Elusive, enigmatic, and paradoxical, the Japanese konyoku onsen (混浴温泉), or nude mixed-bathing hot springs, is forbidding enough of access as to retain a quasi-mythical status – somewhere between the zebra and the unicorn - not only for foreigners but for Japanese as well. Information about mixed-bathing onsen is spotty even in the Internet age and often requires word-of-mouth or a personal guide (I presume the literature in Japanese is more extensive). Places that are said to allow mixed-sex bathing turn out not to when you arrive, while rumors swirl of countless onsen which do allow it but don’t advertise the fact; there are even onsen that allow guests to set the bathing rules during their stay. You may succeed in getting to one only to discover you are the sole patron, and by then what’s the point? If you’re traveling without Japanese help, you need to master the complicated travel routes and times, as most hot springs are located in rustic or mountainous retreats. If you want or need to stay the night in the onsen’s ryokan (tatami inn - there may not be any other accommodation nearby), you need to establish beforehand whether there are any vacancies. All this makes konyoku onsen hunting one of the more challenging of travel experiences, more akin to trekking in the Third World than in the world’s most developed country.
If most Japanese themselves don’t know much about this famous institution except by hearsay, it’s because to acquire even a working knowledge much less expertise on the subject means a prohibitive outlay of time and expense. Imagine you’re a Japanese male travel writer or novelist, the sort who might develop an obsession with konyoku onsen, not to mention that there already is a storied lineage of Japanese literati onsen fanatics, the Nobelist Yasunari Kawabata for one (I’m not suggesting a Japanese female writer couldn’t be equally interested – I wish more were – only that for reasons that will become clear later on, I think it’s less likely). You’ve come up with the idea to visit as many konyoku onsen as possible over a year and write a book about it. As a native, you have a far easier time arranging your itinerary than a foreigner would, yet it still requires considerable ingenuity of planning.
Your goal is to visit two onsen daily, a day visit at one and a night visit at another in the same vicinity (many hot springs are clumped together in onsen “villages”), or 730 in total (there are hundreds and hundreds of onsen in Japan, with an unknown number offering mixed bathing). As onsen all have their own often quirky business hours and may be closed on certain days of the week, or in the winter season if the mountain roads become impassable, offer mixed bathing only on certain days or at certain times of the day, and so forth, much research is needed to work out the intricate scheduling before setting out. Onsen inns charge anywhere from 8,000-15,000 yen ($100-$200) per night per person, so you probably can’t afford to take anyone along with you, as your accommodation will already amount to a good $50,000 (USD) for the year for you alone (if we assume an average fee of 10,000/night). A hearty dinner and breakfast is normally covered by the inn fee, but you still have to pay for lunch and the entrance fee for the day-visit spas. Transportation expenses (often involving a combination of various rail and bus lines) can also quickly add up. I could easily guess having to shell out $60,000 for the entire excursion, and that’s being frugal. How many people have that kind of time and money to spare?
Of course, the truly intrepid traveller on a budget, starting in northern Japan in the spring and working his way down to the warmer parts in the winter, by mountain bike and backpacker tent, making use of all available campgrounds, cooking by campfire wherever possible, might considerably cut down on expenses. However, he would miss out on the total onsen ”experience,” which is to sample each inn’s cuisine and cozy atmosphere and perhaps any resident hostesses offering their services for the night as well (at least in legendary times past). Regardless of financial means, the great virtue of such a fantasy onsen adventure would be precise insider knowledge of the most scenic and most crowded – as in both sexes – hot springs.
After getting the obligatory sightseeing spots in the country out of the way, my Chinese girlfriend, Chen, and I set out on the fly with the relative luxury of three days to spare and the goal of sampling five or six onsen. We quickly bumbled our way from one error to the next, and it is only because the trip wasn’t an unqualified disaster that I can justify writing it up at all.
We started out from Tokyo for the Kashiwaya onsen at Bessho onsen village, a lovely mountain town in Nagano Prefecture, requiring a couple hours on the bullet train and transfer to a more leisurely train to Bessho. Thrown off, however, by the town map, which confusingly listed some hot springs only in Japanese characters and others only in Romanized script, we ended up at the wrong onsen without realizing it, finding ourselves in sex-segregated indoor baths after being ushered into the separate changing rooms for males and females. That’s strange, I could have sworn the website indicated the existence of outdoor baths, at least one of which was mixed. I made what use of the tiny pool I could, which seemed very ordinary and was moreover not even large enough for me and the three other males present. When I emerged, I asked the lady at the entrance if this wasn’t in fact a designated mixed-sex resort. She confirmed we were in the wrong place and should have gone next door.
The right place was much nicer and more substantial, with a large elegant lobby. But before I was going to pay another entrance fee, I pulled out my laptop with the designated website page and accompanying pictures of the outdoor pool – three outdoor pools, in fact, one for men, one for women, and one mixed. The desk attendant confirmed we were at the Kashiwaya onsen, but very sorry to say, none of the outdoor baths were mixed-sex. It was evident from his even tone that he knew we had come for this, but his lack of English barred an explanation for the discrepancy, and my Japanese was no longer good enough (after a 20-year absence) to pursue one.
