Tenzan Onsen [JAPAN]

Neve Knowles

There is a slam as the car door closes and a beep as it locks. My legs are tired after a long day trip and there is a slight slip as I walk on the moist cobbled path. We are about two hours away from Tokyo now, and this journey always brings joy to my family and I. We have been here many times, and the onsen has always brought us excitement. The day was cloudy and foggy in Hakone, but it seems this clearing in the deep forest has been followed by a change in weather. The last of today’s light dapples through the verdant leaves and branches, gazing over a beloved Onsen house. The air feels pure as if it breezes through the shrubbery and undergrowth of the Japanese mountains. As if it softly breaks the calmness of lakes or supports the meandering of rivers and streams. I like this natural air. 
The onsen house is of rock and wood and glossy tiles. It lies low, engulfed by the surrounding trees. We climb the cobbled set of steps and are greeted by the gate. The name of the onsen, Tenzan Onsen (天山湯治郷), is hung on durable wooden beams, supported by the timeless stone columns. However, there is something out of place. A small boxy ticket machine is sheltered in a small hut to the left. Although it is visible, it hides from wind, rain and sun. The space is just larger than a desk, but it does its job. 
We pay for the tickets and step through the entrance gate. Cold breezes still creep into our raincoats, and the prospect of a wonderful hot spring quickens our pace. The cobblestone path continues, but the gap between each individual rock is slightly wider. Rain from earlier today fills these minuscule valleys, creating tiny rivers and streams. The water is calm and still, with the occasional ripple, and it has its own sense of peace. On each side of the pathway, two small gardens are displayed. At the front are shrunk zen gardens made up of tiny sandy stones, but there is no pattern raked into them. Behind are small layers of grass and hedges and finally, what lies beyond the route. The stone slab path ends and in front of us stands the door. Droplets of water drip from the canopy above the doors and fine fabric drapes, decorated with Japanese Kanjis (Complicated and detailed Japanese characters), hang before us. We draw them aside and are saved by the warmth and yellowish light.
A few minutes pass as we quite clumsily communicate with the reception and are handed towels. The language barrier is stiff, but eventually loosens up and lets us in. We thank the reception desk and continue down the hallway. There is no creak to the wooden floor panels, and they have a lovely woody feeling. Their slightly slippy polish gives it a nice glint and they do not feel unnaturally plasticy. The walls are similar, but less glossy. Traditional Japanese ink paintings are framed and hung on the walls. As we turn the corner, we are met with a living room-sized space with a tatami mat floor. People of all ages are relaxing, sleeping, reading, playing games and listening to music - Some who look like they just got out of the onsen and some who look eager to get in. This is the also the area where members of my family split. Stairs descend and a corridor continues, both covered with draping curtains. On these are painted ゆ but again with smaller kanjis 女 and 男. My mum and sister go in the direction of the women's bath (女), and my dad, brother and I go downstairs to the men’s (男).
We put our clothes inside an empty locker and enter through the sliding glass door. We are now in the onsen area. There are seven natural hot springs, all of different style, temperature, texture and location. However, first, we need to be clean. There is a row of mini, sitting showers. Each with a stool, tap, showerhead, bowl and some soaps, shampoos and conditioners to go between them. The floor is covered with black stone tiles. They are slightly rough but smoothened by the boiling water that washes over them all day. A few mini hanging lights provide a faint glow in the thick steam trapped in this roofed part of the onsen. The vapor is constant, humid and a nice change from the sharp cold winds. Once there is a free shower, I go forward, wash my hair and body, then rinse myself clean. I get up and walk through the warm puddles towards the first bath. 
This one is one of my favorites, it is still in the roofed area. I put my first foot in, take in the lovely sensation, then continue down the underwater steps. It is waist-deep and the perfect temperature. It is still hot enough to keep you warm on a winter’s day, but it is not unbearably hot. I love this one. My toes feel the bumpy floor and there is a place to sit down under the water. The water is slightly cloudy with an organic texture but has no smell. It’s quite small and almost always empty. 
