My 3-year-old daughter is in a public state of high excitement. She jumps up and down emitting toddler squeals of joy before darting away from me, past staring crowds, in the hope that I will chase her. Oh, and she’s completely naked.
Fortunately, we are in one of the few places in Tokyo where not wearing any clothes is perfectly acceptable (and where thankfully, people also seem to turn a blind eye to exuberant toddlers) — namely, an onsen (spa).
The Japanese pastime of hot spring bathing may evoke images of serene soaking in muscle-melting waters, while appreciating the passing of seasons and meditating on the fleeting nature of life.
Unless, of course, children are involved — in which case, picture less silent meditation than shouty splashes and chasing children across wet floors as you tell them not to run because they’ll slip. But for me, an almost-always exhausted mother of two, the thought of looking after children while soaking in a steaming hot bath is infinitely more appealing than running around the local park (again).
And there is one perfect place where children and onsen bathing go hand in hand: Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a natural hot spring theme park in Tokyo’s Odaiba district that is home to 13 different types of indoor and outdoor baths.
The communal spaces at Oedo Onsen Monogatari aim to recreate the bustling shitamachi (downtown) atmosphere of a festival in old Edo Period Tokyo. Complete with lanterns, wooden architecture and countless food, drink, games and toy stands, selling everything from old school sweets to sushi, the space also stages plus regular music performances.
Arriving one recent weekend morning with my two daughters — aged 11 months and 3 — plus friends, we were given a selection of yukata (summer kimono) to choose from (both children and parents) before getting changed in the large dressing rooms and leaving our belongings in the lockers.
Inside the onsen, there is no cash currency — everyone is given an electronic wristband to wear, which is then scanned to add food and goods to the bill to be paid upon leaving.
First stop: the baths. The children gleefully strip naked before running into the bathing area — a vast, double-height space, which is thankfully far too loud and busy for people to pen meditative bath-inspired haiku, so it’s no problem bringing in excited toddlers.
After washing at the showers, we begin our bath crawl: there are eight baths in the women’s section and five in the men’s. The waters — rich in sodium and chlorine ions from a depth of 1,400 meters undergound — have varying temperatures, which makes it easy to find a bath that is not too hot for the children.
An hour passes swiftly, bathing both indoors and outdoors, with the children enjoying clambering around on the rocks of the outdoor bath. Finally, after an epic time rounding up the children and getting them dressed back into their yukata, we venture outside for a walk in the facility’s Japanese gardens.
We wander along a 50-meter ashi-yu (foot bath) — another hit among the children — that loops around the garden, its form apparently inspired by an old ukiyo-e woodblock print depicting the Edo-Kyoto highway.
One space we decided to avoid with over-excited children was Dr. Fish. Here, brave spa-goers place their feet in warm pools of water before hundreds of small fish swarm over them to eat away dead skin cells (an alarmingly ticklish experience, I recall from earlier visits).
By this point, we had worked up an appetite and fortunately we were spoiled for choice. There are countless Japanese food outlets, where you can buy anything from curry rice to soba, before taking your trays to tables in communal areas or to large tatami mat rooms.
We selected a range of sushi before settling in one of the tatami mat spaces — perfect for placing babies on the floor and allowing the toddlers to transform the table, post-lunch, into a sprawling toy train set. It was also good to have a base — where the fathers could take care of the children (tucking into a beer or two) while the mothers enjoyed a well-deserved post-onsen shiatsu massage in a communal room.
The only downside? My elder daughter was clearly having so much fun that she didn’t want to leave. It required herculean quantities of energy to tear her away from the games stalls, out of her mini yukata and get her dressed.
A small price to pay, though, having managed to enjoy both a relaxing bath plus a massage — a welcome rarity when two small children are in the vicinity.
Oedo Onsen Monogatari is at 2-6-3 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo; open daily 11 a.m.-9 a.m. next morning. Admission is ¥2,480 for adults and children over age 12, ¥1,000 for younger children and free for kids under age 4.
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