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.
Gora Kadan, a short taxi ride up the hill from Hakone Ginyu, is a formal ryokan in another class altogether—it's no wonder Nobu Matsuhisa loves staying here. A former summer residence of the imperial clan Kaninnomiya, it has a glass-walled lobby and gallery leading to a series of outdoor baths, lounges, and alcoves where priceless ceramics and scrolls are displayed. Kana, my housemaid, performs the most flawless bow I've ever seen—ceremonial training is a high priority at Gora Kadan. Kneeling, she slides open the shoji to the banquet room where I'm being served dinner, places 10 fingertips together precisely on the straw mat, and bends her head forward to form an inverted triangle. Never turning her back, Kana picks up a red lacquer tray, rises, and shuffles elegantly toward the low dining table, where she kneels again to present a series of poetic treats: house-made plum wine; toro tuna sashimi; octopus and ostrich fern in vinegar sauce; bamboo shoots with sansho pepper; grilled Spanish mackerel. Most ryokan serve a seasonal kaiseki—a 500-year-old culinary tradition from Kyoto that began as appetizers to accompany the tea ceremony. Now, some of these meals involve up to 20 miniature courses. Gora Kadan's version, with its interplay of rare ingredients and ornate place settings, intrigues the most celebrated connoisseurs. Later, back in my suite, I slide into a custom-built tub big enough for two sumo wrestlers and listen to the wind gusting outside. Meanwhile, Kana tiptoes silently into the bedroom to set up a soft futon bed with a downy comforter. On the floor, she leaves a lit paper lantern, so I can find my way back from the bath.
In certain respects, onsen regions mirror such European spa towns as Baden-Baden and Saturnia.But while Westerners tend to regard these spas as cures for the excesses of la dolce vita, the Japanese still look on theirs as contemplative retreats. This morning before breakfast at Gora Kadan, a rain shower helps me figure this out. Sitting in a stone-lined pool where a waterfall artfully tumbles down between blooming cherry trees, I watch as a light drizzle swirls the pink petals on the water's surface. A train clattering up the hillside briefly disturbs my reverie. Later on, I bump into another American guest in the lobby, and he raves about his experience in the men's bath. His only problem is getting past the nudity issue. He pulls aside a damp yukata to show me his swimming trunks.
Halfway down the Izu Peninsulafrom Gora Kadan lies the onsen town of Shuzenji, divided by the boulder-strewn Katsura River. Lipstick-red bridges span the waterway, which is traced by delicate stands of bamboo. Tourist stalls selling wasabi, black rice, and bean-paste cakes bookend a Buddhist temple where attendants peddle good-luck charms. Little girls in school uniforms run past a shooting gallery with a tempting display of plush toys and big-eyed dolls. As I brush between the polka-dot linen curtains at Asaba, a 350-year-old ryokan with its own authentic cypress-wood Noh stage, a demure trio of female guests in navy blue yukata and padded outer jackets nod to me shyly. Asaba may be ancient, but it certainly isn't outdated. On a table next to the pebbled entranceway, I notice a black leather Hermès desk pad; a calligraphy screen is paired with safari chairs by 20th-century Danish designer Kaare Klint. After a dusty afternoon exploring the temple and local ceramic studios, I look forward to changing into my own two-toed tabi socks, straw sandals, and dragonfly-print robe and visiting the open-air bath. There, squatting on a low, unvarnished stool, I splash lukewarm water from a knee-high tap. Using a small bucket to rinse off shampoo, I feel blindly around for something I can use to dry myself off. Crouching Tourist, Hidden Towel. Easing into the basalt rock pool, I watch a stand of bamboo swaying in the evening breeze. Floating votives bob in an eddy where a stream refreshes the koi pond. The heat becomes exhausting, so I pad back to my uncluttered, tatami-matted guest suite, a design study in negative space. On the way, I catch another glimpse of the three demure ladies smoking in a salon facing the Noh stage. Later, they take a midnight skinny-dip, their delighted giggles wafting up through my open bedroom window, which is just above the outdoor bath. Hanging out with close friends who don't care about your cellulite always beats ascetic meditation.
The next morning, I wave good-bye to the same trio when they check out. (Off with the baggy yukata; on with the skin-tight Dior.) After donning my own street shoes, I ramble down one of Shuzenji's lanes, only to hear the shuffle of wooden clogs as Asaba's valet catches up and graciously hands me a town map. Crossing the river, I walk up a hill to peek at Yagyu-no-sho, a ryokan that reminds me of an Easter parade, all spring green and lilac. Host Takashi Saito often practices the martial art of kendo (performed with a bamboo sword) in a studio opposite the inn. He also wears Aquascutum suits. Obviously Saito has urbane tastes. And he wins me over by turning my unpronounceable Gaelic name into kanji-scripted poetry. All guests' names are so inscribed, in chalk on slate plaques outsideeach of the 14 rooms in the main building. There are also two teahouse-style guest cottages, tucked into a private bamboo grove. Inside them, woven basket seats with brocade cushions and detached armrests face a low table and candle stand. It's a setting suitable for samurai. Each villa has a heated rock pool close to a trickling brook, in which it's possible to cool your hands without getting up. In a moss-covered side garden I notice a kitschy statue: two pudgy raccoons with bald tummies. "That's our tanuki," Saito explains. Tanukis are a type of mischievous kami, favorite protagonists in Japanese folklore. They act as ryokan guardians, reminding guests to be on their best behavior. The intrinsic link between Shinto nature spirits and hot-spring bathing suddenly becomes clearer, even if these spirits resemble distant cousins of Chip 'n' Dale.
