Onsen 温泉

I love Japan. It’s the country of my late teens and early 20s, whose language I spent so many years mastering (how disappointed I am to now be so out of practice, but that’s another story). One thing about daily life in Japan that is sorely lacking in Hong Kong is the everyday beauty. Food so beautifully presented it seems a crime to eat; serene gardens, often housing shrines or temples, chanced upon in mundane streets; the attention to detail evident even in the packaging of one’s purchases even at a 7-11.

Another thing I love is the onsen (hot springs) culture. To me, there is nothing more relaxing than soaking in a tub of piping hot mineral-charged water, preferably outdoors. My first onsen experience was when I was 18 or 19, in Kagoshima, southern Kyushu. My very first overseas adventure, an antipodean travelling alone. It was February, still a bit chilly, and it was an outdoor onsen overlooking the volatile, volcanic Sakurajima across the sea. Absolutely stunning. I was hooked. As it was also a shrine, men and women bathing there wore yukata for modesty. A nice introduction, but these days bathing naked around a bunch of strangers doesn’t bother me one single bit (and bathers are usually segregated by gender).

The onsen and shrine

The clarity I’ve gained sitting in onsens is remarkable, and has framed part of my time in Hong Kong, especially at the start, dealing with the reality of a job very different to what I’d left my home country for. Last May, in Osaka, I visited the hotel onsen a couple of times a day and I loved how each day I would find a new seasonal element to the onsen, such as reeds. One day, I arrived to find oranges (possibly yuzu – Japanese citrus) floating in the onsen, something I’d never come across before. The citrus fragrance infused the water and the gentle bobbing of the oranges/yuzu in the half light was mesmorising. It was there that I came to terms with the shock that had been coming to Hong Kong to work in such a dysfunctional workplace, and also where I gained the clarity to devise a way to deal with it.


In Hokkaido recently, at a wonderful hot springs town called Yunokawa, I bathed outside, in an iron tub filled with bronze-coloured water supposedly full of healing properties. Just outside the hotel which housed several different onsens, including this wonderful tub, was a beach– I could hear the seagulls skwarking and could smell the fresh sea air. It was late winter, and that salty air was icy cold, the perfect contrast to the boiling tub. I had the space all to myself, and I’m glad I didn’t have to hide my big, dumb grin and look of awe at such a perfect moment. I really had to drag myself away from that tub and head back to reality. It was there that I also spent a few minutes pondering my delicious dilemma– which good job to choose? I had received two offers within a few hours of stepping foot in Japan.

This picture doesn’t do this tub justice!

I’ve heard Taiwan has comparable onsens, and being only a short hop from Hong Kong, I have considered going. But the likelihood of being pissed off by mainland tour groups, surely the world’s worst tourists, deters me. I’ll just have to wait until Christmas to explore some low-key, out of the way onsens in rural Kyushu.


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