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Special Travel Issue | It's beyond beautiful here.
Surrounded by snow-laden trees, I cross a bridge to
the bathhouse. Steam rising, the scene has the feel
of a Kurosawa film.

Bathing In Snow Country

In The Mountains Near Tokyo, The Hot Springs Are A Sublime Mix Of Visual And Physical Wonders

October 13, 2002|MARK EDWARD HARRIS | Mark Edward Harris is a Los Angeles-based photographer and writer whose last piece for the magazine was on conductor Mario Miragliotta. His Japanese hot springs photographs will be on exhibit at APEX Fine Art in Los Angeles in March.

It's noon on an overcast winter day and i'm on the tokyo station train platform waiting for the 12:16 p.m. bullet train to the town of Echigo Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture. If everything goes according to plan, in less than two hours I will be up to my ears in hot water--lolling in one of Japan's thousands of thermal baths.

While all the primeval geologic and geothermal rumblings under Japan have set off devastating volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes (10% of the world's volcanic activity occurs in Japan), they also provide the nation's 127 million inhabitants with a sublime way of life. Two thousand hot springs feed into 10 times that many baths, providing a soothing connection to a lifestyle born long before the rapid industrialization of the last century.

I first experienced the pleasures of these springs a decade ago in Beppu, just days after learning my first lesson about bathing etiquette. While visiting my girlfriend's parents in Tokyo, I ended my bath in the family's deep tub by pulling the plug. Our relationship nearly went down the drain with the soap suds, for I had committed two cultural faux pas. In Japan, bathing is for relaxation and cleansing the soul, not the body. Soap is verboten, and water is always left in the tub until the last bather has soaked. Washing is done while sitting on a small stool using a hand-held shower head, or from a bucket dipped into the hot springs.

I've returned to the Japanese spas many times in the decade since those early experiences, and the magical waters and their surroundings are still an endless source of visual and visceral pleasure. Each hot spring and each season bring with them a unique bathing experience, but it's been in the mountains in mid-winter where I've felt transported back to a time before Commodore Perry dropped anchor and helped set in motion the "modernization" of Japan.

On my most recent trip, Echigo Yuzawa is my first stop. It is in the area of central Japan known as snow country, which encompasses Gumma Prefecture (a prefecture is a regional district) and extends into parts of neighboring Niigata and Nagano prefectures. The location, a two-hour train ride from Tokyo, makes it easily accessible to travelers.

I learned of Echigo Yuzawa while reading Yasunari Kawabata's Nobel Prize-winning book, "Yukiguni" ("Snow Country"), set in the 1930s about the relationship between a geisha at a hot spring and her city-dwelling client. "After passing through a long border tunnel, it was snow country," says the book's opening line, conveying the geographic transition from the dreary, treeless flat plains and towns outside of Tokyo into these mountains blanketed by white powder in winter.

The water at Echigo Yuzawa is between 104 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit--hot, but not too hot. It's perfect for the popular pastime known as yukimi, or snow gazing while in a meditative state. An inebriated version known as yukimi-zake adds Japan's most popular spirit, sake, to the mix. It seems particularly popular with skiers returning to their hotels from a day on slopes that end a few feet from the main street.

While many hot springs are restricted to guests staying at a hotel or inn, some hotels and inns open their springs to the public for day visits for less than $20. Many towns also have public baths available for free, or for a fee of a few dollars.

By 2 p.m. I'm reclining in the Yuzawa Toei Hotel's large outdoor hot spring amid a gentle snowfall. It's a soothing counterpoint to the 20-degree December day and seems an appropriate occasion for contemplation, but a sustained "ahh" is the best I can muster. Time and reality bend, and it's not just from the sake provided by a small but festive group of apres-skiers.

Later I retreat into the large indoor hot spring pool and enjoy the view through floor-to-ceiling windows. These baths are the largest in town, but the mid-1970s modern look of the hotel is not what I came here for, so I dress and head to the Hakuginkaku Hananoyoi Ryokan for the night. Its baths are smaller but the hotel is a hidden oasis of tradition in what has become a fairly modern town.

When guests arrive at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), they are to leave their shoes, and their worldly worries, behind. Entering the foyer, I remove my jacket, gloves and shoes and slip into house slippers. Then I'm escorted to my room by a hostess in a kimono, her every movement art in motion. She slides open the door to my room, removes her sandals and guides me across the tatami floor to an electric heater covered by a wooden frame that is draped with a quilt. I sit and put my legs under the quilt to warm them. After further thawing out with hot tea, I'm guided through guest registration and the schedules for bathing, dinner and breakfast. I have time for a quick bath before dinner.

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