“What should I write about?” Someone walking as near as Kristin was may have assumed I was taking requests, but she knew that wasn’t so. After a year on the road together, every single day together, she knows when I’m inviting conversation and when I’m just talking to myself. More than her smarts, her natural beauty, and her kindness I now rank her ability to listen silently during my vocal brainstorming sessions as the thing I love most about her. Yep, I’m crazy about the way she ignores me.
“I suppose I could write about Osaka and going to the sumo tournament or maybe the videogame arcades and electronics stores, but I think that’d be better for a new dispatch to Dubious Quality. It’s been months since I’ve sent something to Bill. There’s always the toilets and the ubiquitous washroom slippers that are inevitably five sizes too small for me. Ugh, lame. Maybe I could write about Hiroshima or our trip to Miyajima? Nah, that’s too obvious. The last thing the Internet needs is for another navel-gazer about an American visiting Hiroshima. It’s sad. No kidding! And Miyajima was beautiful, but what’s there to say? ‘Hey, go to Miyajima! It’s beautiful!'” I sighed. We were having a great time and there’s so much I love about Japan, but I needed a hook (like this last paragraph).
We paused to watch three twenty-somethings dressed up in their kimonos and obi take turns photographing one another beneath a cherry tree, each passing their iPhone to the next. No doubt to update their Facebook, err, Line profile photos. These weren’t the two-foot wide obi that all but covers the kimono from hips to breasts and forces a shuffling gait, but they were gorgeous nonetheless. Down the hill, on a delicate wooden bridge, in the shadow of another cherry tree in partial bloom, a young couple was posing for their engagement photos. We’ve been privy to a number of these photo-shoots during our time in Japan, it’s the season after all, and I’m convinced that no single outfit does more for a woman’s beauty than a ceremonial kimono and obi. Pair it with a parasol and you’ve got a look that could melt a thousand hearts.
We were in Nara, having arrived on a train from Kinosaki Onsen a day earlier. Aside from the dolled up Japanese women — swoon — there were deer. Hundreds of deer. The only thing outnumbering the deer were the tour groups. “It was pretty cool being the only westerners in Kinosaki, wasn’t it?” Kristin, having allowed enough silence to pass since my last rumination, knew this time it really was a question.
“I was just thinking about that. It was a resort town, but everyone there was Japanese.”
I played back the days in my mind and realized that, save for a single pasty, somewhat doughy male we passed outside one of the bath houses, we didn’t see any Westerners in nearly three days. It might have been the only place we’ve ever seen recommended in Lonely Planet that wasn’t awash in backpack-laden tourists from Australia and Europe.
“Must be all the public bathing. That’s got to account at least for keeping the Americans away.”
Becoming One with Your Yukata
I touched on visiting an onsen (public hot spring bath) in our last post but that was just focusing on a single ryokan. Ryokan and onsen are everywhere in Japan. But Kinosaki is different. The difference is right there in the train station name, KINOSAKI ONSEN. The town, from a visitor’s perspective, is little more than a collection of inns, shops, restaurants, and ryokan huddled around seven public hot spring baths where tourists come throughout the year, particularly in the spring, to spend a few days eating, bathing, and shopping, not necessarily in that order. A picturesque canal runs through the center of town, eight stone bridges, most pedestrian only, span the shallow carp-filled Ootani River. Lanterns and street lights illuminate the drooping branches of the willow trees that line the banks. Further upstream, a pedestrian only gravel path is lined with dozens of cherry trees. Sadly, not a bud had yet to unfurl its petals.
Upon checking in at our ryokan (a short walk from the station, no chance of getting lost), we were relieved of our shoes and Kristin was ushered over to a selection of floral yukata — “Women only choose yukata. Man yukata in room. One kind only,” the receptionist explained in choppy English. While Kristin chose her bright pink cotton robe and powder blue sash, two members of the staff inverted our wheelie duffel bags and cleaned the wheels with a cloth. A woman, the head maid we surmised, then showed us to our room, an eight-mat traditional room — I love the smell of tatami — where we would eat, sleep, and relax. She served tea and, with limited English skills, explained how to wear the yukata and top coat, while making clear we were not to wear the winter overcoat which we were still, puzzlingly, left with anyway. We thought we knew how to wear them, we had worn several yukata already, but Kristin’s was far too long for her height. She tried to exchange it for one that was shorter, not realizing that these higher quality yukata were meant to be folded at the waist like a kimono. The sash, really a small obi, was to be tied in a vertical bow, concealing the fold. In truth, the most important thing to remember when wearing a yukata is to always pull the right side of the robe in first so that the left side overlaps on the outside. The opposite is for dressing the dead. The other thing to remember is that the yukata, despite my calling it a robe, is not a bathrobe. Don’t go full nude under it. Wear your underpants and a t-shirt or bra unless getting ready for bed.
