Saturday, June 21, 2008

Modern Drilling Brings in Additional, Natural Onsen

Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake, several sites have been drilled and have struck 'mineral gold' around Hyogo Prefecture, including around Kobe City.

Probably because of better drilling techniques, along with lower costs, private entreupenures and city governments have ventured to establish natural onsens.

The modern onsens are built only after they have 'hit' a vein of mineral water. Actually, the resurgence of popularity of this bathing tradition shows just how deeply the public bathing practice permeates even into modern Japanese culture.

Recently-found or developed onsen have natural mineral water, often boasted to hold great medicinal properties, along with mostly 'dry' sauna rooms, and maybe even an outdoor bath.

Are they true 'Onsen' or really just 'Sento'?

An ongoing, unresolved 'discussion' with my wife concerns how to refer to these local bathing places.

I call them 'onsen' which is part of their outside, public business title but she prefers to call them 'sento' since many of the local, traditional 'onsen' lack real, naturally-heated, mineral water.

Instead of natural mineral water, some local onsens pump in artisan well water. Then heat it up with either wood or city gas. Often, their smokestacks conspicuously point out their locations. An advantage to heating the water up on site is better temperature regulation.

Some older onsen, to better compete with more modern, natural onsen, add various minerals to enhance their water's therapeutic effect.

Most people may not realize this but the area between Nishinomiya and Sannomiya has long been a favored spot to produce sake, mostly because of the good and plentiful amount of artisan water that the nearby Rokko Mountains store.

Disappearing Onsen

My personal onsen visiting experience generally started just after the Great Hanshin Earthquake (January, 1995) when our apartment had its water supply and/or gas (for heating water) was off for about two months.

Since the big earthquake, I recall three onsen that have disappeared since then, not including the one I first stopped at last night's (June 21, 2008), Takahara Onsen. One reason, of course, is that more houses and apartments have their own bathing facility, usually both a bath and a shower. Also, land taxes and land values have jumped up over the years so making it as a business is more difficult while selling out to real estate developers is a no brainer.

With fewer clients and only charging 380 yen an adult, keeping a local, traditional onsen in business shows a dedication to preserve the family business rather than a road to riches or even a comfortable livelihood, I am sure. People in their 70s normally man the counters when we enter, so these local onsen may further fade away as time passes.

Yamato Onsen - Well Beyond her Prime

What is remarkable about Yamato Onsen?

It is one of the few surviving onsen, dating back to Showa 2, about 81 years, so we are offered a glimpse into the public bathing experience when Japanese commonly used them, probably until about 30 years ago.

This has one of the smallest onsen bathing areas with only eight washing faucets in the men's pool area. The wall facing the sliding door from the changing room is a tiled, European, mosaic landscape with a snow-capped mountain, a green hillside, a lake with a sail boat, and white houses with brown, tiled roofs.

A ceramic, lion head orifice empties hot water into the 'electric' bath which is probably 20 cm. wider than most, at about 100 cm. When submerged equally between the two electric nodes, only a tingle is present but if you move closer to either node, the intensity increases. I mention this because this 'electric' bath offers a means to vary the intensity since it is wider.

The water temperature of the main baths seems to be about 40.5 or 41 degrees C (about 105 F) which is a 'pleasant' temperature, conducive to soaking for 10-minute periods. The proprietor includes neither a sand timer nor a temperature gage but this steam (wet) sauna feels much, much hotter than most onsen saunas and one soon perspires after entering.