Monday, June 30, 2008

Romantic week-end in an onsen

Japanese urban life is certainly exciting, but one sometimes feels the need of a break. In this hard-working and crowded country, there is an ideal getaway to forget the stress of urban life for the time of a short week-end. Whether you wish to rest after an intense week of work, have some private time with your special one, or enjoy a friendly family outing, Japanese traditional inns (旅館, ryokan) will welcome you for a night. Most of them are located in hot-spring resorts, and offer bathes in natural hot water (温泉, onsen). More than an accommodation, ryokans offer a show, a travel in an idealized traditional Japan.
Starting from the main cities, you can reach hot-spring resorts in one or two hours. They come in all size and various degree of refinement. The mass-market Kinugawa-onsen (鬼怒川温泉), a few kilometers away from Nikko(日光) was built in a modern style that would not be out of place in the suburbs. The smart Shuzenji-Onsen (修善寺温泉), 90 minutes away from Tokyo gathers luxury inns, some of them comparing well to the most beautiful wooden temples of Japan. Isolated Ryokans also propose a friendly rest in isolated places. The very convenient resort of Atami (熱海), just 50 minutes away from Tokyo looks like a small Monaco, with its large buildings on the slope of the mountains by the sea.
A week-end in a “Onsen” starts on Saturday morning in the station or the car rental agency. You will then leave the city. You may want to have a nice lunch and one hour of sightseeing on the way. Travelers on their way to Shuzenji may enjoy a well-deserved rest in Mishima (三島) to taste the local eel (うなぎ, unagi). Hosts to the Kinugawa onsen resort may enjoy climbing the local mountain by foot (山頂) or cable-car. It is recommended to reach the ryokan by mid-afternoon. Their architecture is very diverse: some of them are wooden buildings in traditional Japanese style, old or recent. Others are very modern-looking hotels with concrete walls shamelessly exhibited. You should not let the outside appearance repel you, as the service at those hotels is usually outstanding. Some of them may even offer a traditional service in a tatami room. And once inside, you will not care about those ugly concrete walls.
You will be warmly welcome by the house staff, in traditional attire. They will lead you to your room. Some of them are Japanese style (和室), with tatami floor and wooden walls. The traditional service includes the meals served in the room. The table is then put aside, and the traditional Japanese bed is brought out of the closets: it is made of a mattress on the floor and a duvet (布団, futon). This formula has some drawbacks: the guests are often disturbed by the staff, first around 6pm to set the dinner table, then to put the table away and install the bed, and early in the morning (7 or 8am) to install the breakfast table. Some western style rooms (洋室), with a meal served in the restaurant are also available, but have less appeal, and the restaurant is less suited to private discussions. Most young Japanese enjoy the serenity of traditional Japanese rooms, but do not wish to be disturbed. This is why most modern onsens have a “mixed” formula, probably the most pleasant: guests can enjoy a Japanese style room, with a small alcove containing western style beds. Meals are taken in a private space separated from the room.
Once installed in your room, you will be served a small sweet and green tea. The staff will discuss with you as if you were a long time guest. If the buildings have an interesting history, it will be explained in details. Do not be surprised if the staff calls your husband (旦那さん, dannasan) or "your wife" (奥さん, okusan) the date from 3 days ago you bring with you there. Once alone in the room, you will change to the yukata (浴衣) provided, a cotton dressing gown that will be much more comfortable than your travel clothes. If you look like a rugby player, the staff will do its best to bring you the only « extra long » (特大Tokudai) yukata they have. It is perfectly acceptable to wander outside your room wearing the yukata. As you are now ready to go to the bath, you should put your valuables in the safe of the room, or in your luggage. Then, you will put your room key, and your towel in the small bag provided.
The traditional collective bath has separate spaces for men (indicated by a blue colour and the sign 男) and women (indicated by red and the sign 女). Moth bathes use traditional materials: stone, wood, and bamboo. The simplest bathes are small square pools in wood or stone less than a meter deep and wide enough to stretch the body inside. The room wall may be decorated with a paint of various artistic qualities. Some bathes are small stone pools looking like a small natural pond, artistically integrated in the landscape. This is not just a bath, but a show. The first step is to thoroughly wash yourself in the showers adjoining the bath, then to enter the bath naked. You may want to hide some parts of your body with the small towel provided until you enter in the water. Anyways, the chance is you will not think about it anymore after a few seconds. The bath water is often very hot, and, after a few minutes, you should exit and cool down. There is sometimes a cold water pool nearby for that.
Outside bathes (露天風呂, Rottenburo) are the most pleasant. They often offer a pleasant view on the surroundings. The contrast between the hot water and fresh air is ideal. Even when the outside temperature is negative, the warmth accumulated in the hot bath will allow you to stay naked outside for a few minutes without feeling the cold. The writer of this story has unforgettable memories of a bath in a rottenburo under the snow. Private bathes can also be booked, often for half an hour, without an extra fee. They allow a fun and intimate bath. In some ryokans, a private bath on the balcony is also available. This is probably the most pleasant formula, but is slightly more expensive. Whatever the formula, the greatest pleasure of the onsen is after the bath. The whole body relaxed by the bath, it is very pleasant to wander in the hotel, have a tea, and slowly read a well chosen book in its room, while enjoying the subtle tatami smell. There is always a sweet and tea available for this moment.

