To fully experience Japan, you have to literally immerse yourself in an onsen or public bath.
During Cebu Pacific’s maiden flight to Nagoya where we explored Central Japan via the Shoryudo dragon route, one of the cities we visited was Gero. Located in the Gifu Prefecture, Gero is renowned for its hot springs, said to be one of the Top 3 hot spring spots in Japan.
We spent the night at Suimeikan, a traditional four-building inn whose claim to fame is that the emperor once stayed there. Suimeikan is beautifully situated, sitting along the banks of the Hida River, so your room will have an unencumbered view of the clean waterway.
The water that runs through Gero is its lifeblood. The city is named after the Japanese phonetic interpretation of the sound a frog makes, “gero.” And its mascot is a cutely drawn frog as well. The Hida River runs throughout the city, and its soothing, flowing sound can lull you to sleep.
The waters of Gero are also renowned for their curative properties, said to provide relief from rheumatism and motor dysfunction. Apart from their medical benefits, their beautifying properties are intriguing as well. The water’s alkalinity, at pH 9.2, gives it soap-like qualities that cleanse the skin of impurities.
Walking around the sleepy town, you will see fountains of bubbling hot water, where anyone can dip their feet in the various foot baths. It is commonplace to see men and women walking around Gero dressed in cotton kimonos called yukata, while clutching towels, ready to dip themselves in the many baths that populate the city.
Our tour guide Yoshi-san gave the bashful first-timers a few tips from her own mother when she was about to embark on her first public bathing activity. Yoshi-san’s lilting, singsong voice made the advice sound like a nursery rhyme: “My mother said to me, ‘Yoshi, in the onsen, you have one small bath towel; if you are embarrassed, use it to cover your face.”
Added Yoshi-san: “If it is your first time in the onsen, stay for only three minutes. Stay longer and you might feel faint. Then the ambulance will come and everyone will see you naked.”
Wise words, indeed. Getting ready to go to the onsen can make you feel faint with shyness, especially coming from a culture where public nudity is uncommon, barely experienced in gyms and spas.
On our first visit to Japan, we stayed in Takayama, where the onsen waters come straight from the mountains. Regrettably, we were not able to experience the wonders of the onsen because our reluctance to bare it all in public was too strong.
Had we then known what Yoshi-san had told us, we would have spent half the trip submerged in the hot water, and allowed its restorative and beautifying properties to wash over us.
This time around, we vowed not to chicken out, made easier by setting “bathing schedules” among the other female members of our tour group. Showing off the goods to women you’ll probably never see again is one thing, but to look at naked women you bump into at media events is another thing entirely. We prefer to remain blissfully ignorant on how our colleagues landscape their lady parts, thank you very much.
Given Suimeikan’s vast layout, there were three public bathhouses to choose from: an open-air bath with a steaming pool outside, with the sky and stars as your ceiling; a 24-hour panoramic bathhouse with wraparound picture windows to give you a view of the town and the Hida mountains; and the Shimodome bathhouse whose walls, ceilings and columns are made with fragrant Japanese cypress.
A tub made out of cypress is also available in the same bathhouse.
Since we were already shedding all our clothes and inhibitions, we decided to go big—starting with the open-air bathhouse. As mentioned by Yoshi-san earlier, you have only one small towel to bring with you to the bathhouse. If you have long hair, you can use it to cover your boobs the way mermaids on TV do.
Before partaking of Gero’s “Bijin-no-yu” or baths of beauty, you have to clean yourself first from head to toe. There’s a row of sit-down shower stalls before the pools. Toiletries in big pump bottles—shampoo, conditioner and body wash—are usually provided, though some places charge for these, so it’s advisable to bring your own soap if you want.
The women were not shy about bathing: One took the time to do a little lady-gardening with a razor; another casually bent over to wash her legs, mooning the room; while still another lay prone on the pool’s ledge, knees slightly apart, to breathe in the steam from the pools.
After scrubbing and smelling of the onsen’s Shiseido amenities, we were ready to take the plunge. A door separated the indoor pools from the open-air one. The outside temperature was frosty; but before our body could realize that we were out naked in almost-freezing weather, we had already dipped into the glorious warmth of the hot springs.
Though the bathhouse was open-air, the cold against the hot springs created rising steam that obscured your vision. The silence was punctuated by men’s laughter, because right next door was the male open-air bathhouse, and we were separated only by a tall wall made of boulders.
But don’t worry, bathhouses are segregated according to gender, so you won’t have to share a public bath with a strange naked male.
Capping a tiring day of walking with an onsen trip is one of the best ways to appreciate Japan. Gero is a must-visit, especially for those who need a natural beauty booster.
After our 10-minute dip in the hot springs, we heeded our guide’s advice and didn’t towel off, letting our skin drink in as much of the curative waters as possible.
The effect was immediate. Not only did our muscle aches and pains vanish, we noticed our skin turn rosy, pink and soft as a peach. Even without lotion, our skin felt smooth and silky.
Find out more about Suimeikan at www.suimeikan.co.jp/english.
Affordable Japan with Cebu Pacific Air
CEBU Pacific Air’s latest flights to Nagoya and Narita break the myth that traveling to Japan is bank-breaking. Cebu Pacific Air has four weekly flights between Manila and Nagoya for as low as P5,499, easily 70 percent lower than other airlines. For bookings and inquiries, visit www.cebupacificair.com or call (02)7020888 or (032)2308888. To be the first to know about seat sales, subscribe to their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter (@CebuPacificAir).
Getting to Gero the easiest way is via a Nagoya flight. From Nagoya’s Central Japan International Airport (Centrair), the gateway to the Chubu region, it is only a matter of taking an express train (a Japanese experience not to be missed as well) via the Wide View Hida route.
Centrair’s tourist office is well-versed in providing you transfer details that will help your itinerary. Better yet, visit their site www.centrair.jp/en/tourist-info before your trip to have them help you with an itinerary that will maximize your experience.