Bathing with Samurai: A Shibu Onsen Experience

We boarded the train to Yudanaka Station as daylight waned. Unlike the nimble Shinkansen, the “SNOW MONKEY” train feigned a futuristic design from an old Bond film, high-tech in a Jetsons sort of way. It creaked and swayed through mountain passes before pulling into a tiny station where a lone man stood on the platform.

“Paul?” he queried.

“Yes.”

 “Come.”

We drove through the quaint mountain village of Yamanouchi, which is part of the Japanese “Alps” in Nagano Prefecture. During winter months, tourists flock to Yamanouchi to watch snow monkeys bathe blissfully in natural hot springs, but we were several weeks early to see monkeys, so Julia’s and my plan was to stay at a traditional ryokan (Japanese guest house) and visit Shibu Onsen. We arrived at Suminoyu ryokan and were greeted by a graceful, middle-aged woman adorned in an ornate floral kimono, who instructed us to remove our shoes and wear the slippers provided. She sat us in front of two steaming cups of matcha then floated away. Moments later, one of the managers sat with us, handed us a pamphlet, and started explaining Shibu Onsen.

“Shibu Onsen is one of the oldest onsen in Japan,” she said. “It has existed for 1300 years and has been visited by feudal lords and even samurai.”

“Samurai,” I blurted, “Whoa, I’m going to be bathing in the same place as samurai.”

“Let her finish.” Julia said with a hint of eye-roll.

“There are nine baths in total and each has a specific health benefit. Number 9 is the only public bath, but anyone staying at a ryokan gets a master key to visit all of them, just know that after 10:00 pm onsen are reserved for Japanese only. Getas and yukatas are available for you to borrow and if you wish you can purchase a commemorative towel.”

“What’s that for?” Julia asked.

“At each bath you will see an ink stamp. Once you have visited the bath, stamp the corresponding number on the towel.”

She pointed at a white cloth hanging from the wall. It was adorned with beautiful kanji and numbered 1 to 9 from right to left. “When you have all nine stamps, proceed to the temple for the final stamp in the middle; after that, make a wish and it is sure to come true.”

“No problem,” I said, smirking to Julia, “This will be the easiest million dollars I earn.”

We booked our dinner reservation then decided to visit Suminoyu’s rooftop onsen. This was a good opportunity to practice onsen etiquette. Bathing is not just about cleansing, but, like many activities in Japan, it’s also a ritual. The first thing to know is that bathing is always done naked, so baths are segregated. Tattoos are strictly forbidden, as they are associated with organized crime, so North American hipsters should consider friendlier confines, like Tahiti. Tattoos were not an issue for me, and fortunately this rule didn’t apply to chest, back, or shoulder hair or I would have been bathing with the monkeys. Before entering the bath, kneel beside the tub, grab a plastic pail, dip it into the water, then pour it over yourself, making sure not to splash anyone else. Finally, while it’s okay to carry a small towel into the bath, fold it and carry on the top of your head or in front of your dangly bits, but never use it in the bath itself.

I slid open the glass door then walked into a wiener-coloured room that smelled strongly of minerals. I nodded at another man in the tub then carefully followed the routine before entering the warm, cloudy water.

“Oh yeah.” I mumbled.

After a few minutes, I walked outside to the rooftop pool overlooking Yamanouchi. I eased myself into the water up to my chin then gazed towards a spackle of street lights under a full moon that painted luminescent white on the sides of distant mountains. To my right was a gently lit Zen garden and to my left a bamboo wall separating the men’s and women’s baths. It was pure Utopia; I could have stayed there for several hours, but after twenty minutes, four Japanese men arrived and glared at me disappointedly. It was obvious the bath wasn’t big enough for five and my bloated Western torso disperses twice as much liquid as the average Japanese man. I nodded and retreated to the indoor bath, then met Julia for dinner. We turned in early to prepare for a busy day of relaxation.

After breakfast we returned to the lobby, requested an onsen key then fitted ourselves with yukatas (floral patterned robes) and getas (wooden clogs). Back in the room we stripped down, put our towels into wicker baskets, then clip-clopped out the door like a parade of tiny ponies, with bath number 1 squarely in our sights.

“Here it is!” I announced. “Read what it says.”

“It’s called Hatsu-yu and it’s good for stomach and intestinal ailments.”

“Great, this is exactly what I need!”

I unlocked the door to let Julia into the ladies’ bath, then I entered into a small change room with about a dozen cubicles. The wall separating both sides was only a few metres high so it was easy to converse.

“Paul, is that you?”

“Yep.”

“Are you alone?”

“Yep. You?”

“Yep”

Perfect! Our Shibu Onsen experience wasn’t going to be shared by a gaggle of offended locals. What if I splashed someone? What if back hair really was ‘A THING?’ I took off my getas and placed them near the door, then disrobed, folding my yukata and placing it in my basket then sliding the basket into a cubicle. I turned to the sliding glass door, looked up and saw an angled stone chimney with steam billowing up then getting whisked away by a faint breeze. I slid the door open and walked into a wooden-planked room with a rectangular tub; a bamboo pipe extended from the wall dribbling cloudy, pungent water, and beside that, a brass spigot. The pictogram suggested adding water from the spigot if the bath was too hot, but I figured I should test the water first. I stepped onto the wooden seat, with water halfway up my calves then oddest sensation came over me. It wasn’t serenity, nor mindfulness; it was scalding heat.

