The Onsen Experience / by Deborah Clague

It wasn't part of the tour description when I booked, but after our Fuji climb, we all visited a local onsen. It was a pleasant surprise. I had never been before and wasn't sure what to expect other than being self-conscious by the mandatory nudity. There is nothing like this in North America; guests disrobe completely, leaving their clothing in a locker, before taking a public shower and then enjoying the various therapeutic hot springs (indoor, outdoor and at varying temperatures). After washing the sopping sweat off my body, I immediately went outdoors and found my own tub with a view of the mountain I had just climbed.

There are few times in my life where I have been that relaxed. I believe it was aided by being in the shadow of Fuji. It didn't look like much from that vantage point. It's near-perfect conical shape is rather non-threatening, especially without all of the snow covering it. The Canadian Rockies, the range I am most familiar with, are much darker and jagged and oblique. But I knew better. I sat there in the pool trying hard to disguise my glee that I just accomplished something bigger than I ever thought I would. Despite thousands of people doing it every year, it was something monumental for me and I felt like Superwoman. Assured that I could do anything if I put my mind (and heart) to it. 

"Is there room in here?"

I looked up as Epic Snorer entered the tub with me, the still waters now cascading over the edge. My momentary illusion of peace and "privacy" dissipated as the reality of a near-stranger about to share my personal space entered the frame. A near-stranger that kept me from getting any sleep the night prior. "But, but...there are empty baths!", I thought to myself. 

The zen was strong though and I do believe that you can learn something from everyone. Even this encounter proved insightful. Epic Snorer talked with me about travel, life and loss. I mentioned that India was probably next on my list and she shared her own experience visiting it, including bringing her mother's ashes to Varanasi to perform the same ritual that I had hoped to do for my father. 

The dots in my life always seem to connect. 


The next day, I decided to relive the experience by visiting Oedo Onsen Monogatari Hot Springs in Tokyo. This is basically an onsen theme park with even more hot springs to choose from, in addition to a full spa, amusements and large dining area all designed to look like historic Edo. At this point, being naked in front of complete strangers did not bother me. In fact, I found it empowering. I spent an hour or so alternating between the coldest and hottest bath, and then indulged in the full spa treatment: a 90 minute massage, facial and pedicure where garra rufa fish eat away at the dead skin on one's feet. They had plenty to feast on at this point; Fuji killed my soles. Afterwards, I dined on bulgogi at a Korean restaurant within the establishment. It was the most indulgent day possible without being the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. 

So chill was I that I got on the wrong train heading back to my hotel and ended up in Yokohama.