Traditional Japanese bath houses, or onsens, are one of the things that Americans struggle with while living in Japan. While the idea of relaxing in warm baths, possibly fed by nearby natural hot water springs, is one worth entertaining, you are required to be naked in a pool full of people while you do it.
Thanks to our country's Puritanical roots, most Americans find this embarrassing and avoid onsens altogether. And yes, you would be in a pool of people of the same gender (follow the red signs for girls and blue signs for boys), but still, a pool full of naked people. And, if you are like me, where you are the only female in your family, that means that it's not an opportunity for a family outing... not that that is necessarily a bad thing. "Relaxation" is not really something I think of when my kids are around.
Additionally, there is the problem of sporting tattoos. Many onsens forbid tattoos because they are associated with the Japanese mafia and other gangs. As you would suspect, Japan is more conservative when it comes to acceptable appearances... mini skirts and young adult females wearing school girl outfits aside.
When my Japanese friend Naomi (who is married to an American, but they are not affiliated with the base, and their three kids are fluent in both English and Japanese) invited our family to a "hot springs gym" in the mountains near Hiroshima, she was quick to note that bathing suits are required. Really?! Very cool... and such a great alternative for Americans! So... after explaining to the spouse what we were doing (note that I did not ask if he would like to go... he would not like to go, but he is going) and not being given the look of death (surprising, but I will take my victories where I can get them), I accepted Naomi's invitation and prepared to go hot springing. Now, cameras are not actually allowed in the pool areas (Big OK people like me are fine with that), but I did try to get some pertinent shots so that someone trying to replicate our trip could do so with ease.
The place is called Kurhaus Yunoyama and is run by the city of Hiroshima. Here is the website... if you use Google Chrome as your browser it automatically translates the page for you. Here are the directions for how to get there from MCAS Iwakuni (thank you, Naomi). They are very accurate... we had no trouble finding it. Also, as you get closer to Kurhaus Yunoyama, you start seeing signs like this:
We packed light for this trip... we each had our bathing suits to change in to and we brought a "bagged" lunch that we got from 7-11 on the way. Rodney had a t-shirt to wear so he could cover up the tattoo he has on his arm. Of course, I did not think to take a photo of the front of the facility, but here is the photo from their web page:
The pools are almost entirely indoors, so this is a place you can enjoy all year round, in any weather. A photo of the front door with the hours of operation and admission cost (info is also on their web site):
You take your shoes of once you get inside, and place them in a locker. Lockers become a theme at this place. Lots of lockers. You put your shoes inside and take the key to the front desk so they can hold it for you. You do not need to remember the locker number you have because it says so on the key. And the employees remember to give you the right key. Foolproof! This concept blew my kids' minds for some reason and they were reluctant to give up their key before memorizing the locker number it went to.
At the front desk, you hand them your shoe locker key, pay for your family and are awarded with a plastic purse for each person in your party. These bags come with a towel, a wash cloth and another locker key. One type of bag for girls, another for boys.
So, that's the first-floor lobby. There are two more floors:
We headed to the third floor to the "lounge" to eat our lunches. There is also an udon (noodle soup) restaurant up there, but the hours of operation aren't necessarily the same as the gym itself, Naomi said. It was open the Saturday we were there. There are also plenty of vending machines around.
After fueling up, it was time to hit the water. The Japanese are not concerned with the 20-minute wait-to-swim-after-you-eat rule. But, I figured once we got the tour of the place from Naomi and her family, and got changed, it would be about 20 minutes. Besides, I wasn't planning to do much swimming... more relaxing.
So, on the second floor is an actual gym for those who like to work out before the soak. And a napping room. And locker rooms. This floor is also where the warm/hot baths are, as seen through this nap room window. No one was napping, so we weren't disturbing anyone. Each hot tub arced around a pillar and each pool had a different sort of bubbling or whirling. Each served a different purpose. There were also wooden sauna boxes )you sit in it and your head sticks out so you can breathe) and a traditional sauna (where breathing s tougher).
