I’m a fan of ukiyo-e, which are Japanese woodblock prints. The word ‘ukiyo-e’ translates into ‘pictures of the floating world’. And Nyuto onsen, that Nori and I visited near Tazawa-ko (Lake Tazawa), did seem to be floating on a mountain top. The steam from the sulfur hot springs was rising up out of ravines, pools and just cracks in the sidewalk. It seemed like our particular mountaintop was nestled in a cloud. Maybe a slightly stinky cloud, but a cloud.
We found the area, Nyuto Onsen on a website (my favorite for Japan trip planning: www.japan-guide.com). Few, if any, of the ryokans took reservations in English, so we asked our travel agent at JTB to help us make a reservation. The oldest ryokan was already booked, but we managed to get two nights in a similarly old, slightly smaller, less posh ryokan called Kuroyu (http://www.kuroyu.com/). Having been burned by a misleading website for Syohoen, and adding the fact that our bus up the mountain wouldn’t reach its destination until after dark, we asked the friendly staff of the Tazawa-ko Visitor Center to call ahead to Kuroyu and request that a shuttle meet us at the bus stop.
After an absolutely stunning sunset bus ride, and a very windy shuttle ride, we arrived at the steaming, almost sizzling (except for the snow on the ground) ryokan. This was a larger complex with several buildings. Our room actually consisted of two tatami-matted rooms, and a sink and en suite toilet. We were starving so requested an early dinner. The food did not disappoint, and I think this was my favorite food spot. There was a friendly couple seated near us who were from near Narita.
We had two nights booked here, so spent quite a bit of time in the baths. There were both indoor baths and outdoor baths. Kuroyu color coded the baths that were separate: red for women’s and blue for men’s. There was one mixed sex bath. But first, some guidelines:
In an onsen (hot springs) or public bath it is important that you wash before entering the bath. There is often a line of showers along one wall, with their respective stools and shampoo and soap (soap and shampoo is supplied nearly everywhere, at least, everywhere I’ve stayed in Japan, including the most inexpensive hostel). When you enter the bath area you leave your yukata, towel, any other clothes etc. outside, usually in a basket or locker (your slippers having been already left behind at an earlier point). Most baths are separated into the women’s bath and the men’s bath (though you should learn the kanji because they’re only sometimes color coded). **It is not allowed to take photos in the baths …sorry.**
So, on entering the main bath area, with your small modesty towel, head towards the showers. Flip a stool over to sit on and go to town getting clean. You’re sharing the hot bath water with everyone else, so be thorough. The modesty towel (narrower than our typical hand towels and much thinner) isn’t very useful for the purposes of modesty, so I just use it as a washcloth and then fold it and keep in on my head. It’s not okay for your modesty towel (or any cloth for that matter) to enter the bath, so people either keep them on their heads or rest on the side of the pool/bath somewhere.
If the water is very hot, there will be a tub/bowl to use to scoop water out of the bath and pour on your body to start to acclimate to the heat. Start with your feet and then slowly work up your legs. Then start with your hands and wrists and work up your arms. This gives your heart a chance to adjust to the temperature difference. Then slowly enter the bath. With really hot water you should only stay in the bath for 10 minutes, or 20 minutes for less hot water.
In the first onsen that Nori and I visited (in a ravine in Zao) the water was so hot that we had to sit outside for about 30 minutes while our heartbeats returned to normal and we felt safe walking back down towards the bus station. We probably stayed in the water too long.
Japan is not afflicted with the puritanical body shaming we go for in the West (particularly in America I suspect). There are different things to be modest, or shy, or embarrassed, about. They’ve gone to great lengths to provide privacy for all things related to the toilet. Not only do you have separate slippers for the toilet room, the toilets themselves are minor space ships, or robots, which all sorts of mechanisms for cleaning, and even sounds of music or rushing water to ‘cover up’ bathroom sounds. But nudity in baths? No big deal. Conversely Americans seem enamored of all things digestive-tract-related, and relish bathroom humor. But our bodies? For shame!
So because we are traveling, and trying to adapt to Japanese customs, we felt comfortable in the Japanese baths. But the mixed-sex bath at Kuroyu was another thing altogether. We debated the idea. It seemed like the most appealing of all the baths (best setting). And hell, the Japanese didn’t seem to care.
We poked our heads in the first night when no one was around, but I chickened out. Maybe tomorrow night. Maybe when it was a quiet time we’d try it out.
At dinner the first night there was only one other group of Westerners. We weren’t sure where they were from. At dinner the second night though, they sat all the Westerners together. There were six of us altogether; two couples and Nori and I. The first couple was from Sweden, and the second lived in DC, but he was from Spain and she was from ….oh I’ve forgotten but I think maybe the Marquesas? All four seemed to be between the ages of 25-30.
After dinner I felt differently about the mixed bath. It was one thing to run into random Japanese men you could hardly communicate with, it was quite another thing to encounter four equally awkward Westerners in the nude who you would probably be sharing breakfast with the next day. Maybe more sake would have helped. But both Nori and I bailed on the idea of the mixed bath.