We didn’t want to take any more chances in this village and decided to head straight for the northern tip of Honshu, Aomori Prefecture, which boasted two famous dedicated mixed-sex hot springs, each within one or two hours of Aomori City, the huge indoor Sukayu onsen and the Aoni or “Lamp” onsen, which rejected electrical lighting for traditional oil lamps. Since it was already late afternoon, we opted to return to Tokyo, find a hotel, and head up north the next morning, doing one in the daytime and the other in the evening. What we should have done, it turned out, was head straight up north to find a hotel in Aomori. For by the time we got to Aomori City by noon the next day, the last bus of the day had already left for the Sukayu onsen and the last train had already left for the Aoni onsen. Our one consolation was that we had purchased a Japan Rail Pass for unlimited use of the bullet trains and other JR lines, providing us with some nice sightseeing as we ricocheted back and forth around northern Honshu.
Not wasting any more time, we headed back south, transferring at Morioka to Tazawako in Akita Prefecture. At the information center in Tazawako station, an exquisitely attentive woman helped us book a room at the Magoroku onsen in Nyuto or “Nipple” (after the shape of a nearby mountain) onsen village for $300 for the two of us. She also worked out for us exactly how to get to the Tsurunoyu onsen the next day for a day visit, when we suspected the most famous of the area’s mixed-bathing onsen would be at its most crowded. Running out of the station in the cold, the lady even saw us off to make sure we were on the right bus. It had tire chains and after much climbing along snowy mountain roads, dropped us at a remote stop where we were picked up by a car to take us to the onsen nearby. We were shown to our room, heated by a portable kerosene heater. The smell of the burning kerosene conjured up my old days living in a tatami house in the Wakayama countryside.
In the dining room ten or so men and, disconcertingly, no women joined us at dinner. After dinner we changed into yukata, the obligatory robes supplied in Japanese inns, and rubber boots provided in the entrance, and stepped through the snow into the changing cubicles of the mixed indoor pool. The indoor pool opened onto two outdoor pools, one that was too hot for either of us to deal with and the other just tolerable enough to stay submerged for a minutes before having to get out and patter back naked to the cooler indoor bath, careful not to slip on the wet rocks and wind up in the snow. The subzero temperature outside was not a problem once in the water. The scene was idyllic. The only thing missing was other guests. We were the only ones. Those guys were apparently saving their bathing for later in the evening, perhaps because a hot bath was not considered healthful immediately following a meal. Still, I would have thought they’d hasten up a bit to try to catch a peek of Chen. If not, I guessed this onsen might be too small to attract mixed-bathing enthusiasts, and those who came here did so for the sake of some male-bonding thing, not expecting any female visitors. After an hour, we quit and returned to our room.
We had better luck the next day at the Tsurunoyu onsen. To get there we got back on the same bus, which dropped us off at a visitor’s center not far away, to be picked up by a shuttle bus operated by the onsen. It was still morning and the arriving bus disgorged a large group of patrons who had spent the night, half of whom were female. While this onsen was much larger, the “six mixed outdoor baths” promised in the website turned out to be only one (there was one other outdoor bath for women only and several segregated indoor baths).
The layout of the mixed outdoor bath was interesting and requires some expounding, as its theatrical features bore more than passing resemblance to traditional Japanese dramatic venues. While not terribly large, it was big enough to accommodate perhaps 50 or more bathers under moderately crowded conditions. The pool area was entered by a path along one side and was open to view on either side of a covered stage-like platform, enabling visitors to assess what sort of a crowd was in the water before deciding to take the plunge or not. At the end of the path was a hut divided into male and female changing rooms. The male changing room opened onto one section of the pool, where one was completely exposed save for a hand towel as one dipped into the water; the female changing room opened onto another section nearby, which was partly veiled by rocks and an arbor-like structure resembling the gallery entrance to the stage in the Noh theater, known as the hashigakari or “bridgeway” (Figures 1 and 2):
Superficially, Kabuki first comes to mind when confronted with the layout of this bath, since any woman emerging into the pool if crowded would be surrounded by bathers on all sides as she made her way to the stage, much like the catwalk-like bridge in the Kabuki theater, known as the hanamichi or “flower path,” which cuts directly across the auditorium to the stage, with the audience arrayed on both sides for a close-up view of the performer proceeding along it. The gallery entrance in the Noh theater, on the other hand, joins the stage along the side of the auditorium, at greater remove from the audience (Figures 3 and 4). But despite the fact that the Kabuki hanamichi derived historically from the earlier Noh hashigakari, their respective purposes are completely different. The Kabuki walkway is extra-dramatic: it serves to spotlight the entrance of the most popular actor in a Kabuki play, suspending the action for a few moments so the actor can strut and preen to his applauding fans (who originally tossed flowers – hence “flower path”), before alighting the stage proper and resuming the action. (I don’t think many female visitors making their entrance in a mixed-bathing onsen are up to such a challenge.) By contrast, the main character entering in a Noh play seems to do so reluctantly, slowly making his way along the gallery by drawn-out increments, stopping at points as if to get his bearing, keeping his gaze straight ahead under the anonymous Noh mask, effectively obscuring himself until his forward trajectory on the main stage brings him before the audience. You can’t “see” him, even as his mask is a highly expressive vehicle of emotions in its subtle movements.
