Growing up in Ireland an outdoor dip meant a once-yearly trek to the west coast, where you’d nervously brave the 12c waters of the Atlantic Ocean for a few minutes, before retreating, shivering and chastened, back to the car.
If you were lucky you might get a ‘99’ for your troubles.
But growing up in Kinosaki Onsen, in the west of Japan, an outdoor dip entails a slow (no diving in here, trust me) immersion in waters whose temperature averages 44c.
Until recently I’d had plenty of the former. Childhood holidays in the west of Ireland, at places like Rossknowlagh or The Maharees, were great fun, but I don’t recall spending much time in the water.
And the water on the east coast, like that at Wexford‘s beaches, was even colder.
Mind you this was only by a degree or so – which goes unnoticed when you’re trying not to chip a chattering tooth, or running headlong for the car from yet another rain shower.
But no such issues in Kinosaki Onsen.
The clue’s in the name. Onsen means ’hot springs’ and Japan – volcanically active as it is – has got thousands of these.
The water is heated geothermally and, in its freshest state, emerges from the earth at temperatures as high as 80c.
Thankfully the baths I visited with my father- and brother-in-law were considerably cooler, though 40-odd degrees feels anything but cool as you stand water-side.
Like the icy Atlantic though, once you’re in, you’re in. And, hopefully, availing of the health benefits of the mineral rich water.
The Japanese have been doing this for hundreds of years. I was introduced to the idea by my wife’s family and we travelled there to experience it earlier this month.
The simmering water itself is just one part of visiting an onsen though. You’re not fully dressed to attend the baths unless you’re wearing a traditional yukata robe (see above) and sporting geta on your feet.
I spent two days like this. Having a whiskey, yukata-clad, with the guys before a quick dip and then meeting up with our wives for a traditional Japanese dinner.
We spent a couple of eye (and pore) opening days in Kinosaki Onsen – a unique place, particularly to a gaijin like me who usually has his showers lukewarm and his boiled eggs from a saucepan.
Kinosaki Onsen is thousands of miles, physically, mentally and thermally from where I grew up. For all the differences there was one similarity though.
Whether the water’s 10c or 44c I still get in the same way – one tentative toe at the time.