JIN-369 -- An Oita Sea-Change

J@pan Inc Magazine Presents:

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 369
Wednesday May 24, 2006 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: An Oita Sea-Change

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This week's JIN is by J@pan Inc. staff writer Willhemina Wahlin.
-- Editor

@@ VIEWPOINT: An Oita Sea-Change

On a recent trip to Oita Prefecture, on Kyushu Island, for Golden Week,
my husband's parents booked us into an "onsen" (hot spring) hotel in the
mountains just outside Oita City. After a quiet afternoon nap, I was the
first to wake and make my way down to the bathhouse, where I found steam
rooms, saunas and a variety of tubs, one even filled with roses of every
color. Just when I was thinking that a girl could get used to this kind
of indulgence, I was off for a 10-course meal, meticulously laid out on
small plates. Most definitely, this is one of my favourite parts of
Japanese culture.

Next we went to stay with my husband's aunt in Hita, also in Oita
Prefecture. "Do you want to go to the onsen?" she asked after dinner.
Feeling a little onsen-ed out (if there is such a thing), I was hesitant,
until my husband pointed out it was a PRIVATE onsen - for friends only.

Now that's what I'm talking about.

The whole extended family, holding bunches of towels, beaming flashlights
at the the pitch-black roadway, wound their way down to the paddock. A
while back my husband's aunt had sold the land to some farmers who wanted
to dig for hot springs. They had since made two baths, one for women, one
for men, and while I would have been happy with a hole in the ground under
the stars, this makeshift shack had just about everything, complete with
a small room for watching TV while sipping shochu and munching on the
obligatory snacks. In fact, a telephone and a takeout menu was all they
needed to make it a permanent residence.

Opening the roughly hewn plywood door to the bathhouse, I found a sky-blue
concrete tub. No roses, no 10-course meal, but when my skin hit the water,
I first realized what the onsen hype is really about. The manky-smelling,
mineral-rich water assured us it was the real McCoy, while the family
matriarch showed me how to use the scrubbing brush... ouch!

The benefits of a real onsen astounded me. For someone who gets
dermatitis at the smell of a spoaped washcloth, I literally walked from
this bath with perfect skin. (Ok, it might have been the scrubbing brush,
too.) For days afterwards my husband and I, wide-eyed, kept raving about
the waters and touching our skin as if a miracle had been performed.
The most humble of onsens had wrought a sea-change.

Since then, back in Tokyo, my skin has been dried out by the
overly treated water. If ever there was a business out there (and I'm
not suggesting you steal our secret onsen), then bottling this water is
IT! If I could get that water here, I would never need moisturizers again!
Maybe a little letter to the matriarch would result in a bottle or two
arriving in the post....

The "ryokan," or traditional Japanese inn, started to flounder in popularity
in the last few years, owing to a number of industry gaffes, such as
the Legionnaires' Disease outbreak at onsen in Miyazaki Prefecture in 2002,
and the discovery in 2004 of widespread dilution of hot spring water with tap
water. Certainly once you have been to a "real" onsen, it makes you wonder
what the point would be to have a dip in the equivalent of people soup.
This wasn't helped by the bursting of the bubble economy either: with the
average ryokan costing a family around 200,000 yen for an overnight stay,
it was bound to follow the economy's nose dive sooner or later.

But the onsen being to Japanese what fish is to an Eskimo, it was only a
matter of time before it had a resurgence in popularity. Helping to bring
people back to the bath is the emergence of the "higeari onsen," which
bridges the gap between the "super sento" ("do you want fries with that?")
and the more luxurious but time-consuming ryokan. Higeari onsen endeavour
to join the traditional "sabi" features of texture, colour, style and
ambiance with a reasonable price tag, and are usually located close enough
to the city limits to be easily accessible for even the most time-pressed
city dweller. The average cost of a higaeri onsen will set you back around
900-1500 yen, depending on the time and day of the week, with some having
no time limit for week-day visits.

While I must apologise for not revealing the location of our
humble-but-super-onsen headquarters, I urge you to try this very special
and therapeutic national pastime for yourself. The Oita waters left my
skin glowing and restored me to the pink of health. For all her flaming
lava and shifting plates, the land of Japan gives back a great deal to
her adoring population.

-- Willhemina Wahlin

SUBSCRIBERS: 31,552 as of May 23, 2006

Writen by Willhemina Wahlin
Edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)


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