Tokyo feels like the world’s entertainment capital, where idle boredom is an impossible option. Whether it’s going to an arcade, taking care of a digital pet on your cellphone, or heading over to a cuddle cafe, personal amusement is obtained on demand, through an infinite number of avenues. But with all of these unending lists of pleasurable options, there also seems to be an unspoken discipline in Japanese culture; a silent code that dictates that recreation strictly occur before and after your daily obligations.
It’s because of this mentality that certain types of pre-packaged entertainment getaways appear to be more prevalent in Japan than the United States. Onsen (hot springs) are one of the most common staycation preferences amongst Japanese locals. With more than 25,000 naturally-occurring mineral hot springs across the country, Japan’s geothermal areas help power 3,000 spa resorts. Ranging from the natural to the man-made, these hot springs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Traditional onsen are a collection of shallow pools where men and women gather separately to hang out in the nude and recoup from the daily grind. Onsen offer a variety of baths with jets, waterfalls, and weak, non-hazardous currents of electricity running through their lukewarm, rejuvenating waters.
On a recent trip to Tokyo, Japan, the possibility of bathing inside of a flavored onsen appeared on my radar. My girlfriend and I decided to pay a visit to Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, a family-friendly resort two hours southwest of Tokyo, where you can swim in a pool of green tea, wine, coffee, or sake.
Like any other onsen, visible tattoos of any kind are forbidden at the Yunessun resort. I saw a lot of bandages covering biceps, ankles, and the lower area of women’s backs. If you come to the Yunessun with a lot of ink to cover, you’re forced to buy a white spandex shirt that you are required to wear throughout the spa day.
And while most traditional onsen allow for nudity in same-sex hot springs, going naked is not permitted inside the Yunessun so that both sexes can linger in harmony amongst green tea, coffee, sake, and wine pools. Most adults rent tie-dyed ponchos to wear outside of the water. Their uniformity made the whole place look like some sort of aquatic cult.
As we walked toward the park’s “Yutopia” section, we passed through “God’s Aegean Sea,” a giant pool surrounded by a towering mosaic of the Grecian countryside. Just beyond this faux-ocean was “Rodeo Mountain,” a large, man-made crag with a slide that dumped visitors into a lake of green tea. Inside of the mountain’s hollow structure was a small, dark, grotto where college-age Japanese couples waded in a foot of water, silently holding onto each other while taking selfies.
In “Yutopia,” there were churning baths containing a variety of traditional liquids, all of which were considered “good for the skin.” Despite the presence of coffee and sake baths, it was the Yunessun’s wine bath that seemed like the obvious choice for the ultimate relaxation experience.
Looming over a purple basin of murky water, a giant bottle of merlot spit out diluted wine into a pool the size and depth of a minivan. As we started wading into the chlorinated, grape-infused waters, a young boy followed behind, carrying a huge plastic bottle held together by duct tape. It looked like a magnum of laundry detergent. Convulsing with the bottle in hand, he started pouring red wine onto everyone in the pool, including a newborn baby. The child’s mother covered its eyes as the wine splashed into its gaping mouth. We all licked at the cheap supermarket alcohol that flowed down our faces, despite the two foreboding words of English the boy mouthed in our direction, “No drink.”
In the final stretch of our spa day, we decided to partake in one of the more traditional hot springs in the back of the park. Walking up to the pool, we spotted a teenage girl and a chunky, tattooed, teenage boy who was wearing a spandex shirt, quietly engaged in an intense dry-humping session inside of its shallow waters.
We watched and waited.
When the pair finally finished, we slid into the warm waters to decompress after a long day of relaxation. Like so many couples that came before us, we sat in a pool of complete silence.