Feature

Embracing the ritual of a Japanese bath

To visit Japan without experiencing an onsen is "the equivalent of going to Hawaii and not visiting a beach"

A Japanese onsen.

Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is a Japanese onsen.

Courtesy image

To visit Japan without experiencing an onsen is "the equivalent of going to Hawaii and not visiting a beach," said Hanya Yanagihara at Town & Country. Every evening, nearly every one of the country's 127 million citizens participate in the ritual of ofuro: a warm, soothing bath. For foreign visitors, the daily ofuro is perhaps "the most bewitching and mysterious" of Japan's many inimitable traditions, especially when it involves an onsen — which can refer to a mineral-rich natural hot spring or a public indoor bath. "The most difficult thing about an onsen is summoning the courage to enter it." A friend had to persuade me to sit naked among strangers, but the first time I lowered myself into the water, "I felt years of self-consciousness fall from me so swiftly, I thought for certain it had made a thud."

That was in 1998. I have returned to Japan every year since, always visiting a good hotel with its own onsen, and I've devised my own bathing ritual. First, I shower, shampoo my hair, and tie it in a bun. Then, I walk to the bath, nod to the women already in it (men and women bathe separately), and slip into the water, being careful not to submerge my head. "This being Japan, there are rules, but this being Japan, you will be forgiven for breaking them." Sometimes, I still feel bashful, but the experience is always worth it. By making yourself vulnerable to another culture, you're also "getting to see the Japanese as you wouldn't otherwise."

The purpose of the ofuro is not to get clean. "It is a time and place reserved for pleasing the senses, for enjoying the luxury of feeling, for the wonder of experiencing the simplest, most satisfying sensations: heat, water, scent." It's about the silky steam that carries the fragrance of, say, the cedar tub. Many regions make unique additions. Around Nagoya, a city famous for its orchards, "the water might be abob with bright crimson apples, the fruit lightly perfuming the air." In the tea-growing hills of Shizuoka, you might find floating woven baskets stuffed with green tea. But no matter where, soaking in an onsen is "dizzying, enchanting, enveloping."

Read more at Town & Country, or book a room at Hoshinoya Tokyo. Doubles start at $961.

Recommended

Russia blames Ukraine for 3rd drone strike on airbase in 2 days
A bomber lands at Engels air base in Russia in 2008.
Number Three

Russia blames Ukraine for 3rd drone strike on airbase in 2 days

7 so-called vices banned by Iran's morality police
Iran's morality police detain a man with unacceptable hair and clothing back in 2008: In recent weeks, Tehran has cracked down on shopkeepers selling Barbie dolls.
The List

7 so-called vices banned by Iran's morality police

Russian military bloggers are reportedly irate over Ukraine drone strikes
Drone strike inside Russia
Fear Factor

Russian military bloggers are reportedly irate over Ukraine drone strikes

Kremlin says Ukrainian drones targeted two Russian air bases
Ukrainians seek shelter in a Kyiv subway station.
escalations

Kremlin says Ukrainian drones targeted two Russian air bases

Most Popular

Russian military bloggers are reportedly irate over Ukraine drone strikes
Drone strike inside Russia
Fear Factor

Russian military bloggers are reportedly irate over Ukraine drone strikes

439 Texas churches split from United Methodist Church in widening schism
United Methodist Church
Breaking up is hard to do

439 Texas churches split from United Methodist Church in widening schism

Trump denies calling to 'terminate' the Constitution after doing so
Donald Trump at a rally.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Trump denies calling to 'terminate' the Constitution after doing so