In the back parking lot of an athletics store surrounded by bigger big box stores, JJ Family Spa is an authentic jjimjilbang in greater Vancouver. A jjimjilbang is a Korean spa andis quite similar to a Japanese onsen or sento. It is a family atmosphere where people can relax in spacious heated rooms, bathe, socialize and get a variety of spa treatments.
JJ Family Spa is a great place to relax, refresh, and enjoy a bit of Korea on this side of the Pacific. There are communal rooms for eating, chatting, and relaxing as well as a host of massage options. The male and female spa areas each have showers, a hot tub, a cold plunge, a steam room, and a sauna. However, the most unique feature is the Salt Room. A dimly lit room with a floor that looks like a giant sand box filled with salt and covered with white cotton sheets. Lying down I felt as if I was lying on a hot beach. The warm salt is said to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, treat acne, help allergies, purify the blood, and relax the muscles. Whatever the benefits it feels great and you can stay as long as you like.
The website has been down for sometime now, so here are the details:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Hot springs in Japan have had some high profile representation in the last decade or two with a steamy scene from the book / movieMemoirs of a Geisha, as well as in the overwhelming and beautiful movie Baraka. The lattershows monkeys bathing in the hot springs of Nagano, which they regularly do in that location.
Usually, bathing is separated by species and gender. You can opt for the monkeys (I have heard), but I wouldn’t.
I have always loved water. Perhaps it is genetic. I come from a long line of mariners and a mother who takes her baths very seriously. As I child I was always in, on and around water. So, I grew up believing that I was, in fact, a mermaid. Then in February of 2006 I discovered a whole new way to enjoy myself when I got into some hot water. Since that first hot spring experience I have been seeking out hot springs where ever I go.
Check out a description of the Japanese Onsen and my formative experiences with hot springs as they were originally published here.