Sunday, February 6, 2011

Onsen [hot spring] in winter

Yesterday, Sunday, I was invited to visit the Jozankei hot springs with Amanda, an English teacher in Sapporo whom I met via TripAdvisor online –not because I needed an English teacher, but because I had asked for advice on shopping and skiing when I first arrived in Sapporo. Amanda has lived in Sapporo now for about 15 years; she hails from London. She met me at Minami Hiragishi subway stop, near her home, and drove us to Jozankei, southeast of town. She had picked a hot spring “spa” that was more out toward the edge of the large complex at Jozankei (with many hotels), and one that had a good curry kitchen. Curry is popular in Japan, and this kitchen had Indian chefs and an oven for naan.

The word for hot springs/baths in Japanese is “onsen.” Of course, hot springs are abundant in Japan (as in Kamchatka), and made most famous by the “snow monkey” or Japanese macaque. There are no snow monkeys on Hokkaido (we have brown bears, instead), but Macaca fuscata (Nihonzaru) are the most northern-living primate outside of humans, with their range extending to northern Honshu. They wash their food, make snowballs, and like to take hot baths together.

I had been before to onsen associated with hotels, but never to one outdoors. I’d been to quite a few outdoors, though, on Kamchatka in past years—from developed to out in the wild-- and the basics are the same, though the ones at Paratunka near Petropavlovsk didn’t have beer ads starring Ichiro…

I didn’t take many pictures because bathing is in the nude (and steamy, of course). Bathing was co-ed until Americans pretty much put a stop to the practice during their occupation after WWII.

So we entered the complex and immediately removed our shoes. The floors are clean and dry, so we didn’t need slippers, just socks till we entered the inner bath complex. We paid 1000 yen each (about $12 right now), and I bought a little towel for 210 yen --Amanda had told me to bring a towel, and I brought a larger one, but it’s customary also to have a small one with you as you bathe (but keep it on your head or otherwise out of the common bath).

We entered the women’s half of the baths, picked up baskets and stripped down amongst numbers of Japanese women of different shapes and sizes, but mostly more diminutive than we. The next step is to wash – you don’t wash in the hot baths, you wash first at a sitting shower/bath so that you come clean into the common bath. They provide shampoo and body soap, as well as warm water, of course.

Then we entered an inner bath – it was rectangular, with steps so that you could sit shallow or deep. It was hot. The water poured out over the edge and was depositing minerals along the sides. After we soaked there awhile, chatting and warming up, we went outside to the outer pool, with rocky edges, some rocks and ledges in the center, and surrounded by step, snowy slopes. Beautiful. There were plenty of shelves and crannies to sit on/in, and several clusters of women soaking and chatting. We could hear but not see the men on the other side of the building. One woman came out of the pool on the edge and started to make a snowball. It turned into a miniature snowman. I didn’t see evidence that anyone had rolled in the snow, though, and I didn’t try. The water was quite warm, but you could sit high or low to maintain comfort, and we spent quite awhile there. But we were timeless, and finally our hunger and the smell of curry drew us back in.

Amanda is fluent in Japanese, but for the likes of me they had pictures of the food offerings so I could have managed. I ordered a vegetable curry, Amanda a chicken curry, plus a blueberry naan, and I wanted rice --we didn’t quite realize that along with each of our orders also came a huge naan! Plus I ordered a draft beer, and Amanda, who was driving, an alcohol-free beer. It seemed like a lot of food when it came out, but we polished it all off, sitting with a lovely view of the snow-covered hillside, the mineral-rich hot water flowing down through and leaving red and yellow stains. That’s the one view I took from inside.

Our lunch was leisurely, and then Amanda took a different route back, through some of the local orchards. She dropped me at the same subway stop, and as I rode north, I debated whether to stop in the center of town on my way home and 1) buy decaf because it’s hard to find, and I was out (I mix half and half so I can have strong flavor without heart palpitations), and 2) check out the snow sculptures. I did decide to get out at Odori Park, and that’s another blog on the Snow Festival.


  1. Those hot springs look wonderful. The beautiful, yet freezing winter weather is a great stage for one to relax and rejuvenate in the comforts of warm water. Also, the monkeys seem like an interesting sight for first timers. Heheh, they know their stuff - when it's cold outside, it's best to stay somewhere warm and comfy.

    Shanae Buckner

  2. I put in pictures of snow monkeys for amusement, but THERE ARE NO SNOW MONKEYS ON HOKKAIDO, only on Honshu to the south.