Home  >  Magazine  >  Issue 6 : Apr 2006  > Columns  >  Tokyo Onsen


By Ryo Sumikawa

Tokyo Onsen



Recently my friend and I decided to try our hand at “Tokyo Backpacking.” We had both traveled on a shoestring overseas but were curious what a backpacking trip through Tokyo would be like. It was a wet Saturday morning when we left the house hauling backpacks filled with beach sandals, cameras, Gore-tex jackets and a Lonely Planet guidebook. A typhoon had drawn near and the early morning streets of Takadanobaba were drenched in rain.

We washed up at a bathhouse in Ikebukuro. Then, while riding the Yamanote Line, rifled through an issue of SM Sniper picked up from one of the public toilets at Sugamo Station. The afternoon was spent drinking Japanese sake at Ameyoko (the famous market street in Ueno) and wandering around. At one point we spotted a strange foursome playing mahjong below the tracks of Tokyo Station and, when they asked where we were from, we pretended to be Taiwanese tourists.

That night we arrived at the Tokyo Onsen looking like a couple of used rags. On the large screen TV in the sauna room news flashed that a family camping on the banks of the Kurokura River in Tanzawa (Kanagawa Prefecture) had been swept away. Five minutes was all I could handle in the stifling heat, so I staggered to the bath.    

Allowing my lower half to go numb in the cold water bath was a shocking experience, and when I exhaled with a long breath from my nose, a cool sensation made its way from my nostrils and enveloped my head. Thinking how good this felt, I took another deep breath and held the air in my lungs to cool, breathing it out through my nose and causing the top of my head to become comfortably chilled.

While repeating this process several times, I suddenly heard the loud rumbling of running water. Geeeeet ooouuut!!! The waterfall-like spray of scolding water soaked and crisped my head in a bizarre fashion.

Later we hit up a Marcos Suzano live show at Tokyo Blue Note, drinking and dancing until morning.

Japan’s First Sauna, Tokyo Onsen, Files for Bankruptcy

On the morning of Oct. 28, 2004, this headline appeared in the morning paper, citing speculative investment as the cause of bankruptcy. However, they still remain in business as Japan’s first, albeit bankrupt, sauna located under Tokyo Station.

This dubious charm makes it one spot not to be missed. Now and then, when I’m feeling especially beat, I revisit the onsen. Cooling my head in the frigid waters helps bring normalcy to my perception of the world above.