Bathing for most people is a solitary activity. Part of our cleaning ritual, it also provides a sanctuary, a quiet oasis from the busyness of the day or go-go-go with the kids. There is nothing quite like being cocooned in warm water, with the slightest feeling of buoyancy.
Once upon a time, bathing was social and took place in public bath houses, many of which were co-ed in both the West and the East. In Edo Japan, yuna or “hot water women” provided official services scrubbing backs and unofficial services selling sex.
The traditions of bathing survive in many parts of the world, including the Turkish baths or the Hammam, the famous Gellért or Széchenyi Baths in Budapest, also called the “City of Baths” and of course, the sentōs and onsens in Japan.
The difference between a sentō and an onsen?
A sentō is a bathhouse; an onsen draws its water from a hot spring.
A weekend away to take waters is a national past time. Japan is blessed with many geothermal springs and many cities also have sentōs for those who cannot get away or those who continue this tradition. Communal bathing is an important part of the Japanese culture and to the family bond. “Skinship” usually used to describe the intimacy between mother and child can also be seen in the context of successful business dealings, which depend to some degree on social activities such as going to the bath house.
About 2½ hours by train from Osaka or Kyoto is Kinosaki which Lonely Planet calls “one of Japan’s best places to sample the classic onsen experience.” Do-able as a day trip but really much more enjoyable as an overnight stay. Kinosaki boasts seven hotsprings. Satono-yu, located next to the Kinosaki station, has an outdoor bath with a fantastic view. Enjoy a cave setting at Ichino-yu. Want to sit outside and listen to a waterfall? Try Goshono-yu. Each one is associated with healing and blessing, from longevity and happiness in marriage at Kouno-yu, the first bathhouse in Kinosaki or prosperity in business and agriculture at Mandara-yu.¹
Kinosaki is a small pedestrian-friendly town. Stroll in your yukata along the willow-lined streets and stop at shops and eateries between your onsen experiences. The one with the giant crab? Delicious. It may be your first time ordering a meal from a vending machine. The food though is made by real humans.
If you do not have your own yukata, ryokans – traditional inns – provide yukatas, towels, and wooden geta; otherwise you can rent. Staying in a ryokan, especially in a town like Kinosaki, is part of the whole experience.
Walking in the traditional geta definitely slows down the pace, especially for those unpracticed. One foot in front of another, steps measured by the yukata hem, carefully, mindfully. It is all part of the ritual, to move with an inner rhythm. Unhurried.
Kinosaki has many ryokans to choose from, including Mikiya. This inn inspired Naoya Shiga’s Kinosaki ni Te or At Kinosaki. Postcards and copies of original works by this master, along with creative work by writers and artists who have stayed at Mikiya, can be found in the lobby’s gallery.
Like any 300-year-old ryokan, Mikiya has its share of interesting stories. The ground floor room, next to the Imperial Suite, is known for encounters. Ghosts who reside in a painting have been known to join in the lively conversations.
This traditional inn is charming, with wooden construction and all rooms look out onto the beautiful landscape garden at the back. Each season, a different treat. Fireflies in the summer. A blanket of snow in the winter. Located in a region famed for the Matsuba Crab and Tajima Beef, be sure to enjoy the traditional Kaiseki cuisine. These meals highlight seasonal and regional specialties, a fantastic way to sample a variety of local and fresh food. Each dish is perfectly prepared and presented. Pumpkin tofu. Japanese sweet potato cooked with lemon. Steamed sea bream and fig.
Mikiya offers two onsens plus a private family room. Too shy? You can enjoy the onsen all by yourself in this private room. Just lock the door. This is not a particularly attractive room so do try the real thing.
Grab your onsen pass, towels, map, and coupons. Head out into town. The onsens have different opening hours and closing days. Kinosaki is very different during the day and at night. The old-fashioned lights and dressing in your yukata pulls you back in time. A bath before bedtime is perfect for a deep rejuvenating sleep. Just know that many people feel the same way and bathhouses may be rather crowded after supper.
First time at a sentō or an onsen? Here are a few things to keep in mind –
Take off your shoes at the entrance. Sometimes there are lockers. Sometimes you just leave them there. When leaving, an attendant points out your footwear – quite remarkable!
Look for the right entrance. 女の湯 for women and 男の湯 for men.
If you are in Kinosaki and have a pass, find the machine that will read the barcode.
Find a locker in the changing room to leave your yukata and personal belongings.
Bring your small towel and any toiletries into the bathing area. Shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are usually provided.
Fill the small basin at a bathing station and rinse off the stool. Use this basin to thoroughly wash off all the shampoo and soap before stepping into the baths. Wring out the towel, really really well. You will be using this to wipe yourself after bathing.
That small towel? You can use it to cover yourself before getting into the bath but be sure to keep it out of the water. You can put it on your head or on the side.
After enjoying the bath, dry yourself with the small towel before returning to the changing room. If you are visiting many baths, it will get more and more difficult to only rely on this small towel. In Kinosaki, ryokans also provide “normal” towels. Be sure to dry everything overnight so you can enjoy a nice bath before or after breakfast the next day.