You haven’t experienced Japan until you’ve bathed at an onsen I was told. So early one morning I left my quiet hostel to visit Jakotsuku, the newer of two onsen in my district of Asakusa. The ever helpful receptionist told me this was the place to go: “modern, clean; where all tourists go” and was “run by two cheerful women”. What she didn’t know was that it’s closed every Tuesday. Unperturbed, I went off in search of the Kannon onsen located just behind the Sensoji Temple. “You must not go there” I was told earlier by my host: “not modern, for old people; not good, more price” and, bizarrely: “has ghosts”. Despite her well intentioned warnings I decided sharing a bath with old men and the odd spirit worth the risk. And anyway I had read that it was one of the oldest and hottest onsens in Tokyo. Today, it’s housed in a nondescript building just a short distance from the Sensoji Temple.
The noise of front door closing echoed around the dim entrance hall in which the curmudgeonly custodian sat in a booth that bore an alarming similarity to a guard house. After paying my 700Yen and receiving barked orders not to use soap in the bath I moved deeper into the stark and sparsely furnished interior. The drinks machine and seats had seen better days, but the rows of old shoe lockers and the warm cherry wood floor had an antique charm.
A little further into the dimly lit building men and women are guided into their own changing rooms. I wasn’t sure about shared naked bathing and my apprehension grew further while stripping off as I heard deep, prolonged and faintly orgasmic groaning from behind steamed up doors that separated me from the pool room. The apparition that greeted me as I entered the bathing area was not a ghost but a tall, pencil thin old man squatting at one of taps that line the walls of the bath. As etiquette dictates I washed with soap and rinsed off at one of the taps before tentatively getting into the pool.
‘Very Hot’, the sign hanging from the mosaic walls reads. ‘Very, Very Hot’ is perhaps a better description for the temperature of water was 45 Centigrade that day, a full twenty degrees above the minimum required for an onsen. It was no surprise then that I emitted my own thermal shock induced groan when I surfaced from full immersion.
My fellow bather joined me languishing in the slightly brown water, where we both purred like a pair of contented cats. Periodically, I followed his lead by going back to the taps for further washing and was surprised to see that my skin was glistening with the minerals and not lobster red with the heat. Getting back into the bath each time became more pleasurable as I became enveloped in the heat from the water.
After sometime I decided that my vital organs had been poached enough so I dragged my tingling body into the changing room.
It was a shame that the onsen had a neglected, unloved feel where the peeling paint on the walls were further tarnished by layers of dirt.
Maybe it’s just my western sensibilities but I felt sad about the run down look especially as the gulag hospital ward ambiance could easily be transformed by cleaning and a couple coats of paint. Nonetheless, I came for the ethereal bathing experience, not the building. Feeling warm and relaxed, I left the way I came, across the foyer with it’s beguiling eastern bloc charm, past the irascible old guardian, though the squeaky front door and into a cold and wet Tokyo morning.