As usual, we got off to a bumbling start. There were laundry trays in the changing room for holding one’s clothes and articles, and a coin locker outside to keep valuables, which I didn’t notice until I had removed my clothes; nor did I have change for the locker. My belongings were probably not in danger but with essential items like my passport and wallet, I didn’t want to take chances. I got my clothes back on to run over to the main office for some change. Chen had already entered the pool and saw me dash across the entrance path. In a panic at being left alone with two other men already in the pool she yelled, “Where the hell are you going?!” She too went to get her clothes back on to figure out what I was up to, and then collected her valuables to put into the locker as well. We later discovered that one didn’t have to use the changing room at all. Some male patrons who had booked rooms at the onsen were scampering back and forth from the indoor to the outdoor pool stark naked and with their laundry tray in their arms, while other new male arrivals simply stepped off the entrance path and onto the stage to disrobe directly, placing their laundry tray on the stage bench in full view, obviating the need for the coin locker.
Both of us now finally ensconced in the pool, we were soon joined by more males and one other middle-aged female, who kept herself submerged up to the neck, her white hand towel draped over head, hiding her face like a Noh mask. It appeared she had second thoughts, as she never made it out of the hashigakari but retreated after a few minutes and was gone, not to return. I wondered if I had only imagined her, so fleeting was her performance.
The pool was comfortably hot, in fact not quite hot enough, but this enabled us to soak in it indefinitely without having to get out and take cooling-off breaks. We stayed for an hour, during which time the number of males grew to about 30, with some 20 in the pool by the time we left, others having recycled out earlier. Also during this time, eight women in three separate groups appeared in the entrance and made their way down the path, or audience viewing area rather, before disappearing into the changing hut. Great, the bath was about to experience greater sexual equality. However, each of the groups then suddenly reappeared back on the path and beat a hasty retreat, having also had second thoughts.
I found it odd that except for Chen all of the women who seemed to want to join in ended up getting cold feet. I mean, why make a show of arriving at all unless resolved to go through with it? Even Chen had her limits and, I have to admit, no matter how discreet their glances, severely disappointed the men in the pool by keeping her large breasts out of sight under the milky water (I certainly didn’t have a problem with her displaying them and she knew that). It’s very bad form to stare or gawk in the mixed-bathing onsen. Nevertheless, the prospect of the opposite sex’s beautiful naked body is the only reason why anyone ever ventures to these baths; they wouldn’t otherwise exist and sex-segregated baths would be sufficient for everyone’s purposes. And your fellow male bathers are indeed protesting their disappointment when they give up after twenty minutes and leave (more out of feeling depressed than impatient). The stark truth is the men do very much want to see your body. But you can see theirs too. Isn’t that fair enough? Well, Chen did compromise a bit later on, draping her wet hand towel around her neck so that the ends just covered the nipple of each breast as she sat up out of the water.
After giving the matter some thought I came up with three likely and not necessarily mutually exclusive theories to explain the reluctance of our would-be female participants.
1) They never had any intention of joining in but merely wanted to satisfy with their own eyes their mildly scandalized curiosity as to what the mixed-bathing pool looked like, before fleeing to the safety of the women-only pools. But since it’s rude to gawk, they made as if to join in by going all the way to the changing hut, pausing for a few seconds behind or inside it, and then retreating – designed to give those of us in the pool the more sympathetic impression that they had gotten cold feet.
2) They really did get cold feet. They had honestly wanted to give it a try but really didn’t know how they’d react until they were actually there, and then once they saw that the pool looked a bit smaller and more claustrophobic than they had imagined, they freaked. I guess we have to give them credit for making an honest go at it at all and wish them better luck next time.
3) They had made up their mind that they definitely would join in, but only on condition that there were enough fellow sisters present in the pool upon their arrival to make them feel safe and welcome. When they saw that the single woman present was outnumbered by a score of men – nope, sorry guys.
But this presents an intractable problem. There will never be enough women in these pools to satisfy such expectations. I call this the Mixed Bathing Law, formulated after I took another peak at the pool once we had gotten dressed and had some lunch as we waited for the shuttle bus to take us back. Most of the male bathers had gone and only two remained, just as when we had entered the pool, with of course no women present. The law works like this. When a female bather appears on the scene, male bathers quickly materialize out of nowhere. Their number can be expected to increase exponentially with the addition of each new female bather. Now, if you’re a potential female bather, would you rather share the pool with no other women and a mere two men or with two other women and 50 or 60 men? The best time to get into the pool is precisely when there are no other women present; you need to take advantage of this brief window of opportunity before the pool quickly fills up on account of your presence, or god forbid, another woman or two should join in and the number of males skyrocket uncontrollably.
The old Chinese bathhouse, circa 2000 (a rapidly evolving institution that is hard to keep up with)
The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks (starkly different attitudes toward coffee in these neighboring East-Asian countries)