Hakone, Japan, a Spa and Outdoor Museum to Remember

High in the mountains of Hakone Japan, there is a unique Hakone Open Air Museum, which is certainly a drawing card since the massive landscape if filled with huge sculptures by acclaimed international sculptors. I wouldn’t have missed this permanent exhibition. But the real reason I had come to this crystal clear air area was for the hot springs which beckon health- oriented Japanese and in- the- know tourists.

In another era, Japanese feudal lords would travel, spending their nights at traditional inns called Ryokens. These days, the luxury style hotels have all but replaced the traditional inns. When I checked into Okada Japanese way of life so I was a bit prepared, but obviously, not completely. Walking down the very long hallway, I saw men and women sipping tea who smiled widely as I passed. All were dressed in the same mandatory unisex kimonos. It seemed like a different plane- like a surrealistic impression of the future. I learned that each hotel has their own color theme robes. Hotel and looked around this very large building with its very westernized lobby, I was stunned to see booths and counters selling cakes, candies and various Japanese- made clothing items. I soon realized that Okada is where west meets east. My room was also schizophrenic. In a niche were twin western styled beds but off in the wider space on a traditional tatami mat were a low chair and table prepared with teacups and a hot water thermos. I was told that if I could chose my sleeping accommodations – Japanese style where a futon would be unfolded for me in the evening or the bed. Naturally, I opted for the former. Along with the low furniture, I was supplied with a neatly folded kimono and two pairs of slippers. The colorful embroidered soft pair, I discovered too late, was for entering the bathroom. The plastic ones were for wandering throughout the hotel, for the hot spring area and even for daily outdoors activities. However, it wasn’t until I was in the lobby to meet up with a group who had already dressed in their kimonos, that I realized I had made a faux pas. I was wearing the colorful foot covering thinking that they coordinated far better with the blue and white kimono. I quickly retreated to my room and slipped into the other pair.

Once in the hot springs area, I had no idea what to expect except that I quickly learned that one side is for men (otokoburo), while the other for women (onnaburo), each with their own pools. The locker room was spotless. Racks of baskets were stacked on wire shelving. As I watched the other women, I too, folded my clothes neatly and placed them and my slippers in one then set the wicker container back in its original place. But the actual bathing rituals needed attention so I watched carefully, trying not to stare, to see what the other women were doing. I realized they were watching me.

An attentive attendant handed me two towels. The larger was for modesty, the other for drying. Only when I entered the tiled swimming pool area did I realize that drying doesn’t mean only when you get out of the pool. In this case one gets prepared before any dunking takes place. Each woman, and soon me, are seated before a hose attached to the water tap. The low turned- over bucket became a seat while the other is for filling and spilling on top or yourself. Everyone is expected to be perfectly scrubbed before entering the hot spring. Fearing that I might make another error, not wanting to pollute the waters, I kept glancing over to the others making sure that I was following the rituals to the nth degree. Even if I wasn’t, the Japanese people are far too polite to have suggested differently. With my towels dropped near my buckets, I refolded them neatly and placed them on top of my pails.

Stepping into the pool, in the buff, it was as expected, pleasantly hot. We’re warned not to stay in too long. The alternative was to test the outdoor pool (rotenburo) but the chilly air kept me content in this healthy arena. Carefully kicking my legs, swinging my arms, I began to feel very Japanese. Once out of the water, I saw the others quickly wrap their towel for modesty sake, I thought. Obviously, I did likewise. Once back in the locker area the women dry their hair and apply body lotion, a task, I realized is the same around the world. With my kimono and obi tied tightly and the correct plastic flip flops back on, I was quite happy to return to my room for a cup of Japanese tea which I knew would be waiting.

However, on my way out, I saw three very comfortable looking chairs. Two were occupied so I thought this would be an interesting perch to observe the activity, rather than rushing to the room. Taking the empty seat, I was stunned when the chair came alive, suddenly starting to vibrate. ‘Fingers’ were going up and down my spine and within nanoseconds someone had brought me a basin filled with warm water so then my feet were soon also vibrating. I became addicted to this marvelous massage as it tightened around my spine then ever so quickly releasing and pulsating up and down. I watched the other two women. One was having a pedicure and foot massage, the other had fallen asleep. After 15 minutes, the vibrations stopped and with regret I relinquished my chair.

Next morning, very early, thinking I’d beat the crowd, I decided to take the waters now that I knew the ‘schpiel’ and was confident about the rituals. What an n eye opener it was to see that several women were already bobbing in the hot spring pool, even at this ridiculously early hour. With great aplomb, I did the pre wash then dunked into the pool for a longer time then the day before. But my mind was on that chair. I didn’t want to miss a seat. Luckily, there was one available and this time I took advantage spending more time with the mechanical masseuse. I left with a feeling of great joy and energy and couldn’t wait to get home to see if the spas in my city had discovered this marvel of all chairs. Oh, and the Okada Hot Spring Hotel was a treat also.

Just about an hour from Tokyo by bus or train in the south east part of the main island, the town of Hakone sits in the middle of the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. It’s hard to miss the rising mountain range of Fuji , just across from Hakone, where hikers of various levels can see the beauty of the country. The best time to partake in this sport is between June and September. Although winters can be cold, it doesn’t have the frosty, finger- numbing winters of Canada. And as an addendum, the open air museum,just minutes away from the spa, is has a wonderful display of sculptures. Nearby, is a indoor museum with other fine sculptures. A great memory for culture, mind and body.