The Art of Japanese Onsen, by the Light of a Silvery Moon

Myth and medicine in the Japanese town of Kurokawa.  
kurokawa onsen
An onsen, or hot spring, is treasured by the Japanese for its beneficial effects on the body. Families and friends often spend quality time in an onsen. Photo: Michael Runkel/ImageBroker/Dinodia Photo Library

Steam rolls in waves off the volcanic hot spring pool, creating eerie shapes and obscuring our bodies as we sit immersed in the waters. I’m sitting in a cave onsen (Japanese for hot spring) in the vast volcanic crater of Mount Aso, feeling safely tucked in the molten embrace of Japan. Around me are my female travel companions—two journalists and our guide—and other women visiting the quaint hot spring town of Kurokawa. None of us has a stitch of clothing on but I’m not the least bit self-conscious.

We’re enjoying what the Japanese call hadaka no tsukiai or naked communion. As per onsen etiquette, each of us has a neatly folded face towel on our heads. The role of the towel, our guide Junko told us on our bus ride to Kurokawa, is to cover what we feel is our most important part when we walk from the changing room to the pool. When one enters the pool, the face towel is to be transferred to the head, and in the strictly avoidable circumstance that it falls into the water, the bather has to wring it outside the pool, to keep the water pure.

The womb-like cave shuts the world out, and it’s hard to believe that only minutes before, our group of six Asian journalists and a guide stood at the reception of Yamanoyado Shinmeikan ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), shelling out 500 yen (₹300) each for its famous cave onsen. We travelled nearly two hours by road from Kumamoto railway station to get here, up and down winding roads through one of the world’s largest volcanic caldera. Outside the window, I saw valleys of scorched grass and thriving green fields, slopes blanketed in pine, cedar, and cypress.

kurokawa jizodo shrine Japan

Bathers hang up their onsen-hopping pass at the Jizodo shrine in Kurokawa before they leave, for good luck. Photo: JTB Photo/Dinodia Photo Library

Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan, and the region experiences mild tremors everysingle day. One of last year’s earthquakes was particularly brutal, and we spotted blue sheets reinforcing parts of the damaged riverbank on our way. Arriving in town, we checked into our ryokan Nishimura, changed into the yukata(summer kimono) laid out in our tatami mat rooms, grabbed towels, and slipped on the ryokan’s sandals to walk about town. As strange as we initially felt in our attire, we looked just like everyone else on the street.

Shinmeikan’s cave is a rather wild setup from the usual onsen, Junko said, as the boys left for the men-only onsen. After stowing our valuables in the safe, we hotfooted into the cave, holding our face towels like peace flags over our torsos. Everyone was a little nervous about being naked in public, but sharing the awkwardness somehow helped us all feel more adventurous.

Inside, the pale rock walls were painted yellow in lamplight. The pool was shrouded in steam, and I could see a few heads bobbing. The other bathers sat silently or talked in whispers. Following Junko’s lead, I sat on a stool at the edge of the pool and doused myself with a basin full of the mineral water. It was deliciously warm and I couldn’t wait to get in. With one hand pinning the towel to my head, and the other holding on to the bedrock, I carefully stepped on the slippery rock into the pool and sat down with a satisfied sigh. The air was contemplative, the water buoyant enough to make my body float when I moved. I felt good, and I knew this cave was burrowing itself into my list of happy places to remember on rough days.

kurokawa Japan

The hot spring town of Kurokawa is located in the volcanic crater of Mount Asoand retains its old-world charm, with beautiful landscapes and historic buildings. Photo: Saumya Ancheri

Twenty minutes later, we reluctantly emerged from the waters and retraced our steps to our inn, crossing footbridges and climbing stone steps carved into narrow lanes. Surprisingly, the warmth of the onsen lingered, and despite the weather being around 8 degrees Celsius, we were comfortable in our summer kimonos. The town of Kurokawa endears at first sight, with its charming wooden buildings hugging the forest-lined roads and gushing riverbank, lanterns bobbing above the waters. It is even more charming at dusk, with soft yellow lamps illuminating the shuttered pastry shops and boutiques.

Mount Aso is revered as a “power spot”, a place believed to have a spiritual force that revitalizes and heals visitors. The Japanese believe strongly in the curative powers of nature, and volcanic hot springs are believed to enable detoxification and weight loss, among other benefits. The mineral composition varies across hot springs, and the Japanese often choose their onsen based on if the waters are believed to heal say, rheumatism or skin diseases. It’s no easy decision to make. Japan has over 3,000 onsen areas, each of which has a wealth of bathing facilities. In Kurokawa alone, we could choose to soak in a public bath or rent a private one, in a mixed or gender-exclusive onsen, by a river or waterfall or cave or indoors. There’s even an onsen where people use the waters to boil eggs and cook!

Each one has an origin story. The legend of Jizo-yu, the town’s first public bath begins with a samurai warrior carrying a headless statue of Jizo, the Shinto deity who protects travellers and kids. At some point during the journey, the statue asked to be set down. The gent complied and a hot spring gushed forth. Opposite Jizo-yu is the Jizodo shrine, where bathers leave their onsen-hopping pass as a good luck token when they leave town.

While the Japanese have enjoyed onsen for thousands of years, gender-exclusive onsen is as recent as the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan opened to travellers from the West, who were scandalized by mixed bathing. The rules vary widely now—some require bathers to wear robes or towel wraps at mixed baths, and often the men- and women-only baths at a ryokan interchange depending on the day. At one point during my day of onsen-hopping, I was cheerily greeted by a Japanese family, right from a little girl to her mother, aunts and grandmother. Everyone was in a good mood, and I could hear splashing and laughter as I left. It’s a family experience I can’t imagine having back home, but what a wonderful experience of womanhood!

That being said, the Japanese onsen is an enjoyable solitary experience, as I discovered later that night while soaking in our ryokan’s outdoor bath. The full moon shone through the trees lining the enclosure, trees sighed against the bamboo railing, the river nearby loudly gushed by. I was seated on rock bed with steamy waters up to my neck, my mind completely empty. The onsen was open for another hour, the night was mine, and there was nothing between me and the moon’s silvery calm.

The Vitals

Orientation

The Japanese town of Kurokawa is a centrally located on Kyushu island, the southwesternmost of Japan’s four large islands. The town is a two-hour drive from Kumamoto city in Kumamoto Prefecture. The onsen is available year-round, fall is often appreciated as the best season to visit because of the changing colour of the trees. 

Getting There 

There are no direct flights to Kurokawa. Indians can fly to Tokyo, and transfer to a domestic flight to Kumamoto or Fukuoka airports. From Fukuoka, catch the Shinkansen bullet train to Kumamoto (under an hour, depending on the train). From Kumamoto airport or station, hire a taxi or take the Kyushu odanbus to Kurokawa. 

Good to Know

You can visit the onsen without staying at a ryokan, although the ryokan is a lovely experience for a night. We stayed at Nishimura Ryokan, where the fee includes kaiseki dinner and breakfast and access to the hotel onsen; 18,000 yen (₹10,575) per night per person for a double room.

Get an onsen-hopping pass at the town’s information centre or any of the participating 24 ryokan to make the most of your trip. For 1,300 yen (₹770), you can take any 3 onsen over six months and get discounts at several shops in town; many keep the onsen-hopping pass, made of cedar wood, as a souvenir. 

Most onsen aren’t open to people with tattoos, usually associated with the yakuza or Japanese mafia. However, ryokan often offer an onsen for private use against a fee. 

Drink plenty of water before and after the onsen to avoid dehydration.

 

  • Saumya Ancheri is the former Assistant Editor of NGT India's web team. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?