Date: 31 March 2015
After the cruise across Lake Ashi on a pirate-themed ship, next I was going to take the Hakone Ropeway (cable car) to get to Ubako Station.
If you would like to know how much the one-way and round trip fares for Hakone Ropeway are, click here.
The lady who sold me her half-used Hakone pass recommended the onsen at Hotel Green Plaza, for its splendid views of Mount Fuji as you bathe in the hot springs.
I had to pay ¥1600 (₹1000/$15/€13) to use the spa. I don’t know if that was pricey or standard for Hakone, but I didn’t care. It’s not like I had time to find some other onsen resort. And the view of Mt. Fuji was tempting.
For those who don’t know, an onsen is a natural hot spring, in many cases a pool of mineral-rich hot water pumped or gushing up from underground. Why does Japan have so many onsens? Because Japan is a nation with high volcanic activity, so water below the nation’s surface is constantly hot. Mount Fuji is a volcanic mountain too, but the last time Fuji-san erupted in anger was back in 1707. So I should be safe today.
This would be my first proper onsen experience. And by ‘proper’ I mean, get completely naked and bathe in the open pool along with other men. I got used to a communal bath in Japan right on the very first night I arrived in Tokyo. But those were usually with one or two other men in the bathroom.
Anyway, here’s how it goes down at an onsen.
You have a change room first. Outside it you have shoe rack with slippers. Keep your shoes & socks out and wear a pair a slippers before entering the change room. You are given a locker where in which you can leave your clothes and other valuables in. There are plenty of clean towels for you to use as well. Take a big one and a small one. The small towel has a specific use which I will explain later.
Then you have shower area, which isn’t a standard stand-up-and-use shower. You sit down on a plastic stool, then use the shower to cleanse yourself before entering the hot spring. This is customary and pretty much the procedure one must follow. Then, you enter the hot spring slowly. It really is quite hot, so feet in first, get your body adjusted slowly and then immerse yourself. Trust me, it’s an amazing feeling!
The above ‘procedures’ also apply to Sentous, or public bathhouses.
As for the view of Mount Fuji, it was worth the hype! Fortunately I had no clouds obstructing my view and this was the largest (and closest) view of Mount Fuji I got. Unfortunately all I have are my words to describe the view from the hot spring. Photography is strictly prohibited inside an onsen, for obvious reasons. Plenty of naked men and boys all around. But man, I so wished I could take a photo 🙁
It’s easy to see why hot springs are particularly popular in Japan, where it’s relatively cold for nearly half the year. When I went, temperatures were in the upper single digits (I use celcius) at the altitude I was in. So imagine soaking in mineral-rich hot water from under earth in such cold times. I just didn’t feel like getting out!
Oh, as for the smaller towel. Since your head is out in the cold, you soak the small towel in the hot water and then place it on your head. It’s to keep your head warm and avoid catching a cold with the contrasting temperatures. I did fully immerse myself a few times but it’s advisable not to stay in for too long. They say the mineral-rich water is good for your skin but water eventually damages your skin if you are in it for too long. So I got out, sat by the pool with a towel around me and my feet in the water. In this weather, I just couldn’t stay away from the hot water.
If you want to learn more about onsens and why they are so popular in Japan, then here is an episode of Begin Japanology that tells you all that you need to know.
All in all, I spent around 30 minutes in the hot spring before I felt I had enough and needed to leave. I slowly went back in, cleaned up again, dressed and made my way back out. I’m glad I could achieve my onsen experience, and that too in a place like Hakone. Was it awkward being naked around many other Japanese boys, men and one other foreign tourist? Yeah, initially it was — but I didn’t know any of them — and hey, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Maybe one day when I’m rich enough, I’ll bring my family to one of those hotels that have private hot baths in your own room, so that they could all enjoy the onsen experience… minus the embarrassment.
If you are embarrassed to enter a common hot spring and would instead pay extra to enjoy a private bath, these are are some of the hotels in Hakone that offer hot spring pools/tubs inside your room itself.
Hotel Okada – 4 star hotel. Does not offer views of Mount Fuji from the guest rooms.
Hakone Hotel Kajikaso – 3-star hotel, the baths look better than the one above. Does not offer views of Mount Fuji from the guest rooms.
Kozantei Ubuya Ryokan – 4 star; rooms offer views of Mount Fuji
Fuji Kawaguchiko Onsen Konansou – 4 star; some rooms offer views of Mount Fuji
This link has some more hotels with private baths.
Mind you, the ropeway isn’t the only way to get to Hotel Green Plaza. There is a road access as well, so if you come by car, there is enough parking space in front of the hotel.
The next post will about the sulphur-rich springs of Ōwakudani.
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