pretensions. At any Japanese onsen, it's all about the bath.
Now, if you are like me, you loathe bathing. You wash yourself to get clean - not to "cleanse," and surely not to "heal," for pity's sake - and you do it standing up, racing the clock, flailing, and perhaps even cursing, all as prelude to a daylong frenzy. You disdain relaxation of any kind. To those who admonish you to take it easy, you observe that there will be plenty of time for that when you are dead.
But you know, deep down, that they're right, that you'd better slow down. Arriving at this conclusion, I sought out a place where I could suspend all animation without feeling unduly deprived. And so one fall afternoon I took a two-hour bullet train from Tokyo to the drowsy Gunma Prefecture town of Minakami, boarded a rickety bus, and, a half hour later, arrived at the splendid mountainous nowhere-land of the Takaragawa onsen.
The Takaragawa (Treasure River) shoots lean and fast through the spiny interior of central Japan. No one seems to know who discovered the river's hot springs, but it's said that black bears and sumo wrestlers have long been fond of them. In 1922, some enterprising family built two ryokans astride the onsen: the large and family-friendly Osenkaku, and, 100 yards away, the more elegant Bunzan. While each ryokan has its own gender-segregated indoor baths, the Takaragawa onsen earned its nationwide fame for its rotenburo, or outdoor springs, which are not only exquisitely framed by the mountains but are also gender integrated - which had long been the Japanese tradition, until postwar Western occupiers imposed their own moral code on the local culture.
The Japanese are etiquette obsessed, and certainly when it comes to bathing. Rule one: You bathe before you bathe. Rule two: In the baths, you wear absolutely nothing - women wrap a towel around themselves, while men make a lame effort to cover their particulars with a tenugui, or hand towel. Rule three: You bathe after you bathe. So I depart from my ryokan room freshly showered; outfitted in a yukata (a cotton robe) and slippers; and carrying only the aforementioned hand towel, a larger towel for drying off, and a hairbrush. As there's absolutely no English in the entire complex, I file in and follow the other prospective bathers who stride across the parking lot and through a door that leads to a dark staircase. The staircase spills out into an odd tunnel cluttered with heaps of religious artifacts and cheesy souvenirs. Then we come to another staircase, this one outdoors. The air is crisp; I can hear the frothing of the Takaragawa's rapids. I continue along the stone walkway, which soon parallels the rapids, which themselves soon grow calm.
Then, there it is, a great steaming cauldron framed by boulders and a wooden temple. Drifting slowly through the vapor, the bathers look like some ancient pacifist tribe. A very skinny tribe. In a nearby cabin, I shuck my robe and slippers. I emerge with the hand towel strategically splayed out. Then I slide into the water.
Depending on where you stand, the onsen's temperature ranges from 131 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn't feel uncomfortable, particularly against the bite of autumn air. To the contrary: I am instantly disarmed. I float hippolike past the others, who are kind enough not to stare, until I find a spot where the heat is most intense. There I melt as the sun does, while the red and yellow leaves fall into the shadow of dusk.
A half hour later, I'm but a puddle of my former self. I shuffle back to Bunzan and into the men-only indoor onsen, a lovely dark, pooled area with a fine view of the foliage. Then I shampoo, scrub, shave, and wrap myself back in my yukata - which by now I realize is the only wardrobe required at an onsen, perhaps explaining the appalled gazes of other guests when I lugged my suitcase off of the bus. Rubbery-kneed and parboiled, I return to my room. It's properly minimalist, an expanse of tatami mats and sliding doors and mountain views, with a well-stocked minibar, a modern bathroom, a TV (with no CNN - a blessing, I decide), and a wonderful little sitting room. But all that enforced motionlessness has left me famished, and I'm relieved when, at 6:30 on the dot, a tiny Japanese voice intrudes.