Faster ways exist to reach Yufuin on Kyushu, the island directly south of Honshu, but that would mean missing a ride on the Yufuin No Mori Express from Hakata. This European-style narrow-gauge train has varnished oak interiors and plush seats, with a salon car that serves bento box lunches and draft Sapporo beer. Given Japan's compact dimensions, it's a little depressing to stare out the window and see how much of the landscape is dominated by dingy industrial areas and postwar apartment complexes. It gives me a perspective on why the less-developed onsen regions are so highly valued. Once past the crowded coastline below Kyoto, the train crosses a narrow isthmus and climbs into Kyushu's pine-covered mountains. Attendants walk through the cars with signs to announce impending scenic waterfalls and rock formations. On my way back from the bar, I bump into a three-year-old boy posing for his father's video camera. The little ham goes wide-eyed when he sees me and shifts into a snappy karate demo; with a little encouragement from his papa, he bows politely at the end. How can I not bow back?
"Sutoresu." Therapist Naomi Kawano zeroes in on sore points during a shiatsu session atMurata, a mountaintop ryokan in the pastoral spa town of Yufuin. "You have sutoresu." It takes me several moments to decipher this strangely familiar term. Oh, she means stress. No kidding. I lie on a white futon as Kawano covers my limbs with a cotton hand towel to avoid direct contact. She presses thumbs and palms toughened by 32 years of practice on my neck, arms, and legs. Afterward, I continue to ease tense muscles in a terrazzo-and-cypress ofuro fed by a local spring that passes underneath my cottage at the rustic inn. Actually, it's not so rustic. Owner Koji Fujibayashi relocated a handful of plaster-and-beam barns and thatched-roof lodges to this pine-covered slope directly below Mount Yufu-dake, but he also commissioned Tokyo's cutting-edge designer Shinichiro Ogata to build Gyou, a stunning minimalist lair of concrete and steel. Le Corbusier chairs are grouped around a 1930's Western Electric stereo system in the bar; an adjacent gallery has David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky sketches on display. And although the main dining room uses a traditional charcoal cooking hearth, Murata also has its own Parisian-style chocolatier, Wi-Fi café, and Italian restaurant.
A short flight takes me back to tech-loving Tokyo. It seems director Hayao Miyazaki's beloved sento bathhouses haven't completely disappeared from the landscape—they've just been rescripted. At the end of my trip, spa developer Junichi Kono proudly shows me around his latest project. An hour outside the city, on the tiny island of Enoshima, near Kamakura, Enospa features every imaginable up-to-date trick: indoor waterfalls, whirlpools, a health-food café, and a Western-style treatment menu created bySylvia Sepielli, who suggested I take a day trip to see this modern variation on Japan's oldest bathing theme. Enospa is a huge hit with couples, who don Hawaiian-print bikinis and surf shorts to bob in the outdoor swimming pool. As sunset approaches, the joyful chatter drops suddenly, and I can hear the Pacific surf slosh on rocks below. Heads turn. At the last minute, Mount Fuji makes a surprise appearance on the horizon. The solemnity of contemplating Japan's sacred volcano dissipates quickly during the ensuing sound-and-light show. Computer-driven water jets and colored-laser lights are flung about as pressurized steam rises dramatically from hidden vents. I feel strangely transported to a Vegas floor show, but everyone else lounging in the heated pool thinks it's a big splash.
The newly created Luxury Ryokan Collection (81-3/5368-0790; www.luxuryryokan.com) can make reservations at many of Japan's top inns. The company also offers a free translation service, cell phone rentals, and car and helicopter transfers. The Japan National Tourist Organization (212/757-5640; www.japantravelinfo.com) can also help arrange itineraries.
WHERE TO STAY
Ryokan rates include daily full breakfast (Western on request) and dinner.
Doubles from $776. 3450-1 Shuzenji, Izu-shi, Shizuoka; 81-3/5368-0790; www.luxuryryokan.com
2-1-6 Enoshima, Fujisawa-city, Kanagawa; 81-466/290-688; www.enospa.jp
Doubles from $921. 1300 Gora, Hakone, Kanagawa; 81-460/23331; www.gorakadan.com
Doubles from $552. 100-1 Miyanoshita, Hakone, Kanagawa; 81-3/5368-0790; www.luxuryryokan.com
Doubles from $952. Anekoji-Agaru, Fuyacho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 81-3/5368-0790; www.luxuryryokan.com
Doubles from $950. 1264-2 Kawakami-Torigoe, Yufuin, Oita; 81-3/5368-0790; www.luxuryryokan.com
Doubles from $310. 2301 Takakuotsu Michishita, Nasu, Tochigi; 800/337-4685; www.designhotels.com
Doubles from $764. 1116-6 Shuzenji, Izu-shi, Shizuoka; 81-3/5368-0790; www.luxuryryokan.com
If you don't have time to explore an onsen, relax at one of these top hotel spas.
Four Seasons Tokyo at Marunouchi
Two treatment rooms, plus stunning black-granite onsen-style baths in both themen's and women's lounges. Don't miss a shiatsu session with Kyoko Nakamura. Doubles from $552. 1-11-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku 800/819-5053 or 81-3/5222-7222www.fourseasons.com
Grand Hyatt Tokyo
Sessions commence with a sea-salt foot exfoliation in custom-made cypress buckets. Doubles from $485. 6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku 800/233-1234 or 81-3/4333-1234 tokyo.grand.hyatt.com
Park Hyatt Tokyo
The Club on the Park has Anne Sémonin facials and jet-lag therapies.On the 47th floor, check out the sky-high gym and pool with views (on a clear day) of Mount Fuji. Doubles from $512. 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 800/233-1234 or 81-3/5322-1234; tokyo.park.hyatt.com