The yukata is your uniform for your stay in Kinosaki. We wore it with the provided slippers whenever we were inside the ryokan, whether reading in our room, going to breakfast (a sixteen-mat room where all the guests were served together at separate tables) or while eating dinner in our room. Dinner, served on a very low table — you sit cross-legged on seat cushions with a thin wooden back — was the multi-course kaiseki we had come to expect, but the long, drooping sleeves and wide cuffs of the yukata made it difficult to eat without inadvertently dunking a sleeve into the food. We quickly learned to use one hand to hold the sleeve while reaching for your food or tea with the other.
So far this sounds like a normal ryokan stay. So far. But where visiting Kinosaki Onsen Town really takes a turn is when you go out. Though our ryokan had two private baths that could be reserved, Kinosaki’s real draw is the collection of seven public bathing houses. That and the novelty of walking around town in what amounts to a cotton robe and wooden sandals. It’s not weird if everyone is doing it, right?
Bathing Time… Again?
I’ve seen it mentioned that the yukata and gebi (wooden sandals) are a passport to Kinosaki. That’s not entirely true because you are actually given an actual paper passport upon arrival, with seven folded squares ready to receive your “passport stamps” from each of the seven onsen. The Japanese are crazy about collecting inkpad stamps from the places they go and Kinosaki is no exception.
Each night after dinner (and again each morning after breakfast) we ventured out onto the streets of Kinosaki in our yukata, top coat, and sandals, each of us carrying a small tote bag with our towels, membership card to gain free admission into any of the public baths, and our paper passport. Any unease we may have felt in going out wearing our robe quickly vanished as we realized everyone coming and going was clad in the same attire. The women wore a variety of multi-colored floral yukata while the men had on whichever monochrome patterned yukata their ryokan prefers to stock. Couples walked hand-in-hand. Groups of college-aged men and women strolled briskly in same-sex packs. Families shuffled along at the pace of the littlest member, sometimes the oldest. Everyone was smiling; everyone carried their own tote bag with towel and washcloth.
The onsen varied in age and size and architecture from the modern to the traditional, as did the bathing rooms. Some were lined in rock, some had outdoor pools, another even had a refrigerated ice room for cooling off. The thermometer inside read zero degrees Celsius, and it felt marvelous.
Regardless the size or style of the onsen you choose, the procedure is always the same. And it’s not nearly as complex as many of the websites we’ve seen make it sound. That’s the good news. The bad news is, well, this isn’t exactly something for someone with body issues.
Upon entering the onsen, you scan your ID card (or pay the day-use fee) and drop your sandals where the tile floor meets the wooden steps. One of the onsen, Goshonoyu perhaps, had no room for sandals on the floor and free sandal-sized lockers were available. Take a key, drop it in your tote, and head to the changing room for your particular gender. Unless you come in the middle of the day, there will likely be plenty of people to follow. But, if not, just look for the red or blue banners and go on in.
So much nudity. Immediately. Just keep your eyes straight ahead and seek out a locker that still has its key. Put your tote in the locker, drape the washcloth over the locker door so you don’t forget it (be sure to leave the larger towel in the locker, very important!) and strip down. Put your watch, phone, and/or wallet in the tote and lock the locker up tight. Don’t worry; it’s not going to get stolen.
Unlike the ryokan where we stayed in Hakone, each of the public baths we visited (four of the seven) in Kinosaki had the washing facilities lining the perimeter of the baths, in one large area. No problem. Again, keep your eyes to yourself and head for a vacant washing area. Run the tap into the small basin to get the temperature right, dump it over yourself to get acclimatized and take a seat. Now use the shower nozzle, the washcloth and basin, and body soap and shampoo provided (always provided) to wash up. Wash really good, your undercarriage too, and be sure to rinse completely off. Yes, there will be other people around you doing the same and no, there are no privacy dividers like we men have between urinals back in America. While it will no doubt feel a bit weird the first time you do it, the Japanese have been attending onsen since they were children. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a father scrubbing up his son’s back while the son, in turn, washes the back of his younger brother. Kristin reported seeing a mom carrying her infant from the bath into the hot spring. They start them young here. Nudity is just a part of life. Washing is another part of life, an integral part at that. There’s no reason to feel embarrassment about either.
