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July 15, 2011

"Getting Wet, Adventures in the Japanese Bath" by Eric Talmadge (Best Non-Fiction

Onsen is big business in Japan. I like them, but with some reservations. For one thing, the full onsen experience can be off-puttingly expensive. One night's stay in a classy onsen hotel can easily set you back 30,000 - 50,000 yen per person. This includes two meals, but is still an outrageous price. If like most Japanese this one onsen weekend is all the traveling you do in the whole year, it may still be OK, but it can be a problem if you are traveling two or three weeks around Japan.

Next, not all onsen are that interesting. On the contrary, the large towns with huge hotels that cater to group tours are right-out garish. The high-rise hotels spoil the scenery and the noisy groups spoil your fun if you come as a couple or family. These places are more suitable to tours with colleagues from work than private visits - and that is indeed how most Japanese travel there (although such tours are not so popular anymore and many onsen towns are literally crumbling away).

My advice is therefore to search out the hito, the so-called "hidden hot springs," the smaller and often rustic onsen of only a handful of modest hotels - or even only one single ryokan hidden away in the mountains. Often (but not always!) these hidden hot springs are less expensive - for example, 10,000 a person - , and on top of that, you are not bothered by concrete piles or noisy groups. In these smaller onsen, also the Japanese travel as families or couples.

When I start wondering if Japanese onsen culture is at all any fun, I often have recourse to Getting Wet, Adventures in the Japanese Bath (Kodansha International, 2006) by Eric Talmadge. Eric Talmadge is Tokyo news editor for the Associated Press who has lived longer in Japan than in his native country. In this book, he combines work and hobby by trying out the whole spectrum of Japanese bathing culture and serving that up in what can only be called an enjoyable read.

There are countless hot springs in Japan. Since very ancient times (say 10,000 years ago), it has been the biggest pleasure and pastime of the Japanese to sit in those sometimes scalding hot waters - provided for free by their extremely volcanic country. Visiting an onsen (as hot springs are called in Japanese) is not only the main idea the Japanese have of a holiday, it is also healthy thanks to the medicinal properties of thermal spring water.

In this enthusiastic account, Talmadge relates his adventures in various onsen around Japan and combines those tales with reflections on bathing-related subjects.

Sitting in the bug-lined tidal pools of far-away Shikine, one of the volcanic Izu islands SE of Tokyo, he studies the science of hot spring bathing and the different kinds of stuff you can find in all those tubs.

During a visit to the popular hot springs of Ikaho in Gunma Prefecture he realizes that the Japanese obsession with onsen may have led to a recent scandal where bath owners were caught tampering with the healing properties by mixing in ordinary tap water (for how else can you serve 5 million customers a year?).

Talmadge also ventures into his neighborhood sento (no mean feat, I can assure you, as your nakedness will be stared at by the locals) and survives the shock of a skin-tingling Hertz bath with low voltage electrical stimulation.

Next he joins the dense crowds in the new Disneyesque hot spring theme park in Tokyo Bay, the Oedo Onsen Monogatari (which uses "paleowater" drawn from 1400 meters underground), before contemplating the history of the Japanese bath in more traditional Arima, the oldest hot spring in Japan.

Invited to Kusatsu in the mountains of Gunma (to help promote onsen visits among foreign tourists), he makes the reader hungry by a detailed description of the gorgeous meal served him in an expensive ryokan, courtesy of the Japanese government. His justification: in the onsen experience, food is just as important as hot water.

In Yunessun, Hakone, another hot spring extravaganza where guests wear bathing suits in the mixed bathing area, he ruminates on the subject of nakedness and why Japan has so many onsen where people hop around stark naked, but virtually no nudists.

In Misasa Onsen, Tottori Pref., Talmadge challenges fate by sitting in a radioactive bath, although he could have been warned by the statue of Madame Curie that graces the village. He also describes the fancy for radon products in the Western world in the 1930s (low radiation was thought to be beneficial), which abruptly stopped when the jaw of one of the users of such products literally dropped off.

In one of the final chapters Talmadge adds an experience in one of the numerous Yoshiwara Soaplands to his list of bathing pleasures. The "soap girl" who washes him is a direct descendant of the age-old yuna, or "hot water girls," who for obvious reasons were instrumental in popularizing the bath in feudal times.

Onsen are one of Japan's greatest pleasures. After reading this highly appetizing book, you may be ready to jump right in.

But be warned before you try: Talmadge also lets us know that the number of Japanese who die in the bath each year rivals the number killed in traffic accidents!

So don't forget to read the author's advice on how to take the Perfect Bath and go slow on the alcohol (which can be dangerous in combination with a very hot bath)!

Finally, I7D like to share my three favorite onsen with you:

1. Yunomine Onsen, Wakayama. 
One hour by bus from Shingu in the direction of the Kumano Hongu Shrine, this onsen sits squarely on the Old Kumano Road. It is only one street in a narrow valley, with some 15 ryokan and minshuku. The public tsubo-yu is famous from the legend of Oguri Hangan - as Oguri was nursed back from the dead in this bath, the hot spring must be quite powerful! There is also a nice old temple, Tokoji. I visited last time in September and remember sitting at the open window of our hotel, listening to the singing of the autumn crickets while dusk gathered. Combine with visits to the three Kumano shrines: Hongu near Yunomine (in fact, pilgrims in the past came to Yunomine to cleanse themselves before proceeding to the sacred temple), the Hayatama Shrine in Shingu and the Nachi Shrine at the splendid Nachi waterfall.

2. Bessho Onsen, Nagano. 
Not really a hidden hot spring, but nonetheless a compact small town with no real high-rises, close to nature, and only 30 min. from Ueda which is a stop on the Nagano Shinkansen. Bessho is fun because of the many important temples scattered through the town and its surroundings: Kitamuki Kannon, Anrakuji, Jorakuji and further afield, Zenzanji, Chuzenji and Daihoji. Two of these own beautiful pagodas which have been declared National Treasures. From Zenzanji to Bessho there is a nice hiking route. Combine with Ueda and its Kokubunji Temple, castle ruin and haiku stones by Shirao.

3. Jigokudani, Yudanaka Onsen, Nagano. 
Famous for its monkeys bathing in the snow, but you don't have to join them (in fact, I advise you not to as they are very aggressive). In winter, when the scenery is at its best, the rustic ryokan sitting in the middle of nowhere is usually quiet. Involves a hike of 40 minutes from the nearest bus station or parking lot, but is still only 2.5 hrs from Nagano. We stayed in Februari when we had to plod through a thick layer of snow, but it was worth it. The monkeys were very photogenic!

Best Non-Fiction


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This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.