Then, it’s off to the hot spring. Traditionally, nothing other than your body is allowed to enter the water. Swimsuits are banned, except in a few mixed-gender baths. Small but strategically placed towels can protect your modesty before entering the bath but should not be submerged.

If you have a tattoo, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Many onsen do not allow people with tattoos, as they are associated with yakuza gangsters.

Houheikyo onsen sports a rotenburo (outdoor bath), which is especially invigorating when the temperature plunges in Sapporo. A small wooden shelter provides me with refuge from the snow, as it piles up on the nearby rocks like a Chinese roof. One of my fellow bathers is using this 0?natural refrigerator for his sake. The mineral-rich water contains iron, sodium bicarbonate and calcium, and it’s said to be good for ?neuralgia, myalgia and hemorrhoids.

Perspiration drips down my face as I make polite conversation with a local. He swears the water helps him recover from fishing injuries, and he visits regularly. In the changing room afterward, I discover a fountain; devotees drink its water as an elixir. It’s supposed to be a remedy for digestive and liver diseases, as well as for constipation. The best I can say is that it has a distinct taste, thick with minerals. Sake it isn’t.

Still, my onsen experience has reinvigorated me, body and soul. And I’ll drink to that.



If You Go

With more than 3,000 onsen to choose from in Japan, it can be difficult to find the perfect soak. Local tourist-information offices usually have someone who can guide you in English. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, start your onsen research here:
www.onsenjapan.net
www.japantravelinfo.com/indulgence/hot_springs.php?hs=1
www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/interests/hot.html