I forced new friends and travel companions to spend their first day in Japan traveling to the Arima onsen, or bathhouse, behind Mount Rokko.
Backstory: I get my kicks out of hiking that leads to natural hot springs. The experience is woodsy, aromatic and relaxing. You always meet someone who you expect lives there, or someone else who has traveled the world and has wild stories to tell. For me, hot springs have been a perk of living in Colorado and Oregon. And after months of rambling through cities, I was ready for serenity and the great outdoors.
My friends appeased me. They packed bathing suits and towels into their backpacks and followed me to the bus that would take us from Kobe to Arima. When we arrived we discovered a tranquil mountain town reminiscent of Breckenridge, Colorado, but much quieter and more calm.
We wandered around the trails of Mount Rokko, past small temples and shrines, and underneath trees with leaves so pink and so red you had to get up close to confirm they were real.
By now I was also questioning the authenticity of the famed Arima Onsen I'd read about online. I couldn't smell sulfur in the air, and none of these trails led us to any form of natural oasis. Jill (whose beautiful photos are included in this post) and I spotted "bathhouse" on our poorly translated map, and took off into town to find it. We left the rest of our friends behind, who preferred to continue hiking the mountain than to bath in its springs.
We arrived at the onsen, and instead of discovering an outdoor sanctuary, walked into a building that reminded us of the entrance of a 24 Hour Fitness. We were instructed to take off our shoes and rent a locker immediately upon entry. We also instantly spotted a sign indicating that no bathing suits were allowed here. It practically read, "Strip Down or Get Out."
We made it this far. So we took off our shoes and rented lockers and wrapped ourselves in towels to avoid the inevitable until the very last second possible. We walked through a small door leading to the springs, which resembled the hot tubs you see in a gym locker room.
Were we in the right place? This wasn't exactly serene and outdoorsy. Jill and I exchanged panicked looks when one woman motioned for us to remove our towels. There was no need to express our discomfort out loud. In silence, we turned back around, dressed, returned our locker keys, and put our shoes back on. This wasn't what we expected, and we just couldn't go through with it.
In retrospect, I wish I would have ripped off my towel, and jumped into that tub with all of those naked ladies. Sure, it wasn't what I expected, but if I wanted to my standard hot springs experience, I could have waited until my return to the United States. Granted, we probably found a sort of spa, and not the hot springs we'd hoped for, but that was no excuse not to soak in some culture, so to speak.
I should have gotten naked and dove in, both to respect my environment and to embrace these sorts of conundrums that everyone experiences when they travel. If you ever come upon a situation like this, I highly recommend stripping down and sucking it up. It will be a much less embarrassing story to tell when you return to your friends who have found the natural spring on their hike.