The dinner is served at Japanese time, from 6 to 9pm. Several dishes are served. The meal makes the best of seasonal and regional ingredients that will be explained in detail by the staff. All the dishes are elegantly set. Classical examples are small wooden boats on which sashimi (刺身, sashimi) is served, and food served on bamboo. The plates are always in traditional Japanese style. Very often, enjoyable « cook-it-yourself » dishes are part of the menu. Meat to cook on a hot plate, or tofus cooked on the table are common. There are also many pot dishes (鍋, nabe) heated on the guest table. Japanese sake and beer are always available, and a reasonable price even at the most expensive places. There is often enough time after dinner for a second hot-spring bath. Alcohol and the hot water will ensure you will sleep very well. Breakfast is served between 7 and 9am, and is made of sweet and salty regional delicacies.
After a last bath in the morning, departure is quite early. There is enough time left in the Sunday to perform ambitious sightseeing. From Kinugawa-onsen, it is possible to go to Nikko. Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島) and Hakone (箱根) also offer first-class tourism. A car is very convenient to go to remote places as countryside buses are expensive and infrequent. However there will be awful traffic jams on Sunday night on the roads back to the cities. Public transport is less convenient for sightseeing, but reserved limited trains are a very convenient way to go back home in style. From the train window, the landscape will become more and more urban, the neon’s will be brighter, and after crossing a few rivers, the trip will only end on the train station, back to daily life.
Onsen resorts close from Tokyo and prices

In Tokyo areas, the most accessible areas are:
  • Izu peninsula: the towns of Atami, Ito, Shimoda, Toi and Shuzenji cluster many onsen ryokans. There is much sightseeing available in a scenery mixing the sea and the mountain;
  • Hakone: this mountain resort close to Mount Fuji is a first-rate sightseeing spot, with impressive volcanic fumes, and the beautiful lake on which Mount Fuji reflects. Odakyu Line offers reserved limited train services (1h31, Y2020 - 12.6 Euros) to Hakone Yumoto (箱根湯本)
  • Southern Alps are the highest mountains in Japan. A car is necessary to reach those remote valleys, and on the way, the Fuji five lakes will make a memorable stop. Onsens are often in remote places. It is better to avoid returning to Tokyo by the “Chuo” motorway (中央高速道路) on Sunday night. It is common to spend 5 or 6 hours to come back to the city;
  • Kinugawa-onsen: the Onsen “Costa Brava”: easily accessible from Tokyo, this resort gathers large hotels built around a river canyon: the atmosphere is quite urban, but the service offered by the hotels is often of good quality. The superb temple complex of Nikko is only a few minutes train away, and will make an unforgettable week-end. Access through the special reserved Tobu “Kinu” train (1h57, Y2800 - 17.5 Euros)
Le The “non-profit” independent site Secret Japan is a huge database about onsens, with explanations in French or English.
Prices vary with the quality of service and prestige. They are always higher on week-end.
The “Biwa” ryokan (枇杷) in Toi (土肥) is offering a two-meals and night formula with a massage included for around Y75.000 (470 Euros) for two people on weekdays, and Y95.000 (600 Euros) on week-end. The hotel is new, but built in the traditional way, with wonderful wooden “pouters”. Each room has a private rottenburo bath on the balcony, with a view on the sea and the city. Food is excellent, and served in an individual space. Address: 静岡県伊豆市土肥259-1 Toi Izu-shi Shizuoka-ken. Tel 0559-97-3124. Access to Toi: ferry from Shimizu, bus from Mishima or Shuzenji.
The hotel “Asaya” in Kinugawa-onsen has several hundred rooms, and offer two-meals formula with Japanese dinner at the restaurant, large (15 tatami) japanese room, and all-you-can-eat breakfast for 42500 Yens (250 Euros) on weekdays et 47000 Yens (300 Euros) on week-end for two. Entrance to the bath, including a rottenburo on the roof, is included. There are less expensive formulas in the hotel. Address: 813 Taki – Kinugawa Onsen, Nikko-shi, Tochigi-ken 321-2526 栃木県日光市鬼怒川温泉滝813Tel : 0288.77.1111. Direct Access from the Tobu Asakusa station in Tokyo by the trains of the Tobu company.
Both Ryokans can be booked through Yahoo Japan Travel.

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