“Holy Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” I yelled as I danced out of the water.

“What’s going on over there?” Julia called out.

“Oh God, it’s too fuuuuu… ah, ah, ah, it just splashed my foot!”

“I’m fine. I’m sitting in the water.”

“You’re in the water?” I gasped.

I was confused and a little humiliated that I couldn’t get in; mind over matter and keep chanting my mantra: “balloon ball.” I calmly walked to the tub edge, whispered “balloon ball” then gingerly stepped back in.

“HELL NO! Holy shit… That’s too fucking hot!” I cursed. “Cold water, I’ll add cold water.”

I opened the spigot and lukewarm water blasted out, sending searing tub water sloshing over my feet then felt paralyzed as the tsunami passed within millimeters of my exposed scrotum. I retreated and ran the cold water for several minutes before trying again.

“Nope!” I called out to Julia.

“Don’t forget about your million dollars,” she replied. “At least pour some water on yourself.”

I took one of the pails, filled it half with cool water and half with tub water then dumped it over myself, gasping and kneeling in stunned silence, mouth agape.

“I’ll meet you back outside!” I yelled.

I showed Julia my legs, which looked like they had been dipped in red paint. “I took one for my intestines, but my feet got the worst of it.” I said heroically.

“Mine was totally fine,” Julia said. “You’re just a wimp.”

We stamped our commemorative towel, then walked to number 2: Sasa-no-yu, good for skin conditions.

“Perfect!” I said, “This is just what I need.”

I got changed, then as I was about to walk through the glass doors, I heard Julia say, “Mine looks really steamy.”

“Mine too.” I said walking into a cream-coloured tiled room.

I dipped my toe into the water and it felt like a blow-torch licking my skin.

“Nope!” I yelled. “I’m not doing it.”

“Me neither,” I heard in response “Wow, it’s way too hot.”

Moments later we met back on the cobblestone street.

“Seriously, I could have cooked ramen noodles in there.” I said sarcastically.

“I think dipping my toe in was good enough. Okay, on to number 3.”

Things started looking up: 3, 4, and 5 were all okay and we spent about fifteen minutes in each, but then we got to 6. The pamphlet said it was good for eye disease, so given that Julia had developed a stye a week before going to Japan, this was the one onsen she really needed. I was able to wade in immediately, but the news was not good on the other side of the wall. I heard screeching and wailing, followed by, “can’t do it, nope, can’t do it.”

“You’re such a wimp,” I yelled back. “Give me a few minutes!”

“Ahhhhhhhh…” I heaved as I sunk into the water up to my neck. I closed my eyes and splashed some warm, hazy water over them.

“Meet you outside!” I heard from over the wall.

We moved on to number 7, which was good for both of us, then arrived at number 8, Shinmeidaki-no-yu, for “women’s health issues.” I wasn’t entirely sure if it applied to me, but it didn’t matter because neither of us could get into the water, a splash would have to suffice. I grew to appreciate why samurai visited Shibu Onsen, bathing in these waters must have made them impervious to pain.

We arrived at 9, the public bath, called O-yu, which was twice the size and had a natural steam room. We spent about a half hour of sublime euphoria at O-yu then met outside and applied the second last stamp. We could see the temple up a steep staircase that proved difficult to negotiate in getas. I had to step sideways or risk tumbling backwards. Halfway up we stopped to rest and pray at a small shrine then heard disturbing noises down below. An ancient woman, bent from osteoporosis and wearing a black shawl half covering her shaved head, started walking up the stairs, sweeping leaves off the steps, mumbling loudly to herself, and breathing heavily.

“She’s not going to make it.” I said.

We walked around the shrine, clanged the gong, and said our prayers. Mine was something like, “Buddha, if you give me a million dollars, I’ll never ask for anything again.”

The old woman’s mumbling kept getting louder, so we continued up the stairs until we arrived at the top. We paused to listen, but could only hear rustling leaves and chirping birds.

“She either went back down or died and is draped over the railing. Come on, I think the temple is up here.” I said pointing towards a well-worn pathway.

“No!”

We turned around startled. The old woman was standing right behind us as if appearing by transporter.

“Monkeys,” she said, her eyes bulging like a lemur, her voice quivering.

“Monkeys there?” I asked, pointing up the path.

“Monkeys! Not safe!” she said ominously.

She pointed a bony finger back down the stairs.

“Go!” she intoned.

“Okay, ah… Arigato.”

We climbed back down as the old woman continued mumbling and sweeping at the top of the staircase. I turned to Julia.

“If it’s that dangerous, why is she still up there… alone?”

We stopped at the base of the staircase and looked at our towel. There was a glaring empty space for the final stamp. Perhaps the onsen for mental conditions was laced with hallucinogens, or perhaps the old woman was a wraith, the ghost of an ancient samurai, but then I realized that she was sitting on the temple steps, laughing, and counting my million dollars.

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