Kogohi Onsen in Atami by Kengo Kuma All photos © Daici Ano
Welcome to Mr. Ueda’s hot spring
by Ulrich Schneider
Mar 15, 2009

Anyone who knows just how difficult it was to come across good champagne in Japan 25 years ago will have some idea of the feeling of joy that overcame me in the country house of the Tokyo gallery owner Ueda in Yugawara, when the friendly elderly gentleman produced a giant ice-filled cooler, from which the necks of a considerable number of Krug bottles peered. There were also encouraging noises coming from the kitchen, and exquisite aromas were wafting through the beautiful mountain house, from which there was the most fabulous view of the Pacific. The weekend near Tokyo. Ueda's question as to whether we wished to bathe before lunch seemed somewhat strange. To our astonishment he accompanied us not to the swimming pool in the garden, but into a functional, light-tiled room with delicate wooden stools, wooden vats, exquisite soaps and shampoos. Thinking nothing more of it, he got undressed there and asked us unselfconsciously to do the same. The conversation about artists and their works continued uninterrupted, we soaped ourselves up, washed our hair, and scrubbed each other's backs, as if we had been doing so repeatedly for years. Surprised by so much naturalness we watched as Ueda opened a wooden sliding door leading to the next room and introduced us to the world of „onsen", the Japanese bathing culture.

The approximately 20 square meters, sandstone room had a bathtub in the middle, into which moderately hot water was running from a long black marble channel. Ueda owned his very own hot spring! Everything in this stone room was heat: the floor, the walls, presumably the ceiling too. Everything was water: the sound, the scent of iron, the steam. Everything was aesthetics, the colors, the view of a fall forest a thin strip of windows revealed. I remember getting into the bathtub being painful. The temperature of the water was almost 40 degrees. Whereas the jovial elderly gentleman, a small towel on his head, had already submerged up to his neck, I was being tortured centimeter by centimeter. Yet once I was at the same level I was surprisingly overcome by a hovering sensation of relaxation, which intensified when the window pane descended, allowing the spicy fresh fall air to flow into the stone room. As I wasn't wearing a watch and soon no longer had any idea at all what time it was, I do not know how long we sat there, now in silence. After an hour or so Ueda got up and we followed, without needing to dry ourselves as the stored heat immediately caused the water to evaporate.

Wearing the cotton yukata we then ate lunch, which very nearly turned out to be my last. Whereas after my first glass of champagne I had felt a certain sense of restlessness, I was soon experiencing an almost hysterical precipitancy. My blood pressure soared in extremis, from my forehead my veins were bulging like ropes, my heart was drumming in my ears; I was heading for a stroke. A quickly summoned doctor gave me a fortifying extract and four hours later I felt like a human being again. Bathing in Japan takes practice. It goes without saying that in Japan every modern house or apartment has a bathroom. This is tiled, for the most part featuring wooden lattice work and always divided up into a washing and a bathing area. A wooden or plastic stool, a faucet at a height of 30 centimeters and a washbasin serve for washing one's body, hair washing, teeth brushing and shaving. This is where one freshens up in the morning and cleanses oneself in the evening before bathing. For this there is a mostly cube-shaped bathtub 90 centimeters high, in which the water is heated by means of circulation heating. This keeps the temperature of the water constant, as one can often spend as long as an hour in the cube. As the water is used by the whole family and for several days the bathtub can be sealed with a cover panel when not in use.

The „sentō", the public bath house, is admittedly a much more attractive place. A sentō can be found in any Japanese city and is easily recognizable by the tall sheet metal chimney. And in the evening, be it summer or winter, people wearing a yukata and carrying a toilet bag can be seen scurrying into these communal places. Separated by gender, they scrub each other in tiled cleansing rooms, before sitting down ten-abreast, more rarely 20-abreast in the large hot bathtub. This is far more comfortable than at home and provides an opportunity to engage in quiet conversation with one's neighbor, quietly though, and with no hustle and bustle, as public bath houses in residential areas are also places for quiet contemplation and absolute relaxation. And a place for storing heat in winter, as even today Japanese houses and flats do not have much in the way of heating. In these everyday bath houses cleanliness is worth more than luxury, pure relaxation more than styling. Here too, occasional errors in taste, of which urban Japanese society is immensely capable, for example panorama mosaics with tropical sunsets, are overlooked. Precisely in a sentō the rural structure of a city's districts, even in the megalopolis Tokyo, is evident. Everyone knows everyone else and guests, foreigners at that, are tolerated. The thermal baths, „onsen", which frequently boast healing springs, are far more impressive.

These range from ghastly bathing factories to secluded, enchanted places of never-surmised beauty. As a guest one should visit them during the week and not during the holidays, when they are relatively empty. Describing the daily routines in baths and hotels would fill entire books. But from the breakfast of fish soup and smoked eel to supper that resembles a still life, everything revolves around heat, water, well-being, and relaxation. For me the height of bathing aesthetics, which has been nurtured in Japan for centuries now, is the Kogohi onsen in Atami, which the architect Kengo Kuma designed in 2003. Here he allowed the slightest architectural strip to hover on a slope, a structure with a cedar aroma made of wood, steel, and plastic. Whereas by day the row of changing room, washing facilities and giant wooden bath tubs is in the gentle shade of trees, by night soft, indirect lighting comes to the fore. Hovering above the countryside in the cedar trough one loses contact with the earth and floats away in an infinitely easy-going mood. The „rotenburo", i.e. open-air swimming pools, whose hot springs are sourced from cold mountain rivers, are also very appealing. Here, one relaxes on artistically layered, smooth pebbles, and can set the temperature by approaching the opening of the spring.

The frequently rustic „onsen" also nurture the good Japanese tradition of communal bathing for men and women. As a sensitive traveler in Japan one incessantly encounters new, puzzling things, and the bathing tradition is no exception. One should not, for example, be surprised if the trough suddenly empties when one enters as a "geijin". Didn't you make a point of washing thoroughly in front of everyone? You wrapped your towel around your forehead correctly, but there was still something wrong... Not to worry, the Japanese guests in the onsen will soon be back. They like bathing far too much to be put off by a stranger. Whether summer or winter, monsoon or snow, take a hot bath first, whether you are exhausted or nervous, take a hot bath first, ill or healthy, take a hot bath. I bathed in the wonderful stone bath with Mr. Ueda and his friends on several more occasions and over the years got used to the tremendous heat. And it is true, one comes to like it, indeed it becomes indispensable. I also learned how to handle the floating cedar wood sake box in the winter months. And if the icy winter wind blows a red maple leaf into the onsen and it floats on the water, I am overcome by kimochi, an indescribable feeling of inner harmony one will only ever experience with good friends in the hot springs.

Reference: The Japanese Spa. A Guide to Japan's Finest Ryokan and Onsen. Edited by Akihiko Seki and Elizabeth Heilmann-Brooke, Boston 2007

Professor Dr. Ulrich Schneider has been director of the Museum of Applied Art (Museum für Angewandte Kunst) in Frankfurt am Main from 2003 til 2011.