Fiona Davies heads to the rugged volcanic hills north west of Kobe to understand the ritual of relaxation in a town said to be the birthplace of Japanese bathhouse culture.
For someone about to undergo one of the most intensely relaxing experiences imaginable, I’m feeling a little on edge.
Soon, I’ll be partaking in one of Japanese’s societies most revered and beloved past times – soaking half-submerged in the near-scalding, mineral-rich waters of an onsen, or hot spring bathhouse.
As a first timer at Arima Onsen, I’ve been issued a list of numbered instructions and advice on behavioural etiquette. In my travels so far, I’ve largely experienced Japan’s traditional customs as a mere spectator. During my time in Arima, my aim is to become a participant.
Ancient Tradition Meets Modern Luxury
I’m spending the night in the palatial Arima Grand Hotel, where I’ll eat a lavish kaiseki dinner that’s part ritual, part culinary adventure. I’ll seek to restore body and mind in healing hot springs and sleep on woven tatami floor mats.
Looming large on the outskirts of a sleepy township, the Arima Grand is the poshest hotel in town, but is also a magnet for locals, who come to enjoy the public onsen on the hotel grounds. One of the most luxurious onsens in Japan, the enormous bathhouse is situated on the hotel’s rooftop, capturing a stupendous view over the forested ridges of the nearby Mt Rokko range.
Still, my excitement is tempered with a twinge of hesitation. Most establishments have separate bathing areas for men and women, since being completely nude is a strict requirement. It’s not the nudity that’s worrying me per say, but the possibility that in my highly exposed state, I might misinterpret a rule, or make some other cultural faux-pa, arousing the silent ire of a bunch of naked strangers.
To a first-timer, this staunch regard for rules might seem a little intimidating, but it’s important to understand this integral part of Japanese culture stems from ancient, deeply spiritual roots.
The Birthplace of Onsen
Where onsen culture first emerged isn’t entirely agreed upon, but many believe ritual bathing originated here in Arima. Arima is renowned Japan-wide as one of the oldest onsen towns in the country, yet despite being just 30 minutes from Kobe city, it remains largely under the radar of foreign visitors.
Onsens certainly aren’t difficult to find in Japan. Thanks to its volcanic geography more than 3000 are scattered in mountainous regions across the archipelago.
The first people to have stumbled upon a natural hot spring would have discovered a hidden paradise. Shrouded in sulfuric vapour, these strange smelling, yet mysteriously inviting pools of vivid turquoise, jade green and rich copper, bubbled to the surface in the crevices of mountains and deep within forested valleys. These oases were believed to have mystical healing powers and were treated with great veneration.
It’s said that emperors, nobles and samurais first visited the hot springs of Arima 1300 years ago, when bathing in natural pools was incorporated into Shinto purification rituals.
Arima is a charmingly serene little town, with the Arima River gently burbling through its compact centre. Radiating from the town square are a series of narrow, winding alleyways, lined with picturesque wooden shopfronts and meticulously-kept traditional homes.
I spend a few hours strolling the town’s steep, hilly streets, confident that any travellers’ aches and pains will be washed away by the therapeutic waters of the onsen.
History runs deep in this sleepy mountain village. Wedged between stores hawking soda biscuits and sparkling drinks made from carbonated spring water, are artisan craft shops, selling delicate bamboo calligraphy brushes, a 1000-year-old speciality of Arima’s craftsmen.
After dark, the town is virtually asleep. Most overnight visitors retreat to one of Arima’s many ryokans. These highly traditional inns, known for their extraordinary hospitality, are usually small, family-run establishments and a common feature of onsen resort towns.
My lodgings for the night are slightly fancier, but I’m assured the Arima Grand Hotel still offers an authentic cultural experience. The king-sized suites include both ryokan-style tatami rooms and western-style bedrooms. Of the three on-site restaurants, one is dedicated to the most noble of Japanese culinary traditions - kaiseki.
A Culinary Performance
The pinnacle of Japanese fine dining, kaiseki is an elegant and extravagant affair, fusing masterful cooking with visual artistry, ceremonial flair and deep hospitality. A meal consists of dozens of intricately arranged individual dishes. Each course arrives on its own unique earthenware plate, brought out one-by-one in a carefully choregraphed progression.
My travel companions and I are seated on floor mats in a private dining room and waited on throughout the night by an incredibly attentive, kimono-clad host. Our 16 course banquet includes local delicacies like grilled river trout, sea cucumber and of course, world-famous beef from Kobe, cooked at the table in your own personal hotpot.
