Hot springs give such an ultimate experience of relaxation that you can even find snow monkeys soaking away stress in a hot bath.
Jigokudani Onsen(hot spring), Nagano Prefecture, is one of Japan’s most well-known hot spring resorts. There is a special park in the town, with a feature facility that is unique to this open air hot spring area and catches everyone’s eye: the “onsen” of the apes. Yes, the bathers are not only human beings but also monkeys, soaking away stress with their eyes closed in a comfortable rest in the natural hot baths. Some human visitors here and there are busy taking pictures of the “Nihon-Zaru( Japanese macaques ) relaxing in the hot water as humans do. They can’t help feeling something heartwarming when they look at the scene and many instinctively say “kawaii(so cute)!”, “omoshiroi(amazing)”, or “kimochi-yosasou(looks so comfortable)”. This is because Jigokudani Onsen is now such a popular tourist spot among foreign visitors that the hot spring town often sees more than 100 foreigners a day, which much outnumbers the Japanese counterparts. Soon, the images of the “snow monkeys” there, whose name is said to have come from the way their heads are thinly covered with powdered snow during their leisure bathing in snowy weather, have been found to be photogenic through Instagram, so the hot spring area is now drawing attention from more and more foreign tourists around the world.
Few Japanese are probably surprised to see monkeys soaking in an open air hot spring because Japanese local folklore often have some stories featuring animals, including monkeys, enjoying a hot bath for relaxation. For example Nasu Onsen, Tochigi prefecture, have great hot springs where, according to local folklore, a white deer was found dipping into the hot spring to cure it’s wound. Iwakura Onsen, far west of Tokyo, has a legend of “byakko (imaginary white fox)” sitting in the hot water for treatment of the injury it incurred to flee a hunter. Many Japanese people are familiar with those mythical stories as long as they can remember. So monkeys soaking in a hot spring reminds Japanese people of some of the folk stories they have heard somewhere. (it is, though, a rare chance to see the bathing scenes.)
I’m not sure when the snow monkeys started to be caught taking the hot water. Obviously, however, they gather around the hot spring because they want to keep themselves warm escaping from severe cold. Anyway, the scene of their dipping in the hot water is associated with a big feature of Japan’s natural environment: A wide variety of hot springs you can enjoy across the country. There are a lot of hot springs around the world such as the Cascate del Mulino, Italy, Blue Lagoon, Iceland, or Banff Upper Hot Springs, Canada. But Japan, a country with its total area of only 380,000 square kilometers, is an “onsen kingdom with as many as 3,000 hot spring spots densely located in the small and mountainous islands. And each region has different kinds of hot springs, whose benefits also vary from place to place. In order to make yourself more beautiful, I recommend a “bijin-no-yu”, which literally translates to a “Beauty Bath”, and how about immersing yourself in a “kodakara-no-yu”, which translates to “Having-Babies Bath”, if you wish to have healthy babies? In Japan, there are a lot of bathhouses with high quality hot springs, artificial or natural. I think it is also a good way to take a tour of the hot springs to enjoy the differences in the “feel of water”.
In ancient Rome, there were public bathing facilities called thermae or balneae in most cities in Rome. They worked as a place, of course for bathing, but for promoting people’s communication too. Japanese hot spring facilities have the same kinds of purposes as the Roman bathhouses did. Some Japanese local towns have “sento (paid public bathhouses )”. Some of them open their doors early in the morning so that early-bird customers, mostly elderly people, can enjoy not only their early-morning bath but also socializing with their friends in their communities. How about visiting these “sento” if you wish to have communication with local people and get some information about the local specialties or scenic beauty only people living there know?
Narihira District and the area around it, Sumida Ward in Tokyo, have a lot of paid public bathhouses with natural hot springs available to people living in the local area. Some of them give customers different kinds of quality herbal baths on a daily basis. Why don’t you visit them and make friends with the local bathers. You can enjoy collecting “stamps” of the facilities each on a portable “stamp board” after bathing. Let’s dip yourself in Japan to your heart’s content!
An instructor English conversation school.
A certified guide-interpreter of English.
A working mother of two children.