At the crack of dawn, I'm standing naked on a black ashino-stone deck, praying that no one else is awake in all of northern Honshu. The skimpy mountain laurels surrounding this outdoor bath at Niki Club, a modern Terence Conrandesigned hotel on the edge of Nikko National Park, do not meet my decidedly bashful Western standards for a modesty screen. I soap down my goose pimples, rinse off from a cypress bucket, and prepare to dip myself in the scalding waters of a shallow pool. It takes three tries, and while my thighs are boiled-lobster red, I immerse deeply enough to stop worrying about startling early-morning hikers on Mount Nasu-dake. I cover my brain with a cool terry washcloth to keep it from scorching. Peering around, I spot moss growing in tufted mounds under the wind-twisted pines. Sunlight pours down the mountain. The birds begin warbling, and I decide that the Japanese, after fine-tuning the concept for several thousand years, probably know a thing or two about hot water and soap.
Anyone who has watched Hayao Miyazaki's Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) needs no introduction to onsen (hot spring) culture. For those who haven't, the movie is an animated fantasy about a mortal girl who finds herself employed as a bathhouse attendant in the spirit realm. Before indoor plumbing became widespread, most Japanese took their daily plunge in a communal bathhouse, or sento, where men and women frequently shared facilities, which were fed by natural hot springs. (Guess who first encouraged segregation?Prissy American and European envoys, during the 19th-century Meiji period.) Old-fashioned bathhouses like the one depicted in Spirited Away have been declining in popularity, but private onsen bathing at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is still a part of life for Japanese families, businessmen (who join gym-like onsen clubs), and everyone in between. Now it's developing an international following. Fans include France's president, Jacques Chirac, who favors Asaba, and chef Nobu Matsuhisa, a frequent guest at Gora Kadan—rival inns, both notable for their rigorous hospitality, two hours from downtown Tokyo in central Honshu. Then there's American spa guru Sylvia Sepielli, consultant on the elaborate baths at Grand Wailea and Boca Raton Resort, who was heavily influenced by her 10-year stay in Japan, and Michael Stusser, who opened his Japanese-inspired Osmosis spa and meditation garden in Sonoma County after a stint in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Kyoto. Yael Alkalay, creator of the Red Flower beauty line, has just based a new wild cherryandrice bran body treatment on her own bathhouse experiences in the remote Ishikawa prefecture. (Red Flower's bathing ritual is on the menu at the Carneros Inn in Napa Valley and at Great Jones Spa in Manhattan.) Traditional ofuro, or cypress tubs, have even been introduced at the Greenhouse, in Dallas, and Como Shambhala, at Parrot Cay, Turks and Caicos.
My own link to Japan dates back to the sixties, when Uncle Bob, an Air Force pilot stationed on Okinawa, brought home a new bride. Aunt Yoshi presented me with a flowered kimono—just the costume for a 10-year-old girl with a dramatic flair. They eventually settled in Shreveport, Louisiana, and, frankly, I'm not sure who experienced a tougher cultural disconnect: Bill Murray wandering Tokyo in Lost in Translation or my dainty Japanese aunt in Cajun country. Since donning that first kimono, however, I have found any trend emerging from the Land of the Rising Sun utterly irresistible. During adolescence, that meant Astro Boy and Hello Kitty. Now, I'm crazy for soba noodles, Comme des Garçons, and bizarro novelist Haruki Murakami. And since the onsen movement is getting that much closer to my own front door, immersion at the source, both metaphorical and literal, finally seems imperative.