Piping hot water gushes over the edge of the pool next door as people get in and out. We call that one the Molten Cauldron. I am not a huge fan of it but it is definitely one of the hottest of them all. I soak in my favorite bath for a bit longer before I get up and move onto the next pool. As I get out, I glance into the Molten Cauldron and I don’t believe how long some people can survive in there. I remember from last time I came here, the smooth wooden sitting level was as hot as the water and it conducted the heat as well as metal. I keep going and am met with the now darkening skies of the fully outdoor area. 
Freezing water spurts through small cracks in the rocky wall, and I dread the idea of being in a cold pool this time during the year. This one is known as the Icy Basin in our family. Behind the frigid bath are some steps that first take you to one pool then to another slightly higher up. The first one is warmer than my favourite tub but has a thinner feel to the water, and the floor and sides feel natural. There is no true sitting level, just a few large stones at the bottom of the hot spring. A mini flow of water comes from the higher onsen pool and reaches this one, the warm water like a small creek. 
I return to the stairs which are partially submerged into the hot spring and walk upwards. This bath is similar to the one below, both in size and style. However, this one is special. A small pillar, about waist height stands in the middle of the pool and on top of it is a statue. It is a statue of Daikoku, the Japanese money God. He has a backpack, golden mallet and a beaming smile on his face. Daikoku is small, but out of the water. He is primarily sculpted of rock but has a slightly worn coat of gold paint. He is a highlight of the onsen. He stands tall, like a lonely mountain amongst a misty lake. This pool is the highest of the baths and so is the closest to the greenery of the Japanese mountains. A thermometer is built into the wall, and a metal pipe at the top irregularly drips boiling water into the bath’s corner. I decide my time in this pool is over, so I return down the steps back to the cold basin.
A lovely sakura tree rests beside the cold bath, and the flowers are only blossoming. I love this stage of the blooming. The branches and twigs are a dark brown, and they seem thick and crisp. The dehydrated look gives them a contour-line like pattern, but they are healthy. The tree has a hearty texture to the touch and upon the branching sticks are the flowers. They are connected at the base by a sprouted, dark bud. They look like mini palm trees, with the bud as the thick neck of the plant and the green sprouts as the leaves. This mid-section of the flower has tiny individual flaky leaves, like the tip of asparagus, but out the top comes the most popular part. The sakura flower is not fully open yet but all the shades of pink are still visible. They have only parted enough to see the centre of the plant. This is why it is my favorite phase of the Sakura blossoming.
Between the tree’s branches, I notice a puff of a dense steam as someone leaves the steam room. That's where I am going next, I think to myself. I walk over to the door and duck down. The entrance is like a Hobbit hole. It is quite short, circular and with a heavy birch door. The steam room has a strange shape and is not connected to the main building of the onsen. It is the shape of a large gourd, with the entrance being the top of the fruit. I walk inside and am instantly struck with a force of humid air. You can faintly see the outline of others inside from the lantern in the corner, but the steam paints the room a gradual shade of yellow. The heat starts to get to me. It feels like the heavy steam squeezes the sweat out of my body, then instantly evaporates it. I cannot bear it any longer, so I try to exit as quickly as possible, without disturbing the others. Once I am met with the cold winds and the now dark sky, I check the time. Unfortunately, I need to leave soon.
I look over the lit-up onsen one last time before I rush to the shower area again. I remember all the fun I have had here and cannot wait for the time to come when I am back here in the mountains. I scrub my body and hair, rinse myself off and walk back through the door to the changing rooms. The evening lanterns light up the trees, stones, huts and hot springs, and my heart will always have a place to rest, here at Tenzan Onsen.

Neve Knowles is 14 years old and has lived in Japan for four and a half years. Before that, Neve lived in Bangladesh, England and China. In his free time, he loves to listen to and play music, play sports and be out and about with friends. Neve loves writing because he can show readers different ideas and points of view. This writing topic drew his attention because it meant that he could show you a really special aspect of Japan. Neve wanted to write about this Onsen because it is something that makes him feel great, and he wishes that writing about it could also interest you. He is really grateful to have had such an amazing opportunity to do some writing and show you some of Japan’s best bits!

"A garden path that leads to the gate of my Japanese/Zen Garden" by Ronald Douglas Frazier is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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