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Saturday, March 10, 2007

JAPAN LITE

Onsen -- a rubber ducky's dream


Bath time: Run the bath water, throw in some bath salts and jump in. If this is your idea of bath time, then you and your rubber ducky have been deprived.

onsen
The onsen beckons. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

Rubber duckies in Japan definitely have more fun, and here's why. First of all, in Japan, it's best to drive to the bathtub. No, that doesn't mean bringing the car into the house. You see, the best bath is one filled with natural spring water, so jump into the car with your rubber ducky and head for the mountains.

You might even want to go to a special onsen town where there are several different bath houses within walking distance. You can even stay overnight in an onsen hotel and bathe all weekend long.

The other day, I called the Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel to find out the hours of their onsen. "We are all booked out today," the lady told me. "A school group has reserved the entire bath." An entire school in a bath?

I had heard about a "private, deluxe onsen" in the area, so I gave them a call.

"Sure, what time would you like to bathe?" the lady asked me. The translation of private deluxe bath ended up being "family bathtub." Not quite as romantic, but still, at least my husband and I wouldn't run into any schools in our bath.

"How about a half hour from now?" I said. Three thirty seemed like a good time for a bath. They told me the price was 1,000 yen per hour for the bath and that there would be 500 yen per person "entry fee." Is there a ticket turnstile at the side of the bath tub, I wondered.

Suddenly, however, we were on a schedule, and a Japanese one at that, meaning we could not, under any circumstances, be late, so I quickly piled my family of two and our rubber ducky into the car for the 20-minute drive to the bath. We arrived at Kiranoyu Onsen frazzled, on time, and anxious to bathe.

Kiranoyu Onsen is located just across from Niseko train station, a convenient location for those who prefer to train it to the bath. I was a little surprised to find local produce for sale inside the building, along with liquor, jewelry and souvenirs, all in one compact little shop you had to pass through to get to the onsen reception. There was even a noodle shop in there. "Good water, good place, relaxing onsen," The brochure on the counter promised.

The woman at the desk showed us to our bath, and on the way we passed a large tatami mat room lined with picture windows. "What's this?" I asked, referring to the dozen or so people lying passed out on the floor.

This is "relax space," the woman explained. Relax? These people were playing dead. "The 500 yen entry fee allows you to use the facilities from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m."

The room included a wall full of books, beer machines, massage chairs and a big screen TV. Massages and yoga classes were performed in the room next door. We soon realized that we had entered an amusement park for the body and with just six hours left, we barely had enough time to relax.

The "family bath" we had reserved was perfect: a large square bath with a window that opened on to a small Japanese rock garden with snow. We drank "cup sake" while watching the snow fall. My rubber ducky couldn't believe his luck.

After the bath, we utilized the "relax space" and watched the giant weather forecast on TV that showed snowmen for every day of the week to come. The weather man promised "big snow," while the sun set over the mountains outside the picture windows. We ordered soba and ate it so slowly, I think we invented soba yoga.

Bathing in Japan is not just to clean the body. It's to clean the body and the mind.

As the time came to leave we thought, do we really have to?



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