Bathing as leisure
Japanese onsen (hot springs) are becoming well known outside of Japan. There are lots of hot springs, because the Japanese archipelago is situated in an area of high volcanic activity. It is said that you can find a source of hot spring water just about anywhere, if you drill deep enough. In the old days, it is said that people would follow wounded animals, who were able to find natural hot springs which could help heal their injuries. Later, more hot spring resorts were opened up as drilling technology developed, and resorts began to attract leisure travellers.
My first hot spring experience was deep in the woods. I had not been in Japan too long, but one of my new friends suggested going on a trip. He was not too specific about where we were going. I had an international driver's license (these are only good for one year, so I had not been in Japan very long at that point), so my friend said, 'We can go to my brother's place in Tochigi prefecture, and borrow his car to go on a trip!' In the US, a driver's license is considered a birthright, almost, but in Japan, they are considerably more difficult to get (usually they require maybe 30 hours (?) of class and a big fee for the test as well, and almost no one passes the first time). So I agreed to this plan. The car was fairly heavy, with no power steering, stick shift, and I was not used to driving on the left, so it was a bit difficult. Then, we headed into the mountains and started driving upriver in a narrow valley. The road was curvy and narrow. Meeting a car coming in the opposite directions usually required some maneuvering. No guard rails, and I think I remember rolling down the window to look our and make sure I wouldn't drop a wheel over the edge. Anyway, some hours passed in this way, with no help on the driving (other than navigating). At a clearing in the woods, there was a parking lot. My friend said 'We have to park here and walk about two hours in the woods.' I still didn't really know where we were headed, but there was no turning back. The walk was very peaceful, in a forest dominated by maple trees that were reaching the peak of autumnal redness. Finally, we arrived at a very simple wooden inn in the woods. The rooms were Japanese style, with tatami mats, and they were fairly dark because the electricity generators would not be turned on until sunset. Also, no TV, no telephone. The only entertainment was a 'go' board in the room. But behind the building, in the maple forest, was a hot bath with steam curling among the branches. After my tiring drive and walk, this seemed like heaven. That night, it began to snow, so we enjoyed the hot bath in a snowfall. The next day, the forest had changed from red to white. This inn was called Kaniyu, part of the Oku-Kinugawa resort area. I later found out that in some cases, they will offer guests a lift to the parking area--there is a road for bringing in supplies, etc., but no parking lot. The meals were very simple, and for an extra fee, fresh tempura made with local mushrooms was available. Also, there was no heat, but a kerosene space heater could be rented. The outdoor bath was gender-mixed, but there were no other guests in the place that day. There were also gender-segregated baths inside.
Since that time, the area has been more completely developed. The Kaniyu inn is now a four-story concrete building, with more extensive outdoor soaking facilities. I haven't been there for many years, but apparently many guests still make the long walk through the woods as part of the experience.
I was reminded of this experience when I found this haiku by Masaoka Shiki:
山の湯や裸の上に天の川 'At a hot spring in the mountains, above the naked bathers, the Milky Way' (translation by me!)
I remember the steam rising into the night sky, and how it would seem to blend right into the Milky Way (although it was not clear enough to see it that night). I like the shift of scale from the hot bath under your chin, up to the glowing galactic expanse.
The photo at the top shows a public hot spring (no inn) in Nagano prefecture.