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.
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."