Minami Alps City is in Yamaguchi Prefecture, bordering Mt. Fuji. There are heaps of onsens (hot springs) in the area from all the volcanic activity. Our host has tried many onsens in his lifetime, and decided that the very best in all of Japan was the one right up the road from his farm.
“What makes a good onsen to you?” he asked us one day. “Cleanliness, water temperature, aesthetics, variety in pool styles,” I answered. He nodded knowingly, then explained that those were the things amateur onsen goers look for. They are nice, yes, but the most important quality of an onsen is its water. What kind of minerals are in the water? What is the pH level? How direct is the source? Cloudy water is a good sign of minerals, and you should be looking for high alkaline water. Some people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars digging a well to connect a hot spring source to their fancy hotel when others can get the water spraying straight out of the ground.
The onsen up the road had all of the best qualities. You can tell because when you enter the water with aches and pains, you leave without them. He told a story of an old woman in the town who had an undiagnosed illness. Her family brought her to all sorts of doctors to try to find a cure, but no one was able to do her any good. One person suggested taking her to this onsen as a kind of treatment. She was too bedridden for this, so the family carried water from the onsen to her for her baths. She soon began to feel well enough to move about, and traveled to the onsen daily now for a soak. Whatever had been ailing her was gone, and she soon returned to normal.
Mr. K told us all this as we drove out to the onsen, towels and fresh clothes in hand. When we arrived, it was closed. After all this buildup, I was disappointed. Not to worry, though, there were plenty of onsens in town. We continued driving on into night and stopped at a big hotel built into the mountainside. This one was closed, too. Not to be deterred, Mr. K went in and talked with the owner, who happened to be a friend of his. He came back out and said we were cleared. Would we like an indoor or outdoor bath? Outdoor was the obvious choice, as it’s more pictureesque. The owner led us up on a maze through the hotel corridors, turning on lights as she went. “Please turn off the lights and lock the doors on your return,” she requested.
I went into the female bath with my fellow volunteers, three Malaysian girls who had never been to an onsen before. It was my job to explain the steps. The first room you enter is the changing room. It has baskets to place your clothes, a toilet area, sinks, and blowdryers. You get two towels. One for drying yourself, and one for scrubbing and covering yourself in the bath area. This one is the size of an elongated hand towel. You strip out of all your clothes, then enter the bath area and do a thorough wash at one of the showerheads. Only when you are pink and squeaky clean are you allowed to enter the actual onsen and soak to your heart’s content. Or, as is usual in my case, until dehydration forces you out. Onsen customs are always awkward to get used to the first few times. But after you’ve shared the water with old women, kids, and and all ages in between, it becomes easier to appreciate bodies as something everyone shares, more or less the same but with differing shapes and sizes.
When we met Mr. K in the lobby, he wanted to know what we thought of the onsen. “It was nice, but not quite warm enough to balance the cold air,” I explained. “No, the water quality!” We were undecided, but didn’t think it had too much effect on our sore muscles. “That’s because you didn’t try the best onsen yet.” I will have to plan a return trip someday, because I never did make it to that one.