Some men experience discomfort when put in new and challenging situations. A bit like the kids at the recent school camp having to overcome their fear of height as they scale an 11m vertical pole with a steel tight rope at the top. That is to say I felt a lot like a fish out of water when I arrived at the traditional Ryoken Hotel in Hakone, Japan.
Firstly let me set the scene….
I was a guest of Ora King Salmon as one of the judges for their prestigious global Ora King Awards, recently held in Tokyo. Having experienced a few nights of five star luxury hotel accommodation on the 32nd floor and 180 degree panoramic views of the capital, I was looking forward to a breath of natural forest fresh air in the ‘mountainous reserve park’ of Hakone.
We arrived in the dark having endured several hours travel in a warm bouncy bus, topped off with a formula one never ending narrow chicane twisting uphill dash to our hotel.
I was truly looking forward to a long hot shower and collapsing into a deliciously soft king size bed. With my feet firmly on the ground it was great to sit down in a stationary chair and be warmly welcomed by professional staff dressed in traditional kimonos. Most unexpectedly we were told that we are all sharing rooms! Heck……this could be interesting! To make matters worse we were told it is traditional to wear (at all times), the traditional Japanese robe (normally worn with nothing on – at all – underneath)!!!
Oh, and by the way, they have Onsen here which are ‘public baths’. If you know nothing about this and it’s your first time then you are in for a shock! It basically means totally naked shared bathing in a small spa pool. There goes my long luxurious shower with shampoo and conditioner! Still feeling decidedly green with bus motion sickness, we were then dispatched to our rooms to change and robe up before dinner.
Walking into the shared room I discovered no king or queen size beds – in fact there were no beds at all. Woven tatami mats lined the floor and in the centre of the room a very low set coffee table with two thin cushions plus one of those tissue sliding doors (like the one the bad guy jumps out from behind in a James Bond movie)! This leads through to a sink, a mirror and a loo. Just noting all loos in Japan are very, very high tech and some are even digital (another fish out of water moment, but that’s another story altogether).
I braved the Japanese robe, but couldn’t quite do the “Braveheart-Kilt” thing and safely went off to dinner with undergarment on!
After the most sumptuous, nourishing, extravagant and exquisite feast it was time to retire for a much needed sleep. Problem one – no shower. This meant… ah, well… ok.. I would have to have to man up and have some sort of a wash. Quickly referring to the in-room instructions on “how to” do the Onsen and off I went.
When I arrived at the MENS door and gingerly pushed it open I wasn’t sure at all about what to do. I noticed some men putting their robes and bits and pieces into little wooden cubby holes before moving through to the next area.
You get this little thin long flannel thing to take into the bath, but you are not allowed to put it in the water or dare even put it on the side of the pool. It’s like a mini mini towel to dry you off before properly drying yourself back in the de-robing room. Apparently you should fold it up and balance it on your head, good thinking!
Next, I slid the door open to go to the Onsen and to my relief there were some funny little cubicals where guys are sitting down on low plastic stools washing themselves with hand held shower hoses. One chap was washing his hair, another was actually having a shave (quite civilised!!) and this I believe is where you properly ‘wash off’ before getting in to the onsen. Makes perfect sense, especially if you’ve been on a hot speedy bus.
Sitting down on that low stool and hosing myself off was actually fantastic – certainly the best part of the day / second only to the dinner! I grabbed my mini mini towel and walked over to the Onsen. Big toe in first for a temperature check – perfect, and at I last lowered myself into the crystal clean water. Now being a Kiwi and a bit of an expert on natural hot pools and the like, I know what a good natural spa should smell and feel like. Well this is where the stakes just got a hell of a lot higher. The pool design and finishing materials were plain, unadorned, simple and perfectly finished with no sharp edges. However the most noticeable thing was the quality of water. It was the purest I have ever bathed in. There was no Rotoura pong, no Miranda cloudiness, no Taupo eggyness, no steamy Waiwera wish wash. It was just the purest of pure! I actually liken it to perhaps the exact opposite in temperature - of pure coolness, where the OraKing salmon are hatched in our own pure natural Te Waikoropupu spring water near Tataka.
Rejuvenated and thoroughly cleansed as well as relaxed, I returned to our shared room to discover a mattress on the floor, (with feather duvet on top thank goodness) perfectly made up ready for me to retire into. At last horizontal and quite surprised by the ‘comfort’ in my new Japanese bed. I closed my eyes and thought…. first class meal, simple practical clothing with no pretence, relaxing and almost spiritual cleansing ‘bathing’ ritual which unwinds the mind and body.
Ha, so who’s afraid of heights or Onsen? How lucky was I? What a cool experience, I’m certainly no fish out of water!
Author - Geoff Scott
Acclaimed Chef, Consultant and Food Writer