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Only an onsen outsider falls for the ‘Japanese joke’

Like so much that is good about Japan, onsen entwine nature and culture into an experience that is both beautiful and serene.


Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

Naked except for a strategically arranged towel no bigger than a dish cloth, I felt apprehensive. Five weeks after arriving in Kumamoto province on the island of Kyushu, I would finally encounter the essence of Japanese culture, the geothermal springs known as onsen.

I'd learned the signs, or kanji, for a man (two legged stick person with a head that looks like a four-paned window) and woman (a cross-legged stick figure with no head) so I'd avoid strolling into the wrong hot spring with only my tiny towel to hide behind (or to hide my behind).

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For hundreds of years these volcanic springs, awash in restorative minerals, have been a source of purity, health, society and relaxation. Like so much that is good about Japan, onsen entwine nature and culture into an experience that is beautiful, serene and – as I was about to find out – electrifying.

Casting my dish-cloth covering aside, that had bubbled up from the fiery heart of Japan and enfolded me like warm silk. My anxieties dissipated as I sank slowly to a smooth stainless-steel plate at the bottom of the shallow spring.

I noticed that other larger springs around me were replete with locals, most with their puny bathing towels curled like thick noodles on their heads. Oddly, my pool was empty. Hoping to animate the still water I reached for the large button at the side of the spring. But onsen are not Jacuzzi.

I'd activated an electrical current that charged across the metal plate, through my buttocks and into every molecule of my being. I sprang from the super-charged spring wide-eyed and electrified.

My first encounter hadn't been the deeply relaxing experience I'd expected. A muttered "Gaijin da!" (he's an outsider!) from one of the vapour-veiled locals, failed to dispel my sense that I had profaned the onsen ritual. I found out a few days later that the electric plate – a feature at Neko Dake hot spring in Kumamoto's immense and active Aso caldera – was merely a novelty meant to promote circulation. My colleague Takahashi san, called the gimmick a "Japanese joke."

I had prepared for culture shock but this was something entirely different.

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