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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Oedo Monogatari Onsen, Tokyo

The Japanese love hot water. Actually, "love" is an understatement. From times immemorial, immersing oneself in hot water is a favourite pastime in Japan, whether it be at home (in those small but deep baths), in the neighbourhood ofuro (public bath) or in that ultimate hot-water experience: the revered onsen.

In fact, hot water has such standing in Japanese culture that there is a special word for "hot water" in Japanese: yu. Here is the Japanese character (kanji) for yu, which appears on virtually every ofuro in the country:

During my last trip to Tokyo I visited the onsen in Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo bay): the Oedo Monogatari Onsen. This complex opened in 2003 and is more than just a hot bath. It was constructed in the ancient Oedo style (Oedo was the old name of Tokyo) and contains more than 20 hot baths, massage parlours and other attractions. It also boasts a mutltitude of restaurants and shops situated along a roofed street, which is modelled as a hirokouji street of the Edo period. Apparently, the water is brought up to the baths from 1,400 metres below ground. Aside from the indoor baths there are a couple of outdoor baths with simulated landscaping, and if it were not for the planes overhead landing at 2-minute intervals in nearby Haneda airport, one could almost imagine this was a genuine countryside onsen.

When you arrive at the onsen you put your shoes in a locker then proceed to pay and get your yukata (the traditional Japenese robe). You can choose from ten or so different yukata designs (who said Japanese were not individualistic people?). Then you proceed to the changing rooms where you get rid of your clothes and don the yukata; everybody walks around barefoot in their yukata throughout the onsen complex. The baths are separated but there is an outdoor foot-bath area which is mixed. I went on a Sunday and many families were there for the day.

One particularly interesting attraction at the Oedo Monogatari is the "fish doctor" treatment. These are tiny fish, 1-1.5cm in length and very thin, that live in hot water, where regular fish cannot survive. As a result, these fish live off dead matter. Someone discovered that the fish can be used to eat off the dead skin from your body. You immerse your hands or feet in the bath and theses small fish gather around and nibble off the dry skin off your extremities. It's quite ticklish at first but after a couple of minutes it becomes quite enjoyable, a kind of "mini massage" feeling.

The Oedo Monogatari Onsen is not the typical Japanese onsen. Far from it. It is a tourist attraction and it flaunts that rather shamelessly. But if one is in Tokyo and has no time to visit Japan's countryside for a "real" onsen then this is certainly a worthwhile experience.

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