[photoshelter-img width=’480′ height=’340′ i_id=’I0000R9ShdFAq0wg’ buy=’1′]The air temperature is hovering just above zero degrees Celsius. Naked strangers, we silently soak in soothing warm waters, rising steam vanishing into the evening sky. Lost in my own thoughts as my body relaxes with the heat, snow from yesterdays dusting is still visible in pockets of hillside around me that see little sunshine. Down in the valley lies the city of Tsuruga and my accommodation for the night, the Route-Inn, a typical Japanese business hotel. Lured by the soothing restorative properties of thermal springs, I’m up to my neck in hot water at Tsuruga Kirameki Spa Relaport.
With over 20,000 thermal baths, or onsen, across Japan, there’s no shortage of options for communal bathing. Many onsen are attached to traditional Inns known as Ryokan, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in two ancient Japanese traditions. Such is the culture of bathing entrenched into Japanese society, the term furo-aholic, meaning a bath-aholic is given to one who ritually bathes. According to well-soaked photographer Mark Edward Harris, author of The Way of the Japanese Bath, a gorgeous pictorial publication in its second edition, “When you immerse yourself in a hot spring, you immerse yourself in Japanese culture.”
Mark readily confesses to being an addict, bedding down at over 100 ryokan over the years. He names divine Relais and Chateaux properties Asaba (very traditional) and Gora Kadan (fusion of East and Western styles) amongst his favourites.
But for foreign visitors, ryokan and onsen culture with their traditional protocol can be a little daunting. Staying in a ryokan is one of those precious ‘when in Rome’ experiences, complete with tatami mats, futon, tea ceremony, Yukata robes (traditional summer Kimono) and of course, onsen. Or, as the Japanese proverb goes, ‘when in a village, do as the villagers do’.
Which is exactly what I find myself doing as more snow tumbles down upon my beanie-clad head in the city of Katsuyama. The annual 300-year-old Sagicho Festival is in full swing when I arrive, with Tower Dancers moving rhythmically to hypnotic taiko drumbeats, festival-goers and food venders all seemingly oblivious to the swirling snow and freezing temperature. Celebrations serve as a prayer for abundant good fortune and protection against fire. Which is kind of weird, given that the highlight of the weekend sees residents taking down their new year decorations and subsequently igniting them with a massive public bonfire known as dondoyaki.
But if nothing else, the cold temperatures are a very good reason to retreat indoors for lunch and, naturally sake. Numbers are hard to qualify but it’s said there are at least 1800 sake brewers in Japan. The fermented beverage made from rice has been part of Japanese culture for 2000-odd years. It’s an integral part of understanding Japanese history and society, and its hard to imagine dining out without it. Sake comes in so many styles, indeed temperatures, so that if you find yourself turning your nose up in one restaurant, I’d highly recommend you try again at the next place, so much does it vary. Much like wine I guess, there is the good, the bad and the ugly.
Back in the bath at Kirameki Spa Relaport, I’m loathe to drag myself indoors to the washing area. It’s recommended that you bathe no more than ten minutes, but soaking is kind of cathartic, particularly outdoors when the air is decidedly chilly on exposed body parts. However dinner beckons, which turns out to be a feast of local delicacy from Fukui Prefecture, snow crab, naturally with a nip or two of warm sake to accompany it. Sake, seafood and spring water: is there a better way to enjoy Japanese hospitality? No. I don’t think so either.
More information Japan National Tourism Organisation
Fiona Harper was a guest of JNTO