Appalachian Away: Hot spring quietude Japan's best-kept secret

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Japan has more hot springs, or onsen, than any other country on earth.

The Japanese hot spring, or onsen, is a time for laughter and relaxation. In such a hard-working country, it sure is needed!

The Japanese work longer hours than any nation, sometimes until 10 p.m., when their boss might (finally) decide to go home. But these rigors seem to subside a bit in hot water.

But before relaxing, visitors should learn the hot springs’ rules.

For Westerners, some rules make more sense than others. It makes sense that you should thoroughly scrub your body with soap and water before entering the communal pool. It makes less sense that tattoos are still frowned upon. (There’s a stigma around all tattoos, which are associated with the Japanese mafia.)

My friend, Di, has visited Japan several times and has hosted Japanese exchange students in West Virginia. In Japan, she says she feels like King Kong because of her height.

She likes to tell the hot spring story where she couldn’t read the door sign that said the onsen had switched from male to female at lunchtime in order to share the one with the better view.

Di did not realize this mistake until a man walked in to find her lying in the male side of the pool. He let out a shout and rushed out, according to Di, who just kept lying there, confused at what had just occurred.

Japan has more hot springs than any other country on earth. They dot each city and town.

Most Japanese springs are inconspicuous on the outside, blending in with the modern, square buildings. It’s what’s on the inside — the water — that people care about. The way to identify an onsen is by a red symbol. It looks like the top rim of a pot with three squiggly lines coming out.

Like any hot tub, I don’t last long in an onsen until I start to fry. But while living in Japan, I noticed how much people revere hot water and the calming effect it has.

One of my favorite memories in Japan was visiting the onsen after work in winter with my friend, Ayano san. The water was a conduit for conversation. She and I seemed to be able to talk more openly in the water than outside it.

It almost seemed like we were transported to another world, where language and cultural barriers did not matter so much. In a country where I often struggled to fit in, it was nice to find a place where I could relax and feel at ease around others.

I especially loved the rotenburo in winter. This is the outdoor part of the pool, where I could feel snow dusting my shoulders and whitening the maple branches.

In each country, water is considered holy — in Japan, especially so. The ocean has been responsible for creating Japan, and destroying it sometimes (we borrow the word “tsunami” from the Japanese language).

Water is used for washing out your mouth and washing your hands in spiritual ceremonies, and the onsens probably help keep the Japanese so young. Maybe it’s the secret to why they seem to live forever.

Paula Kaufman was the recipient of a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to Holland in 2011. She’s taught in Palestine and Japan, and wrote a 2018 poetry book, “Asking the Stars Advice,” about her travels. She most recently worked for the Kanawha County Commission in the Planning Department and is currently hiking the Camino de Santiago trail across Spain. She loves to paint and travel, and says some of her favorite adventures have happened in West Virginia.

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