The July days in Japan were so hot that when my shirts finally dried at night, salts from my perspiration left behind white tie-dye patterns. By dinnertime I looked like a wilted Grateful Dead fan. So I couldn't blame my buddy Joshua for cocking an eyebrow when I insisted that just the thing to wash away the grit of Kyoto sightseeing was an onsen -- a bath in natural hot springs. Who wants to loll in steaming water when it's 100 degrees out?
Here's who: anyone eager for a look at the traditions of old Japan; anyone who wants to experience the country's noted but sometimes hard-to-find hospitality; and anyone eager to eat some exotic Japanese cuisine.
Onsen are not the same thing as the communal baths called sento. One distinction is that onsen get their water from mineral springs heated by underground volcanic action. Another is that generally they are more like a spa, usually attached to a ryokan, a Japanese-style guesthouse. And many also offer meals of traditional local gourmet fare. Onsen are experiencing a resurgence as a new generation of Japanese seek to escape workweek tension and rediscover some of the traditions that have fallen by the wayside in Westernized cities.
By some counts, there are more than 2,000 hot springs in Japan, spread through every district. However, onsen can vary greatly in cost and luxury. Some are attached to lush resorts; others are just rustic pools in the hills. Some tout their food, some the healing powers of the water, said to remedy such ailments as eczema and rheumatism.
We settled on the Kurama onsen near Kyoto. At about $170 a night (including meals), it was within our budget. Getting there was easy. At Kyoto's Demachi-Yanagi train station, we bought a $3.70 ticket for the Eizan railway's last stop, Kurama Station, about 45 minutes away.
While the Kurama onsen claimed to be in "rural Kyoto," as our train passed one seedy urban neighborhood after another, we began to wonder how bucolic it would be. But near the end of the line, trees gradually supplanted houses until we were chugging up forested hills.
At Kurama Station, we were first greeted by a 12-foot-high mask on a pedestal -- a leering red face with a prodigious nose. It depicted a tengu, a spirit believed to walk the hills, sometimes playing nasty tricks on the locals. Legend holds that the tears of the tengu are the source of the hot springs. Our second greeter was a uniformed driver with a shuttle bus to the onsen, who had been waiting for us, although we had not set an arrival time when we booked. The van took us past Kurama's small markets and a shrine, alongside a river to the onsen.
At first glance, the onsen's charm escaped us: Instead of pagoda-style architecture, it had a nearly institutional-looking main building that housed five guest rooms. But any disappointment was put aside when we were met at the door by a manager and a woman in an elaborate traditional kimono. They took our shoes and bags and led us to our room. It was spacious and traditional in its simple wood appointments and carpet of woven tatami mats, with a low table, floor pillows and even a pair of Western-style chairs and a small table.
Our beds, pillowy futons, would be rolled out on the floor for us while we were at dinner, only to disappear again while we were at breakfast. Built-in storage was neat, compact and as efficiently organized as a boat. The room had a pleasant fragrance of fresh-mown hay -- from the tatamis -- and cedar. While green tea was served, our hosts explained in broken English the rules of the onsen and issued us each a lightweight blue cotton kimono, called a yukata, which would be our sole attire for the length of our stay.
We put on our yukata, wondering if we had tied the obi (sash) correctly, slid on the slippers provided and ventured out past a small garden up stone steps in hillside shade to the outdoor hot spring, called a rotenburo. There is an indoor facility inclement bad weather.
We weren't sure we had correctly understood our etiquette instructions and were eager not to offend. I had read that some drunken sailors had behaved so badly at an onsen that some spas now barred foreigners.
We entered the men's onsen, left our robes and towels in cubbyholes and tried to follow the lead of the other guests. (I don't think I ever saw more than four other guests there at a time, and Josh and I were the only foreigners.) We padded across the gray stone deck to the bathing area, where we were expected to wash carefully before entering the communal pool. We sat on low plastic stools and filled our basins with water to bathe as others were doing, carefully remaining seated as instructed, "so as not to disturb the other guests."
Making sure to get off all of the soap -- a potential faux pas -- we slipped waist-deep into the hot water. Although it was blazing hot outside, the breeze coming down the mountains suddenly seemed very cool. After a few moments, we were chilled enough to submerge neck deep. The rotenburo was lined in rough black stone with an underwater bench and a wood lip for cooling off, and it was surrounded by a carefully manicured garden enclosed by a privacy fence. We could look beyond the fence to the mountains covered in cedar and pine trees. When breezes washed down into the valley, the trees swayed in a serpentine path that made it easy to imagine tengu stalking the woods.
We alternated hot soaks with plunges in a cool pool inside a bath house, then another scrub with a hand shower. Josh was so relaxed his legs went rubbery. "I can barely walk," he said on the way to our room, where we dozed while waiting for dinner.
When the dinner call came, we were led down a path to a wooden pavilion perched on a riverbank. Our table overlooked a small pool, mossy rocks and a steep, fern-covered embankment.
Before us were an array of plates: two bowls of sushi, lightly cooked vegetables and a plate with a sweet marinated plum and a meat sashimi -- most likely horse, called basashi. There was a covered dish over a canned-fuel flame cooking beef strips, small white gangly mushrooms called enoki, carrot slices cut in leaf shapes, and slices of shishito (like a very mild jalapeno).
As each plate was cleared away, another appeared. The piece de resistance: a small smoked whole fish, artfully posed as if it were swimming among an underwater array of edible flora. It was as much taxidermy as cuisine.
We were then brought a small plate of tempura, followed by squash, more shishito and a tiny fillet of fish with a little tail attached. Then rice and miso soup, followed by watermelon and tea.
Josh, logy from the food, retired. I, however, took another trip to the onsen to watch the stars come out as I soaked. The hot pool was nearly deserted. One bather dozed on the wood lip of the pool, while a young father was introducing his infant son to the onsen. The other bathers politely acknowledged me; only the child stared. Returning to the room, I found a snack of rice and tea. That would hold me until breakfast.
Because the Japanese traditionally bathe before dinner, when I made an early-morning visit to the onsen I had it all to myself -- a good strategy for anyone seeking privacy. All that was left was a breakfast as elaborate and exotic as our dinner had been: dry smoked fish, shrimp, a creamy textured potato, red miso soup with seaweed, cooked tofu and veggies, and a bowl with raw egg floating in what looked like miso and shredded vegetables, which -- imitating the other diners -- we mixed with hot rice.
As we prepared to leave, Joshua -- he of cocked eyebrow -- lamented, "Are we really only staying one night?"
Roy Furchgott last wrote for Travel about Vienna.