by Ali Korn
In case you are Scandinavian, a dedicated ski-tourist or just generally enjoy coziness, it is likely that you take great pleasure in the prospect of a hot sauna after a long and tiresome cold winter’s day.
As a devoted sauna-goer, I would like to share with all kindred spirits the story of a distant land where you can indulge in an experience that offers quite similar joys to slouching in a hot wooden box, but which is arguably even more fun.
In order to get there however, if you live in Central Europe, you will have to jump on a plane – and go to Japan. Upon your arrival you will have to catch a train or bus that will take you north, to a little mountain village called Nozawa Onsen. A lot of people are not aware of the fact that you can actually ski in Japan. However, Nagano’s beautiful skiing region has actually been host to the biathlon of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
So, once you’ve made it here and, having hit the slopes all day, afterwards – naturally – it’s sauna time. Or at least it would be back home in good old Europe. The thing is that in Nozawa you won’t be able to find a sauna. Bummer! Or is it?
As promised, there is something even better. All you have to do is collect the tiny little wash cloth from your room (the purpose of which hadn’t been entirely clear to you until now) and some shower gel and find your way to one of the village’s 13 natural hot springs, the Onsen. Just follow the people with similar shower gear and, before you enter the temple-like building, be aware of the fact that boys and girls do not Onsen together (unless you sneak in at the wee hours of the morning).
Once you’re in, please follow the charmingly illustrated rules that you will find on the wall. On them, a group of onsening mangas point out that you will ruin their experience if you splash others with water or jump in the pool with your clothes on. But first things first: please get naked in the dressing room with the elderly Japanese before you enter the bathing room. Proceed to rinse yourself with your little cloth in the hot spring water which comes out of the walls. While doing so, start mentally preparing to take the hottest bath of your life. Don’t worry if it takes you a few minutes of toe and feet dipping before you actually dare to fully slide into the pool and soak in the hot and healthy fresh water – which is said to have positive effects on your general well-being.
While you can find hot springs all over the world, the way the Nozawa residents have built their daily routines around the Onsen is rather special. Without a shower at home, the daily excursion to the bathhouses is not merely a necessity but a social event, an ancient tradition and a general way of life. So do try an Onsen if you ever get the chance.