To the right of the hot tubs above is a staircase down to where my kids spent the afternoon: the bathwater pool, complete with water slide(behind those support beams), which is about 100 feet long. I went down the slide about 10 times and loved every moment of it. The water was warm, but not as warm as the therapeutic tubs on the second floor.
But, first we had to change... standard locker room and you get a key on a (pink for girls, green for boys) rubber bracelet to wear that corresponds with your locker. There were also lockers as you entered the locker room, out in the hall. You pay to use those, but if you brought more stuff than will fit in the two lockers you were allotted, you have the option to rent one of those. Plenty of locker opportunities at this place!
The women's locker room also had hair dryers, brushes, various toiletry items, etc. I heard that the men's locker room wasn't quite as well equipped, but still had the essentials.
The shower for after the hot tubbing. And bath in case you hadn't bathed enough. Conditioning shampoo, face soap and body soap is available. To assuage any fears you may have, everything in the place was very clean and no one came home with a fungus or disease....even though we did not wear "shower shoes." The spouse was very reluctant to go around barefoot, but he remained unscathed.
So, once you're changed in to your swimsuit, you head for the pools. There is a shelf for you to leave your plastic bag of towels on.
And then head out this door... note that bathing suits are, indeed, required.
Shower before you go out...
And then go out to the hot tub pools through this doorway. I could not take my phone any further.
As I mentioned, the hot tubs are each designed for a different health benefit (douche bath, anyone? And it's not what you're thinking...). The list of them is on their web site. There is a certain order to use them in depending on whether you want to lose weight and have nice skin, ease away aches and pains, if you have a circulatory problem, if you are a senior citizen, etc. Unfortunately, these "maps" are all in Japanese, so Naomi had to direct me where to go so I could enjoy the "lose weight/have nice skin" circuit. It took about 45 minutes to complete and included 3-5 minutes in different hot tubs, some time sitting out of the tubs, and time in the saunas.
Rodney enjoyed the hot tubs also, and spent some time in the outdoor pools, so he could go from freezing cold showers to warm soaking in a pool. I am not a fan of that procedure. I like staying warm.
The kids turned pruny in the big pool and probably went down the slide 50 times each. I spent some time down there myself, and then soaked a little longer in the hot tubs.
After about three hours we (meaning the spouse) were hot-springed out, so it was time to go. We said good-bye to our hosts, and I bathed (actually sitting on those little plastic stools. I needed one about three inches higher, I think), changed and joined the men to head downstairs to turn in our plastic bags, towels and locker room key. The kids were pleasantly surprised that we did, in fact, get our correct shoe locker keys back.
As we piled in to the car for the hour-and-a-half drive home, we were very hungry, so we decided to make a brief pit stop at the little coffee shop that you can't miss when you drive to Kurhaus Yunoyama. It's less than a kilometer down the only road you can go on.
It has an American log cabin theme, and while the menu is in Japanese, the lady who was working spoke English well enough to explain the menu to us... two of the items being cakes she bakes herself (these are in glass cake plates on the kitchen bar)... which were delicious, I might add.
Xan enjoying Coke in a wine glass.
Will enjoying his Coke in a bottle
We also had a Japanese hot dog plate and homemade waffles - which were great... I only wish they had come with maple syrup. Rodney said the coffee was very good. The snack really hit the spot after swimming. And just a word of warning: Even though I did very little physical activity, the warm spring waters sapped my energy and I was exhausted by 6 p.m. that day. I think I went to bed at 9:30 that night. And slept like a log. We had a great time... the boys want to go back, and the spouse even said he'd go again. That's a coveted Rodney Guthrie Two-thumbs Up!
A big thank you to Naomi and her family, who were not only kind enough to invite us to go with them, but were great about answering all of my questions. I really appreciate you guys!