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TRAVEL WATCH: OCTOBER 25, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 16

Offbeat Onsen Offer Tradition with a Twist

Illustration for TIME by Robin Chevalier

Cannonballing into an onsen while screaming "Last one in is a monkey's uncle" is a sure way to get a cold shoulder at Japan's hot baths. Magical restorative powers are attributed to these pools heated by warm, mineral-laden spring water, and the Japanese approach the experience with due reverence. The delights of onsen are tempered by unwritten rules. There is no feeling in the world like soaking your bones in the healing waters, and some simple etiquette will help novices enjoy the baths without upsetting fellow patrons. First, take the time to wash or shower before entering the shared bath. Once in, keep your towel out of the water. And finally, leave your shyness--and your swimming trunks--in the changing room.

Offbeat Onsen Offer Tradition with a Twist
Magical restorative powers are attributed to onsen, heated by warm, mineral-laden spring water, and the Japanese approach the experience with due reverence

South Korean artisans are resurrecting time-honored glazing and firing techniques in the Ichon Ceramics Village

Web Crawling
Condé Nast Traveler's revamped website now offers the same style of travel advice online

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Onsen are scattered throughout Japan, and many of the baths are close to ryokans, or traditional inns. Nozawa Onsen, in Nagano prefecture, is one of the oldest and most popular hot springs in Japan. Bathers enjoy a view of a ski hill from the outdoor pool. Contact the Nozawa tourist office at (81-269) 853-166. Many onsen are located in more rugged settings. One great journey is to the hills outside of Yonezawa, in Yamagata prefecture, four hours north of Tokyo by train. Just outside the small town are two onsens worth visiting. The first is Namegawa Onsen, about an hour and a half southwest of town. It has one coed outdoor bath, rotenburo, and two indoors: one for men, one for women. Just up the road is Ubayu Onsen; like many others, it has separate baths for men and women.

If you're traveling with kids, it's important to know that while children are welcome at most establishments, they too must follow the rules. This might not sound like your idea of family fun, but don't cross onsen off the vacation list just yet. Some holiday destinations offer onsen-style attractions without the conventions. These updates on tradition allow foreign families to enjoy the experience without the fear of upsetting other patrons' sensibilities.

Hotel Mikazuki, (81-470) 731-115, in Katsuura, about 90 minutes east of Tokyo by train, lures visitors with nearly 50 different types of indoor and outdoor baths. In the hotel's Aqua Palace, pools come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, including marble and the prized hinoki wood that adds a special scent to the bathing experience. Curiosity seekers can immerse themselves in coffee or sake, each of which, besides being tasty drinks, are claimed to impart salubrious effects on the skin. The "pent-bath" at the top of the eight-story building provides a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. Yutopia (yu means hot water) (81-460) 24-141, in Hakone, 80 km west of Tokyo, offers modern twists on the onsen concept, such as a steaming rock sauna inside a cave; a bath lined with magnetic rocks, which is good for stiff muscles; and the "supersonic" onsen, which will whirl you to health with jet-propelled water.

Further afield, Kenji World, (81-19) 695-3333, in northern Japan's Iwate prefecture, boasts a colossal onsen "beach" where warm water washes up on the shore (made of brownish soft board instead of sand). This indoor facility also includes a variety of smaller pools and jacuzzis with hot spring water. Spa Resort Hawaiians (81-246) 433-191, in Iwake city, about 90 minutes by train northeast of Tokyo, has an extensive outdoor onsen swimming pool surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus. The resort touts itself as a "comprehensive water park" that integrates regular swimming pools and the traditional hot springs.

Some onsen establishments cater to hot spring lovers who would rather be alone. Befitting Japan's growing respect for privacy, young families and couples are opting for hotels and inns featuring private baths. About half of the popular onsen establishments today set aside kashikiri, or bookable baths. Ranging from small to medium sized, these can be reserved for 30 minutes to an hour, or longer depending on the hotel. Booking is arranged at the time of reservation or upon arrival and usually requires no additional charge.

For a private audience with Mount Fuji, head to Resort Pension Marine Blue, (81-558) 942-062, in Shizuoka prefecture, three hours southwest of Tokyo. It offers exclusive baths with a view of the magnificent volcano. At Tokiwaya, a countryside ryokan in Shizuoka prefecture, lucky bathers can see dramatic sunsets over Toda Bay. Whether you go traditional or explore some of the more modern takes on the onsen experience, getting into hot water in Japan is good, clean fun.

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