GETTING THERE: The most economical way to get to Kyoto is to fly to Osaka and get a train from there. All Nippon Airways flies from Dulles to Osaka via Tokyo for $1,087, a bit more expensive but a few hours' less travel than the $1,008 flight United offers from Dulles or Baltimore with a stop in Chicago. From Osaka, it's a 25-mile trip to Kyoto; the train takes as little as 45 minutes without stops, for about $13.50 each way.
FINDING AN ONSEN: The Japanese National Tourist Organization Web site, www.jnto.go.jp/eng/TD, has a partial list of onsen (natural hot springs). Click on "Hot Springs" in the left-hand menu. A more comprehensive list can be found at Outdoor Japan, www.outdoorjapan.com/section-onsen.html. Not all onsen are attached to ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), but many are. An easy-to-browse site, japaneseguesthouses.com/db/nasu/omaru.htm, can help you locate a ryokan with onsen and book a reservation. The Japanese tourism site also has links to detailed Web sites on Osaka and Kyoto, as well as rail service.
KURAMA ONSEN: Kurama Onsen (520 Kurama Honmachi, Sakyo-ku Kyoto-shi, 011-81-75-741-2131) is about 121/2 miles north of Kyoto. From Kyoto's Demachi-Yanagi train station, take the Eizan railway to the last stop, Kurama -- an hour-long trip costing about $3.75 one way. There is a free shuttle to the onsen from the train station. Rates run from about $140 to $180 per person per night, depending on the number of people and the meal you choose, and include two meals per day and unlimited soaks.
ONSEN ETIQUETTE: "Skinship" is central to onsen, which means putting aside the rigid social hierarchy through communal nudity. Once onsen were not segregated by sex, although most are now. Many will make special arrangements for a family to soak together. A few rules to observe:
* Leave your blue robes in the cubbyholes before entering the bathing area.
* Wash thoroughly before entering the bath. Bathe seated, using the hand showers and basins provided, making certain to get all of the soap off before entering the communal bath.
* Drinking is generally frowned upon in most onsen, but some are lax about it. Guests sometimes risk bringing sake, which is kept heated by the onsen water. Be careful -- drunkenness will get you expelled from the onsen.
* After your soak, wash again and savor that rubbery-limbed relaxed feeling.
-- Roy Furchgott