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When cold and hot meet

Keeping warm: An open-air bath at Hokuten no Oka Lake Abashiri Tsuruga Resort, with scenic beauty of nature during winter, in Abashiri, Hokkaido. (Courtesy of Hokuten no Oka Lake Abashiri Tsuruga Resort)

Publication Date : 07-03-2014


When in Rome...


It was like a truth-or-dare game when my Japanese guide invited me and my four other Indonesian friends to an onsen (Japanese hot spring bath).

“First, you’ll need to undress to your birthday suit,” the guide, Toshihiro Kamba, said.

In a higgledy-piggledy quick response, my friends asked, “totally naked?”

“Yes. So, who’s coming tonight?” Kamba said.

Trying to give some encouragement, he said that he took a group of six Indonesians to an onsen last year. They hesitated and were shy at first, he said, but soon let loose after finding it relaxing.

I was silent for a moment, but soon agreed to the “challenge”, so did another friend of mine.

Being naked in front of other people is one thing I’m not comfortable with.

But as the saying goes, when in Rome.

With around 20 active volcanoes, there are 254 hot-spring resorts in Hokkaido alone, making the island a haven for onsen lovers.

So, there I was, in my yukata - a casual, light kimono - heading to the onsen at Hokuten no Oka Lake Abashiri Tsuruga Resort in Abashiri, Hokkaido.

I took off my sandals and put them on a rack before entering the men’s locker room.

There were separate onsen for male and female guests at the hotel, although mixed onsen are not uncommon in Japan.

From the locker room, I went straight to the washing section, as all visitors must clean themselves with hot water before getting into the bath. Usually, the shower is 40 degrees Celsius.

I sat on a small stool, with a mirror and bottles of soap, shampoo and conditioner all in arms distance.

As per onsen etiquette, one should not splash his neighbouring guests while showering. And jumping in and swimming may cause one to be frowned upon.

After finishing my shower, I tiptoed into the bath. I could smell the sulfur and the air was heavy with steam.

It felt really hot at first. But my body started to adjust and — as my Japanese guide had said — I started to feel relaxed.

Noticing a glass sliding door leading to outside, I wondered if there was an open-air bath.

And yes, apparently there was, with big rocks in the middle of and around it. It was dark that night and the outside temperature was -15 degrees Celsius.

But the cold seemed to evaporate once I stepped into the open-air bath.

Curious about what the scenery looked like from the open-air bath, I went to the onsen again the next morning, just after sun rise.

There it was: The snow covered trees and hills. And so I sat in the open-air bath at the hotel and soaked up the beauty that surrounded me.

Snow began to fall and the temperature was around -12 degrees Celsius. Truth-be-told, it was a “little” cold on the parts of my body not submerged in the water.

I say a “little”; my hair started to freeze and my small towel I had left on a big rock also froze.

The excitement of the hot-and-cold sensation from the open-air onsen continued as I set off for my next destination, Sounkyo.

Luckily, I stayed in a hotel that had not one, but two open-air onsen, although I only tried one of them.

Another thrill of the hot-and-cold sensation struck me again - in a good way - when I dipped into the open-air bath at Hotel Taisetsu, which is located on a hill in the Mount Daisetsu National Park.

I could see colourful illuminations shining on the ongoing Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival from the indoor bath and the hills covered with snow from an open-air bath.

I took time to enjoy that tranquil moment.

The Japanese tradition, which has gone for hundreds of years, is also believed to be recuperative, depending on the minerals in the water.

Whether it’s in winter or summer, I will definitely take the plunge the next time I go to Japan.


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