Situated along the circum-Pacific volcanic belt—more lyrically known as the Ring of Fire—the Japanese archipelago is about the size of California but contains almost one-tenth of the world's active volcanoes. In other words, this mountainous island-nation is riddled with boiling sulfur vents and geothermal geysers, including more than 3,000 classified hot-spring regions. Before Buddhism was introduced, in the eighth century, Japan's principal religion was Shinto, the core precept of which was reverence for nature. Essentially animist, Shinto holds that every aspect of the land—rocks, rivers, foliage—embodies a spirit, or kami. Shrines were erected in places felt to be especially sacred, and it's no coincidence that many are located next to or right above hot springs. In preparation for worship, priests were required to purify themselves, and what better way to meditate on nature than during a cleansing soak in a steaming pond or creek?Japan's highly ritualized bath—scrubbing every pore with brush, pick, and cloth, rinsing away any speck of soap or shampoo, then sinking into a super-heated tub—is simply the layman's version. The Shinto belief system also helps to explain why modern Japan seems— to the outsider—to be a nation of obsessive-compulsive hygiene nuts. The clean gene manifests itself in countless ways, from hand-washing practices at temple gates to wonderfully complicated computerized bidets in plush Tokyo hotels. Not to mention microbe-thwarting face masks, finger towels, and toilet slippers, worn exclusively in the bathroom. Of course, onsen does have a lighter side. The tradition has even spawned a popular Japanese soap opera—Onsen e Ikou (Let's Go to Onsen!) is The Love Boat meets Fawlty Towers. Nevertheless, onsen is not a process you rush through between the ringing of the alarm clock and your first mocha latte. It's about purification.
Japan's spring water is reputed to have therapeutic value for people with skin ailments, muscle damage, and nervous-system disorders, and some onsen do contain a high percentage of trace minerals, including iron and sodium chloride. Faced with a mind-boggling variety of onsen, I narrow my journey down to three regions easily accessible from Tokyo: the Izu Peninsula, northern Honshu, and eastern Kyushu. All are noted for the purity of their waters, and all have ryokan accustomed to initiating Westerners into the bathing process. Actually, most classic Japanese inns maintain a similar routine: a welcoming cup of tea, set dinner menus, and housemaids who attend to each guest's sleeping quarters. It's the subtle details—outdoor bath settings, custom-designed yukata (a casual cotton robe), and regional culinary treats—that make the difference.
Hakone has been a resort area since the ninth century. About one hour's drive southwest of Tokyo, it's the gateway to Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Once I break free of metropolitan traffic jams, the highway rises quickly through a series of switchbacks into a volcanic enclave, where sulfurous steam puffs from vents scattered among rocky hills. Even on a misty afternoon, it's still hard to miss the 12,390-foot gumdrop topped with snow. My first sight of Mount Fuji. In the 19th century, the dormant cone was considered so sacred, only priests were permitted to ascend to the summit. Today, hikers of every ability lurch their way to the crater's rim, where they can slurp soba noodles and buy souvenir postcards. Even so, this symmetrical peak's symbolism hasn't diminished; the Japanese always feel fortunate when Fuji sheds its cloudy veil.
Swish, swish, swish. That's the brisk sound Kiyoko Ota's silk kimono makes when she crosses the straw tatami mats that line the lobby of Hakone Ginyu, two hours by car south of Tokyo. The tightly wrapped customary garb requires her to take lots of teeny steps in her slippers. Ota is training her daughter-in-law Mami to take over her role as okami, or lady innkeeper. In Japan, this is a profession ruled by time-honored traditions, but even though the Otas dress conservatively and politely cover their mouths with cupped hands when they laugh, just as their grandmothers did, they keep pace with modern life. The two of them show me how handy an obi can be for stashing a cell phone and business cards. While I sip sour-cherry iced tea on a wooden deck facing a deep gorge, Mami and Kiyoko sit right next to me. Japanese hospitality often involves excruciating protocol; fortunately, the Otas don't expect me to adhere to anything more stringent than removing my street shoes and tying my yukata properly, left panel over right. It's obvious why Hakone Ginyu has had a recent surge in popularity among younger, Tokyo-based fans: they love this cheerful, relatively informal welcome.
Like most ryokan, Hakone Ginyu has several "public" onsen for in-house guests, among them two infinity pools and a hot tub on a loggia high above the Haya River. Bathing is scheduled so that everybody has a chance to sample each one. Every 24 hours, the single-sex facilities are switched at least once; all it takes is a housemaid to move the entrance signs around. Of course, for those who want a tad more privacy, each guest room contains at least one ofuro of its own. My suite, on the ground floor facing a garden, is a series of tiny rooms divided by the paper screens called shoji; sliding them aside turns it into one big living room. While I love the round copper tub set in a bathing alcove, it's more fun to dip in the spring-fed stone pool outside, especially after I discover the adjacent mini-bar filled with Asahi beer.