For many centuries, the Japanese have loved to bathe in natural, hot springs. Being located on the so-called 'Ring of Fire' leaves the country at the mercy of frequent earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions – and then there's the stress of working in one of the most industrious nations on Earth. So it’s no surprise that on national holiday weekends, people leave the cities in droves to unwind at rural ryokans – the equivalent of English spa hotels. These can be found throughout the country, but there are a handful of places where entire towns revolve around hot-spring bathing, and they have a peculiarly Japanese atmosphere.
The history of these ‘onsen towns’ is intertwined with the arrival of Buddhism from China over a thousand years ago. One legend has it that a monk who meditated for 1,000 days found the well of a hot spring and established the town of Kinosaki on the remote north coast of Honshu. Another asserts that Kobo Daishi, the historical founder of Buddhism in the country, created the hot spring at the heart of a little mountain town called Shuzenji on the Izu Peninsula between Tokyo and Kyoto.
At Kinosaki, a picturesque, willow-lined canal is flanked by traditional wood-panelled ryokan. Each inn has its own hot-spring baths, with restorative properties the owners claim range from curing eczema to reducing arthritic pain. Baths are communal, but segregated into separate sections for men and women. Any misgivings you may have about the experience soon evaporate as you realise that other guests are simply immersed in their own little world, enjoying the rituals of showering and bathing without a care or a stare for their fellow bathers. The town also has five larger communal baths, and if you've come this far then do as the Japanese do and wear the 'yukata' (evening gown) and 'geta' (clogs) to stroll from one to the other at the pace of pre-modern times.