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Wash away city-life stress with the traditional onsen experience

by Jeff Kingston

THE JAPANESE SPA: A Guide to Japan’s Finest Ryokan and Onsen, by Akihiko Seki and Elizabeth Heilman Brooke. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2005, 175 pp., $26.95 (cloth).

Here we discover the art and aesthetics of the Japanese hot spring (onsen) experience. Twenty-eight exquisite inns (ryokan) are featured in some 400 incredibly beautiful, lush photographs taken by Akihiko Seki. One can sense the intimacy of the inns and the pampering that awaits. We discover beautiful entrances, entrancing gardens, lovely baths, cozy rooms, muted lighting, sunken hearths (irori), stunning screens and mouthwatering food. The ryokan range from resolutely traditional to more modern designs scattered throughout the archipelago.

This is a work of love that celebrates the curative powers of onsen. Here we escape from a more hectic pace to an oasis of repose and quiet contemplation where the hardest decision all day is when and where to bathe. Staring into gardens through the steam rising over rippling water, one can almost hear the susurrus of a nearby stream. Tranquillity rediscovered.

Elizabeth Brooke’s text deftly evokes ambience and stirs the imagination with richly layered descriptions. At Higashiyama in Aizu-Wakamatsu she writes, “To sleep, perhaps to dream among blossoms of azalea or cherry pink. These verdant trees are awash in fiesta colors in March and April and May. Views from the Momiji (Maple) Room make guests feel like their futon are floating among the trees.”

She has an eye for the telling detail that captures the sense of grace and tradition that permeates these gorgeously photographed inns. She takes us to Ishikawa-ken where we see the “sparkle of snow on cedar. The chilling thrill of stepping across a footbridge to sip sake in a villa that once served as a weekend retreat for a member of the Imperial family . . . . With its Kaga red walls, so colored to honor the local lord, its Sukiya design using sliding paper doors, cushioned tatami space and slivers of alcove for a single blossom, a silk scroll, the Ochin-no-Ma room is exemplary of the refined living spaces at Araya Totoan.”

In Gunma we discover a modern jewel, Senjyuan (Small Hermitage for a Long Life), renowned both for its artful cuisine and award-winning architecture. Each room has its own bath that shares stunning views of Mount Tanigawa, whose appearance shifts dramatically with the weather.

This cosseting ryokan based on “the humble simplicity of tea cottages of the Muromachi period (1333-1573) . . . celebrates natural materials: plaster, bamboo, fragile Japanese paper, polished Japanese cypress.” Hermitages like these certainly make one eager to extend life if only to enjoy such sybaritic pleasures.

An ode to the simplicity found at Yusai in Kumamoto’s Kurokawa Onsen begins with: “Reflections serene, surreal. Towering trees on warm, still waters. The contented smile of a welcoming stone deity. The glow of lantern light and the fascinating dynamic of shadow play. Humble imagery enchants.”

While this fine montage will certainly enhance anyone’s coffee table, the suggestions and travel information ensure that it will also get extensive practical use. We read about the genteel etiquette of the bath, the seasonal offerings and intimate descriptions that will help travelers get the most out of their encounters with the understated charms of these remarkable inns. But it is the numinous photos that will draw readers back time and time again to linger over scenes that remind us of what is often all too neglected.