Ryokans and Onsen – traditional Japanese spas

I sat, crossed legged, on a thin cotton cushion in shades of green that echoed the trees on the mountain outside; on a tatami rush floor; writing my blog at a low wooden table, with a Japanese tea set to my left. My walls were wood and paper; all my doors and windows were sliding, and my bed, when I made it, was a futon on the floor. I was wrapped in an enormous cotton yukata (an informal kimono) which reminded me of beech bark and blossom. All I could hear was the rush of the stream directly outside my window.

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Staying in one of the oldest spa ryokans in Hakone was a relaxing experience. Ichinoyu Honkan was founded in 1630 in the Edo period when Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan. The Hakone area was a popular resting post for warriors, where they could relax in natural spring waters to recuperate after battle. This particular ryokan has its own onsen hot springs to relax in, which were great after a day exploring the Hakone National Park.

The Japanese onsen experience is very relaxing when you know what you’re doing but for a first timer it is fraught with potential dangers. The etiquette of communal bathing is a minefield of offence for the uninitiated, although I find it’s ritualistic nature quite soothing.

Traditional onsen are communal. Years of playing hockey and going to the gym have made me immune to any embarrassment about nakedness in communal facilities. In fact, as a child I was nicknamed ‘the nutty nudist’ because I’d take my swimming costume off to go paddling at the beach! While I was aware of sideways glances, I like to think the locals were evaluating my mismatched tan lines rather than judging my muffin roll!

The correct way to then use these facilities is to rinse yourself off with warm water away from the main spa, as it is only polite, and hygienic, to rinse yourself off before entering the pure waters. Then, you can soak in the spring-fed tub for as long as you like (the water is hot and only bearable for a relatively short time) soothing way the day’s stresses and strains. Don’t ‘wash’ in the spring though. Save that for your return to the washing area, where you can avail yourself of the soaps and shampoos provided and scrub yourself down while sitting on a low wooden stool, being careful not to splash others in the process. Then, you can return to the spa tub for a further soak. (In the second ryokan I stayed in they had an outdoor tub that I made very good use of!) When you have had enough relaxation, gazing at the mountain scenery or listening to the hypnotic flow of the spring water, remove yourself from the spa area, wipe yourself down so you do not reenter the changing area sopping wet, and you’re done!

I think I got it right! The best way to learn is to do what the locals do but in an onsen I can’t sit and watch without considerable discomfort to all! Side glances in windows and carefull listening whilst averting ones eyes allowed me a sense of what to do, and often, I’d have the place to myself so I could just relax and enjoy it without causing offence.

The almost ritualistic nature of the experience means that, if you do it properly, it is quite time consuming and hypnotic. I find the same can be said when tackling traditional Japanese meals. Some of the best food I ate was made at the ryokan I stayed in. And I can safely say that I have never been so full on what appears (at first) to be such small servings of food. Often I would spend a full 30 minutes steadily grazing from the ever increasing range of tiny dishes placed before me, forcing myself to think about what I was eating and therefore enjoy it all the more. It almost became a meditation that brought me great satisfaction.

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A traditional Japanese meal is a bit like tapas, in that there are lots of tasty morsels on lots of different plates, spread out across the meal. The difference is that a lot of it is raw, steamed or lightly fried, it can all be eaten with rice and at least one dish is cooked in a small pot on the table, simmering away until the tea light beneath it goes out and steam is rising from the lid.

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I enjoyed Hida beef cooked in this manner; fish head soup (with the head and eye of a large fish staring at me while I ate it); a kind of Japanese bacon omelette; fish tempura; sashimi; bean salads; Kyoto pickles (I love pickles!) and homemade tofu. I’ve never really understood the point of tofu, and it’s incredibly difficult to eat with chopsticks as it disintegrates so easily, but the homemade variety made using local spring water was some of the creamiest and tastiest I tried. I was even given dessert, although I rarely managed the green tea mousse or sorbet that I was offered. Of course, all of this is washed down with lashings of tea. (You thought I was going to say ginger beer didn’t you? Oddly enough the Japanese love ginger beer, it’s on practically every menu, but it’s not a traditional beverage!)

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As a methodical eater with no sense of smell and a limited palette I normally eat one thing at a time without adding anything so that I can appreciate the texture and what little taste I can identify. But I couldn’t do that in Japan, as morsels that should be enjoyed hot would be cold by the time I got to them, if I tried to eat all the raw delicacies first (as I would normally do). So I found myself switching between pickles, exquisitely fresh, tiny squid, tofu and miso covered rice, using soy and wasabi (but not much, it’s too strong for me!) and mixing it all up together with some surprisingly tasty results. Again, I watched the other customers carefully and took cues from them, learning, along the way, that I prefer light soy and miso to dark, that bamboo and pickles and seaweed comes in many delicious forms and that raw is definitely the way to go!

By the end of each meal I was ready to sleep and would fall onto my soft, warm futon in a happy food haze. Listening to the nearby river rushing past, it didn’t take me long to pass out into a deep, dreamless sleep.

My ryokan and onsen experiences were two of my greatest pleasures in Japan; pleasures I would love to repeat.

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