An image for The Horrible, Beautiful World of Bad Postcards by Bill Barol from Boing Boing. Personally, I am not sure I would commit this to the “horrible” or “beautiful” categories. I would categorize it as “awesome.”


Spirited Away to Dogo Onsen

Hayao Miyazaki is a cornerstone of Japanese anime. His work is often compared to Walt Disney’s, but as much as I love The Little Mermaid, this comparison hardly does him  justice. Many of his stories are original, and every scene looks as though it could be framed for an exhibit. What I love about Miyazaki is that he incorporates the ideas, myths, histories, and landscapes  of Japan into his work.

One of my favorite movies by Miyazaki is called Spirited Away. The movie’s original Japanese name is Sento Chihiro. A sento is a Japanese public bath house that does not necessarily use hot spring water, but heats the water. Until the second half of the 20th century many Japanese people did not have baths in their homes, so they went to a sento to wash and refresh themselves. Though some sentos are utilitarian others are quite opulent. The more luxurious onsens and sentos often add minerals and infusions to the bath water for additional health benefits. Spirited Away is a magical story of an enchanted sento that hosts the spirits of everything from frogs to radishes; and the young, shy girl who gets trapped in service there. The narrative and the visuals are spectacular and the sento itself is the stuff of dreams.

Fortunately, the sento in Spirited Away is actually based on a real place on the island of Shikoku in Japan. It is called Dogo Onsen. I was lucky enough to visit Dogo Onsen in August of 2006 and I was surprised at how much inspiration the movie actually got from this historical landmark.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

Dogo Onsen is the oldest in Japan. It has a history of about 3,000 years, and is the onsen that healed the gods and emperors of Japan. According to legend, the onsen was discovered by a white heron who put its injured leg in the water and was healed, so the heron prevails as the symbol of Dogo Onsen.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

During my stay at Dogo I was able to imbibe the waters, tour of the Royal Baths reserved only for the royal family, and do this all wearing the traditional Japanese leisure wear: a yukata. Though the baths themselves are not in my top ten because they are small and crowded, the experience ranks quite high on my list. It was definitely one of my most memorable experiences in Japan, and a must for anyone who loves to watch or be Spirited Away.

Five Essentials

Every culture has their own bathing practices and rituals and it can be hard to know what to bring with you when you try a new practice or a new place for the first time. There are five things that I will never be caught without on my first trip and though they are not always appropriate or necessary I have peace of mind knowing that I will never be stuck in an uncomfortable situation as long as I have them in my bag.

My Essentials

1. Flip-Flops

Does anyone else have a phobia of wet feet? I sure do. Feet absorb a lot when they are wet and I only want mine to absorb the good stuff. In most Hot Springs the water will be hot enough to kill off anything that might be passed around, but on the bathing decks and in saunas its anyone’s guess as to who and what has been there before you. There are some situations where flip-flops are not acceptable such at in Hot Yoga classes or at the Japanese onsen, however in most other cases they are certainly a good idea.

2. A Bathing Suit

In some cultures where bathing is segregated by gender you do not need one at all and often they are simply not allowed. For example, you may not wear a bathing suit to a Japanese onsen or a Turkish haman. In many cases most of us would prefer not to wear one when we visit hot springs that we think are in the middle of nowhere, but you never know when you will have to share the heat. So it is best to keep one handy and avoid any surprises. Most developed, mixed gender hot springs do require bathing suits, so: when in doubt bring one.

3. A Water Bottle

The heat will dehydrate you. Your body will sweat out the bad stuff, but you need to replace the good stuff. I will often drink up to 2 liters of water in just a few hours when I am at a spring or sauna. My body loves it and I feel so refreshed when I am finished. I have yet to find a place where I am not allowed a water bottle. Just be sure to fill it with fresh water before you go. There may not be potable water in more remote areas.

4. A Towel

Some places provide towels; some places rent them, and some places you are on your own. I always thought I knew how to use a towel, but when I was in Japan I discovered that I was wrong. Most onsens that charge a fee will also give you a small towel about the size of a hand towel. They call it a “decency towel.” This towel is used to cover whatever part of yourself you would most like to cover as you walk around the bathing area, but must never touch the hot spring water directly. They are also used as washcloths to clean yourself before you get in the tub, cold cloths for your head as you are sitting in the hot water, and when you are finished you wring them out and use them to dry yourself off with too. Genius! It is all you need. A hand towel does not take up much space in my bag so, if there are no other towels to be found I will, at least, have a bit of “decency.”

5. Soap

Almost every time you enter a public bathing place you are expected to wash first. Sometimes there is soap, sometimes there is none. I always pack a travel bottle of my favorite soap. It is multipurpose soap that I have used on my face, hands and body for years. I have even used it in a pinch for laundry, dishes, and washing off seats in public baths. But remember, it never acceptable to allow soap to get into hot spring water.

Put these five things in a mesh bag, so it doesn’t get smelly afterwards and you are set. Remember, you may not need all of these things all the time, so if you are unsure take your cues from the locals.

Bagby Hot Springs

In Mount Hood National Forest, a day-trip southeast of Portland, you can find Bagby Hot Springs. Quite frequented by locals and travelers, it may not be the solitary pool in the wilderness that purists seek, but it is still well worth the visit. When you arrive there is a thirty-minute walk to get to the springs from the parking lot. The path follows a jewel-toned river as it winds through a mossy forest and ascends only at the very end to reach the springs.

There are two sources where the spring water bubbles up from the ground and flows though ingenious channels into the tubs at about 135 degrees F. Three huts house a number of private and communal tubs. The private tubs are huge tree trunks that have been hollowed out and are long enough to fit two comfortably. The communal soakers are big barrels. The tubs empty and refill with channels and plugs so if you get a private soaker you can be sure to have clean water, and there are buckets available to collect cold water and adjust the temperature to your liking.

Photo by Daniel Irvine 2009

There is a society, Friends of Bagby, who maintain and protect the springs, and who gratefully accept donations. However, Bagby Hot Springs are often a victim of vandalism. I was initially put off by lurking trash and graffiti and was very glad I brought my flip-flops for walking around the site. However, in the end the water was luxurious and nothing else mattered. I even took the opportunity to cold plunge once or twice in the river to refresh myself and prolong my stay.

For Dreamers and Jet-Setters

Presently, I live in a city with no hot springs, and this means that pursuing my passion always requires large financial and time commitments. So, when I have an itch to soak I pour myself a bath and read about where I could be instead. Cathedrals of the Flesh by Alexia Brue is a good memoir for the tub. It’s the story of young woman’s fore into cleansing and sweating rituals worldwide.

Brue writes about her international cleansing expedition, that takes her to Turkey, Russia, Finland, and Japan. There are beautiful descriptions of her travels, and the history and culture around bathing in these countries. Most importantly, to dreamers and would-be jet-setting bathers, she is very informative about the rules, practices, and social courtesies of bathing in the present. Brue shares her ecstasies and blunders in the baths and saunas of the world, and now, I feel that I could enjoy a Russian banya or a Turkish hamam with more grace than I might have otherwise.

If you liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love then you will find this book is entertaining. It has all the same adventure, passion, and personal quest elements of a globe-trotting woman on a mission, but better because it is about bathing. On the other hand, if you like to stick to facts, then consider the cultural tips and travel ideas supplementary material to Internet browsing.