Normally people have to know me pretty well before they get to see me naked. I’d heard about these onsen baths in Japan where people take off their clothes and clinch big business deals while sitting in hot water. But modesty, fear of making etiquette gaffes and my sad lack of interest in merchant banking had prevented me from visiting one.
Until I had Tokyo resident Wouter to take me there. He’s a librarian, so of course knows everything, and what he doesn’t know he can look up. Now I’m an onsen expert, keen to share my intimate knowledge with others.
There are hundreds of onsen in Japan, many of them in lovely rustic locations, with full accommodation and dining available. To find the one in the Jindaiji district in western Tokyo, you slipstream Wouter on a short but pulse-quickening bicycle ride from his house, over the train tracks, down some back alleys, across several sets of traffic lights, past the service station and along the laneway behind the shops.
The Yukari Onsen isn’t much to look at from the outside; a small traditional-style building with a bike rack by the gate. The inside is nicer, designed on feng shui principles with New Age decor.
Step in through the door and attempt to remove your shoes. You may wish that you hadn’t tied the laces in tight triple knots to avoid catching them in your bike chain. Rip your shoes off by brute force, then cram your western-size footwear into the Japanese-size locker by the door. Take your locker key to the front counter.
Greet the smiling attendants with a slight bow. They will ask whether you’re staying for an hour or all day. ‘All day’ means anything over an hour, and since it costs very little extra, it’s the better deal. They give you another locker key, as well as a big green towel, a little green towel and a folded green judo suit. Bow to the attendants again, just to be on the safe side.
Proceed through to the change rooms. Turn left if you’re male, right if you’re female. [Note: getting this part wrong is a serious mistake.]
In the change room, undress completely. Don’t worry, everyone’s doing it and some people are even flabbier than you are. Leave your clothes, big towel and judo suit in the locker, attach the key to your wristband and bring the little green towel with you.
Pass through the door with the steam belching out of it. Use a bamboo dipper to sluice warm water from a barrel over your hands, then cross to where people are squatting on low wooden stools looking at themselves in mirrors.
In front of you are a tap, a shower hose and three plastic bottles. One contains black shampoo, another nearly black hair conditioner and the third very black shower gel. Wash yourself for a long time, ostentatiously using gunk from all three bottles. Everyone else wants you super clean before you share their bathwater.
Next it’s outside to the onsen proper. The baths are sex-segregated, surrounded by high walls, trees and fake antique water wheel, and in our bath men and boys of all ages lounge in steaming water.
Stripped to their bare essentials it’s impossible to determine who’s the CEO of Mitsubishi and who can’t afford a car. The only way to express your individuality here is through your little green towel. You can drape it modestly over your nether regions, plonk it on your bald patch, or knot it around your head Rambo-style, as one muscular chap has chosen to do.
The water is murky brown. This is a good sign, according to Wouter. Brown water means that this is a genuine onsen, rather than a sento – an ordinary public bathhouse using heated tap water. A true Tokyo onsen should have ‘fossil water’ full of the health-giving silicate and borates it has collected as it percolated to the surface from its underground source.
You have a choice of pools. There’s the cave pool, with gentle lighting and hidden jets squirting water into your undercarriage. There’s a glasshouse with a circular herb bath. There’s a wooden tub just big enough for two bathers to share if they’re very good friends. Feel free to move round and try them all.
It’s hard to see the bottom, though it’s only a metre or so below the surface. The water is hot, 40 degrees according to the temperature gauges, and I found myself a little light-headed after half an hour. However, you can escape from time to time by sitting on the edge of the bath, and if you think your heart will stand the shock there’s a cold plunge pool.
Do not run, bomb or do bellyflops. There are no signs specifically banning these enjoyable activities, but I bet they’re frowned on. This is a place of rest and contemplation and there is little talk. Nobody seems to be buying or selling banks.
If you’re ready for a break, go back to your locker, dry yourself with the big green towel and put on your green judo suit, then head to the small cafe for a bowl of noodles. The womenfolk are already there, looking clean, fresh and fetching in their pink versions of our judo suits.
After this you could strip off and flop back into the onsen pool, maybe enjoy a massage or sweat off those excellent noodles in the sauna.
Finally you dress again, dump your towels and judo suit in the bin provided and pay the bill, possibly also buying a souvenir bottle of black shampoo. Slip your toes into your shoes and step outside. You’ve never felt so clean, refreshed and relaxed. Then bend down to have another crack at untying those knotted laces.
Free shuttle buses to Jindaiji Onsen Yukari run each hour from Musashi-Sakai Station on the JR Chuo line. Regular bus services also run from Kichijoji and Mikata Stations (20 min).
Jindaiji Onsen Yukari is open daily from 8.00 – 22.00.
Entry: Y1500 per person, (noodles Y600 extra)