Monday, August 24, 2009

The Happiest Bath on Earth (大江戸温泉物語)

Well, it's officially been one week since I left Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku, and topping the list of things that I miss most are my weekly onsen (hot spring) visits.

I now consider myself an onsen snob. I believe I've earned this title. While I am nowhere near as well-traveled and knowledgeable as seasoned Japanese bathers, I have soaked in my fair share of tubs across Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu.

I visited over ten different onsen in Ehime Prefecture alone, swapping between two local establishments in To-on City for my weekly Monday night bath. I've bathed in the oldest of the oldest and the best of the best.

As a general rule, there are essentially no onsen to be found in the large city centers of Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo. Though, taking a several hour train ride out of the city may produce a couple of bathing holes. Knowing this to be the case, I simply assumed that my soaking days were over.

Enter Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba - Tokyo's premiere bathing amusement park! The name in Japanese is sort of goofy; it translates to something like, "Tale of a Tokyo Hot Spring". Judging by the name alone, I knew this was going to be a bathing experience like no other.

Running off of the amusement park model, the set admission price is a comprehension defying $30. This price lowers to $20 if you choose to bathe after 6 PM. To my surprise, they were running some sort of summer campaign, so I only had to pay $12.

While still undoubtedly on the steep end price wise (for comparison, my local onsen was $3.60), ten to fifteen dollars is not out of the question for a high-end establishment. I would never personally spend $30 for a bath, considering that Funaya, the luxury onsen / ryokan in Matsuyama where the imperial family stayed, only costs $15.

Visitors to Oedo Onsen Monogatari are required to wear a yukata. You can see the "festive" design I chose below. One point of confusion is that guests initially go into a changing room. Now, in 100% of the onsen I've visited up until now, this is the place where you would get naked, shove your clothes and personal belongings into a locker, and go through the curtain into the main bath.

At Oedo Onsen Mongatari however, what lies on the other side of the curtain is not the bathtub, but rather the sickeningly hyper-stylized Disney-esque Japan Plaza - filled with prize booths, theme restaurants, employees in costume, and just about every stereotypically Japanese image you can cram into the decor.

Thus, I very nearly made the mistake of announcing my arrival with a naked stroll through the promenade. I was not alone in my over-experienced blunder. I saw one Japanese man and son actually make their naked way well past the curtain, only to rush back into the changing room in shock. We were the true bathers.

Upon careful inspection of the sign, guests are asked to don their freakish yukata and first stroll around the premises before making their way to a separate changing room and entering the main bath.

Finding the entrance to the actual bath was equally confusing. Since everything in the plaza was so overdecorated with fake temple facades and torii gates, it was a bit like wandering around Epcot stoned. A friendly ninja finally pointed me in the right direction.

The actual bath itself is genuine in layout and design, if not in water quality. A particular onsen's water quality is immediately evident due to the feeling it produces on your skin (not to mention the taste - and yes, you should sample the taste). In addition to feeling clean, the best onsen water will leave your skin feeling soft and smooth after a bath.

Unfortunately, the water at Oedo Onsen Monogatari was supersaturated with sodium. It seemed like they were just pumping salt water into the various tubs. Consequently, my skin felt flaky and dry after exiting the bath.

Being the lover of traditional Japanese bathing that I am, I cannot recommend Oedo as an onsen. The argument could be made that the establishment is a tourist destination first and a public bath second.

While the sight of gleeful foreigners frolicking about in their yukata, licking cones of green tea ice cream was enough to make me silently throw up in my mouth, I'm willing to concede that if a family only has one week to spend in Tokyo and are searching for something "traditionally Japanese" to do...

I'll stop just short of an endorsement. Just so long as that same family keeps in mind that not all public baths look like they were ripped straight from the set of Memoirs of a Geisha.


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