Okay, so you’re clean. Now, take your washcloth — you rinsed it out really good, right? — and walk on over to the hot spring. There might be more than one to choose from. Perhaps even one upstairs on the roof, or another in an alcove under a cascade of scalding hot water. Wherever you go, ease in gently and keep the washcloth out of the water. Put it on your head, leave it on a rock. Whatever. Just don’t put it in the water. Nearly all of the pools have a ledge you can sit on just inside the pool. The water should just about reach your ribs. Ease into the deeper waters once you’re comfortable with the temperature. And, if you’re lucky, you might find one with some whirlpool jets.
Once you’re done soaking, probably fifteen to twenty minutes will suffice, feel free to rinse off. Now for the next really important step: drying off. Use your washcloth — yes the wet one — to dry yourself off as well as you can before going into the changing room. The floor can get really slippery in the changing room so be sure to get as much excess water off yourself as you can before entering the changing room. Once inside you can use the larger bath towel in your tote to dry off. The changing rooms always have some sinks and mirrors and some even have disposable razors and a hairdryer. It’s best to bring your own toiletries when going to the public baths in Kinosaki though. These places see a lot of traffic throughout the day and you’re unlikely to find the amenities stocked at an upscale ryokan.
Coordinating with the Other Sex? One of the things we struggled with at first was picking a time to meet back up in the lobby. After all, you’re headed in separately and won’t be wearing your watch. We found 40 minutes to be a fine amount of time. This gives you ten minutes on either end for washing and drying off and twenty minutes to soak. This allowed us to coordinate our departures without rushing things.
Most people in Kinosaki visited the onsen in the morning and again in the evening. While wearing your yukata and gebi out in public during the day wasn’t necessarily discouraged, nobody does. We went to a cafe after our bath on the first morning and then went and did a little shopping and by the time we were done we were clearly the only people still in our yukata. We felt a little sheepish when we realize our faux-pas but there was something positively wonderful about not putting on real clothes for the better part of 48 hours. That said, if you’re going out for lunch or to go shopping or sightseeing, you might want to throw back on normal pants and shirt between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Too Long, Didn’t Read? Just Know This!
- Put on your yukata by folding the right side in to the left, and then the left side across to the right. Never the other way around. Tie it up tight with the sash and slide the bow over to your right hip.
- Make sure you’ve got some underwear on under the yukata. For goodness sakes man, you’ll be eating breakfast cross-legged and these things fly open in the wind!
- Resist the urge to wear the split-toed socks with the wooden sandals unless it’s very cold outside. They make it very slippery and it’s only a matter of time before some tourist breaks an ankle and ruins the fun for everyone.
- Keep your eyes to yourself, bring your washcloth with you to bathe, and leave the larger bath towel in the locker with all of your clothing. You’re going full-on birthday suit from this point on!
- Wash up really good using the bucket, your washcloth, and the shower head. Nobody will be watching, but just in case they are — if you’re reading this, you’re probably a Westerner and there’s the chance they might be watching just to make sure you do things right — use the soap! Seriously. Don’t be like, “Oh, I just showered back at the hotel.” It doesn’t matter. Take your time and soap up, scrub down, and rinse off.
- Rinse out your washcloth really good, carry it loosely in front of you in a sort of nonchalant manner that tells people you do this sort of thing all the time — only you have to know that you’re just shielding everyone from eye-level shots of your junk — and ease into the water.
- Don’t let the washcloth hit the water. Put it on your head, leave it on a rock, or tie it in a bandanna like the older Japanese men do. Bonus points for wearing it this way if you have a long gray beard.
- Don’t die. Seriously. Stay awake and get out when your fingers start to prune.
- Rinse off and, very important, use the washcloth to dry yourself as best as you can. Sure, the damn thing is wet. I know. But use it to wipe off as much water as you can. Nobody wants you dripping all over the changing room and causing someone to slip and break their naked neck. Or worse. You’ll finish drying once back at the locker.
- Feel free to use the changing room sinks to shave, do your hair, your makeup, whatever you wish. That’s what they’re there for. This is as much about hygiene and getting ready for the day (or night) as it is relaxation and recreation. Double-check your locker, leave the key in the lock, and head on out.
That’s all there is to it! Apologies to our faithful bi-weekly readers who may feel a bit of deja-vu after our last post about Hakone, but we’ve read too many overly complicated write-ups about onsen protocol to not want to put one out there in layman’s terms. Not only is it not something to be wary of, but it’s extremely enjoyable. Go for it!