Ocean View Hot Springs: Getting My Zen On in Luxury

I am buzzing from the hot spring high. Fifteen minutes in the natural, hot, bubbly springs will loosen your muscles, soak away your cares, and force you to let loose. Then you hop out and get right back to the craziness of toddler, baby, and in laws. But it is such a nice way to bond as a family!

Traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans, are clustered throughout the country. Many ryokans also have hot springs, or onsen. The whole family dresses down (or dresses up in my Western view) into ukatas, which are casual cotton kimonos. They are so comfortable that many people sleep in them. There are no shoes allowed in the inn. Everyone wears slippers in the common areas and goes barefoot in the onsen and in their private rooms.

Once you change into your traditional Japanese pajamas, you head to the hot spring. As per my previous post, you get naked with the whole family (usually single gender but not always). You bathe before entering the springs. Today’s bath took place outdoors with an ocean view. Then, you slip into the hot spring and let your body adjust to the heat. Slowly, your body and mind unwinds. I take in the view of the bay and the city lights. Fifteen minutes later, it is time to cool off in the nude in the fresh ocean breeze. If I stay any longer, I run the risk of falling asleep. Then, bathe again. There are usually a variety of spa products to pamper yourself, and of course you can purchase them later if so inspired.

Once double bathed and fully refreshed, it is time for endless food in your room. Ryokans often serve eight to twelve courses, including sushi, wagyu beef (heavily marbleized), and an array of Japanese delicacies. Today we indulged in local, sweet lobster, both grilled and raw sashimi. Another specialty item was steamed abalone. We ate on pillows and a low rise table. It allowed the kids to run around the tatami floor in between courses. Relaxing fun for everyone!

For a little more self-indulgence, I took a nighttime dip in the onsen. Fully relaxed for bed….until my baby screamed for attention. Getting my zen on indeed!

Sashimi

Appetizers
Abalone steaming up!

Letting Loose

What if I told you I spent the evening on the nude in a pool of other naked people? Then, what if I told you I brought my kids along? This is what you had in mind reading a blog by a traveling mommy. This is

 exactly what I did. The Japanese are known for their modesty and discretion, but there is one custom that shakes the modesty of the rather immodest Americans: stripping down for a dip in the hot springs with other strangers in the nude.  While showing skin in the U.S. is not unusual, bathing with naked strangers is out of the comfort zone of most Americans.

 

Most hot springs are gender-specific, so women a only with other women.

This is generally more comfortable for foreign visitors except for one major caveat. Often, our sole travel companion is of the opposition gender. Imagine separating from your partner/boyfriend/spouse and going it alone, naked and surrounded by naked strangers that don’t speak your language.

One of my first visits to the hot spring was even more nerve wracking. My Japanese boyfriend (who would become my husband years later) brought me to Japan for a family visit. My boyfriend’s mother was not pleased to see a white girl who was formerly clueless about Japanese culture. Well, guess who came with me alone to the hot spring? Next time you meet someone’s parents or hang out with your in-laws, remember it could ne more akward. You could be naked.

Despite the nudity, and occasional gawking at a white girl at the local hot sprong, a visit to onsen is a magical experience. The steam rises over the water’s surface, creating a therapeautic mist. The outdoor onsen are usually shrouded in boulder cascades, lush landscaping, and scenic mountain vistas.  In order to adjust to the heat, enter the water slowly.  Proceed deeper when your body is comfortable. Once you sit down and the water reaches your chest, your whole body will slowly release and relax.  Although I have a mind that never stops churning, the onsen sedates me mentally and physically.  Fifteen to twenty minutes will change one’s state. It is an automatic zen for the low price of 500 yen, or $5.

Yesterday I finally gathered the courage to go to the onsen with my two kids. At first, my three-year-old wanted to escape the heat. A couple minutes later, he adjusted and went exploring in the water. Unlike a pool, the whole hot spring is shallow and walkable. We all mellowed out a bit and then the hard part was getting him to leave. In the end, we all took a cool shower while seated on small stools. Once dressed and refreshed, we ate dinner at the inn’s restaurant and then drove home. We were all zen then.