I had mastered the hammam after numerous visits to the Middle East so I was determined not to miss out on what is an ancient and beloved tradition for the Japanese, the onsen, a hot spring bath.
Staying in a traditional ryokan in the mountain resort of Takayama I had a choice of onsens, from the mixed-sex one on the 7th floor – I think not- or the female-only onsen in a small building some 100 years old located opposite the hotel.
I had been given some instruction with limited English as well as a face towel, socks (the ones suitable for flip flops) an onsen bag (to carry all of one’s toiletries) and a yukata, a traditional Japanese dressing gown.
My first dilemma as I was going to be walking across the road was, did I take the yukata with me to put on after the onsen or would this be like walking across the high street in your pyjamas? I decided against taking it, my first mistake, albeit not a dramatic one.
Entering through a low doorway offering no indication of what was inside I was delighted to find a beautiful building of dark wood with low beamed ceilings.
A group of Japanese women were busy getting dressed and as I undressed and entered the onsen area through rice paper sliding doors. It appeared I had the place to myself. I had already read that the water in the pool is for soaking in, not for cleaning oneself so I showered and washed before entering the shockingly hot water of the onsen. I wasn’t expecting such heat and after about 3 minutes sat waist deep I bailed and sat on a rock with my legs dangling in. Pathetic, I know. I was the only westerner and it was fascinating watching seasoned onsen users come and go. One woman spent about 15minutes cleaning herself from head to toe, removing every last speck of dirt from her hair and skin before submerging herself up to her neck in the steaming water.
After about 5 minutes she exited the onsen. It appears it was not an endurance test and certainly not one that I was willing to sustain.