Of all the attractions in winter in Japan, soaking in a Japanese onsen would have to be one of the most memorable. Any Japan itinerary should include some relaxing time in one of the many Japanese baths around the country. Gero Onsen exists practically on the strength of its medicinal thermal waters. ‘Taking the waters’ is such a popular past time here, they even have an open-air Onsen by the river itself, no fences, no privacy, therefore, this is the only onsen where I have seen people wearing a simple wrap while in there.
Luckily I have no need for the riverside hot springs.
I am staying at the Suimeikan ryokan overlooking the river in all-out luxury.
My room in Gero onsen is huge by any world standards and I have a choice of futon or bed. Suimeikan has four distinct buildings.
I am at the Hisenkaku one.
The onsen facilities are so varied it boggles the mind.
You can spend a whole day trying all the different ones in the different buildings.
My favourite, however, is the one air one at the Hisenkaku building.
Situated on the ground floor, you just step from the shower room into the open air hot springs surrounded by artistically placed rocks with a statue of a Bodhisattva in a little alcove.
At the time I was there the snow was falling very gently adding an extra element of pleasure in the onsen.
Gero Onsen experience
It takes a while for the eyes to adjust and see through the steam of the shower room.
At first glance, everything seems blurry although the willowy female shapes on the low stools are quite distinctive.
Their long backs bend like bamboo stems in the mist as the women reach for their buckets, raise them above their heads and let the contents slowly flow over their heads.
The idea is to recreate the sensual feel of being under a natural cascade.
Edo period woodblock-prints depict this century-old tradition in detail: women bathing communally in a Japanese Onsen.
The body-gels and shampoo pumps might be a new addition – but essentially, an Onsen remains a Japanese institution like no other.
In Japan there is a way of doing everything – they call it ‘the Japanese way’ – and bathing publicly in an onsen is no exception.
All hand-held showers are installed at knee-level. So are the mirrors.
Showering standing up, a thing I have been doing for a few decades now, is somehow out of place here.
Towering over everybody is not a good show.
I know this from a long time spent in Asia. Seating while scrubbing is not only comfortable but lowers everyone to the same level and it creates a little space around you without showering everybody else.
It is all to do with respecting others and their personal space.
Communal bathing is a great leveller. There are no clothes to signal who you are or what you do.
You bathe ‘wearing the breeze’ and nothing else.
You enter, however, armed with a very small towel for scrubbing yourself raw and to pat dry yourself after and before entering the dressing room, where proper towels are stacked.
This is the quintessential Japanese onsen experience.
While in Japan, another cultural experience is to try Japanese green tea and all the related products made from matcha.