Kaiseki is a highly formal experience, but it’s also an incredibly intimate one. The sake flows and the night is punctuated with celebratory kampais.
The Holy Grail of Spa Culture
My kaiseki meal has shed some insight into the significance of ritual in Japanese culture, but I’m yet to experience the real reason I’ve come to this historic, hillside retreat.
In a perfect world, every person’s initiation into the world of onsen culture would be a near-transcendental experience. In reality, many onsen first timers find themselves battling with a niggling self-consciousness. I pore over the guidelines one more time. Before I can move between my hotel room and the bathhouse foyer, I’ll need to don the hotel’s supplied yukata, a cotton kimono.
If like me, you’ve never put on a kimono before, the most important rule is once the kimono is over your shoulders, the left side of the garment must be crossed over by the right. The only time a kimono should be wrapped the opposite way is when it’s being worn by a deceased person at their funeral.
Apart from this one custom, most onsen rules are pretty logical, mainly concerned with hygiene and respect for your fellow bathers. Take a shower first. Don’t let hair or towels touch the water. Don’t eat, drink or splash about. While there is a social element to visiting, generally, the experience is a private one, allowing bathers to relax in meditative silence and contemplate the beauty of their natural surroundings.
There are many onsens in amazing locations all over Japan, built into the sides of mountains or nestled in exquisite gardens. Having one on a 10-storey high hotel rooftop is far less common.
The design of the Arima Onsen accommodates bathing both indoors and out. Guests can move between more than a half dozen baths with differing temperatures, mineral compositions and therapeutic properties. From its lofty vantage point, the rugged splendour of Arima’s volcanic ranges are spread out in full, panoramic glory. A full-length wraparound glass wall encloses the indoor bathing area, framing views of the fabled Arima Three Mountains, the age-old mythological guardians of the city.
After a through scrubbing off in the shower, I enter the sanctuary of the bathhouse itself. The few other guests barely register my presence, already lounging away, eyes shut.
Arima is famous for two unique types of natural spring water piped from the mountains – ginsen (silver spring) and kinsen (golden spring). I head first for the shoulder-deep, swimming-pool length indoor ginsen. It shimmers with a crystal clear, near-colourless liquid. A sign explains its appearance is due to high carbon dioxide levels, as well as the presence of radon (in amounts small enough to be inconsequential). Each type of hot spring is said to have unique healing properties, suitable for treating different ailments.
I slide in, and in the few seconds it takes to submerge myself neck-deep in the slightly below scalding water, a wave of relaxation washes over me and I’m enveloped in a warm liquid hug that soaks through my muscles and into my bones.
This was the moment my body had been waiting for.
I spend the next 40 minutes hopping from one bath to the next. The outdoor ginsen baths prove to be the most exhilarating. With the outside air temperature hovering around zero, the sensation of plunging into steaming, 42-degree liquid causes a breath-catching moment of fairly extreme physical shock.
The key is to stick it out. For some, the first few minutes can be uncomfortable, but as the minerals soak in, the heat warms your core and the muscle aches start to melt away. The mind begins to quieten.
Purported curative benefits aside, as a temporary stress reliever, it is pretty hard to beat and it’s little wonder so many Japanese visit them religiously.
Although it can be a little confronting at first, an onsen is a profound sensory experience, and one of the most unique and authentic activities a foreign visitor can readily enjoy in Japan. And, if you want to guarantee your first experience will be truly unforgettable, you certainly won’t regret the journey to Arima.
Arima is technically located on the city outskirts of Kobe, but it’s still a 50-minute ride from the city’s central Sannomiya bus station, or 35 minutes from Shin-Kobe station.
From Osaka, there are direct buses every hour or so from Hankyu Umeda Station or JR Osaka station. There are also direct buses from Kyoto station taking about an hour and 15 minutes.
If that’s a little above your budget, Arima has dozen of boutique, atmospheric ryokans in elegant wooden houses, some with private onsens. Typical prices range between US$179 and US$286 a night, but usual include several meals a day.
While Arima’s main attractions are its onsens and ryokans, it’s well worth spending a couple of days around town, especially in the warmer months.
There are numerous scenic hiking routes in the surrounding mountains, with the most popular being the Mt Rokko Summit Trail, which takes around three hours.
For a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the entire Hyogo Prefecture, take a short 30 minute road or rail detour to the Sumaura Ropeway, located in Kobe’s quiet beachside district. The Sumaura Ropeway is a short, wonderfully retro cable car ride up to the massive observation deck, which offers dramatic panoramic views over Osaka Bay, the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe City and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the world).