Oedo Onsen Monogatari and the Public Baths in Japan
We know that often, Japanese adaptations of places or concepts from abroad tend to end up with more than a little Disneyland twist than being faithful descriptions of reality. What is less known is the fact that the Japanese also have the tendency to pass their own culture through the mill of what they refer to as “Amuse“, in other words, entertainment. The example I would like to introduce today is the Onsen Monogatari Oeodo, the reconstruction of a traditional public bath of the Edo period, but with Theme Park approach…
Public baths in Japan
Until very recently, private bathrooms in Japanese houses were reserved for the upper classes of the population. Members of more modest households were accustomed to meet in the evening at the local bathhouse to make their ablutions, relax, and share the news with the neighbors. Even today, and even though most homes contain bathrooms, these are often too small to accommodate large baths tubes and many people still go to the public baths. Some of these baths, the onsen, get their water from natural sources, while most of the public baths in the cities are sento whose water supply is connected to main water pipes. In spite of this cultural attachment, the number of local sento tends to decline in cities but the onsen remain a destination of choice for any self-respecting Japanese on vacation. In fact, the public bath is such an institution in Japan that manga and entire feature films are devoted to them such as the recent Thermae Romae.
Trailer of the film “Thermae Romae”
Personally, I have taken a liking to these baths during my first stay in Japan, especially because although there was not necessarily enough time to go back to the hotel between every training session at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, I had substantial amounts of time to kill between rounds of keikogi washing and training. I found that there was nothing better to relieve sore muscles than to relax in these hot baths for a while, followed by several cycles saunas and cold showers. The sento I used to go to near the Hombu Dojo was also kind of a cultural experience in itself because it was one of the few places where people with tattoos were accepted. This restriction is mainly set in order to deny entry to the Yakuza whose bodies are usually covered with colorful tattoos. There, I got the opportunity to meet with members of the Tokyo underworld, while in their birthday suit… Many had missing fingers, which is another proof of their belonging to the criminal class. I was a little intimidated at the start but I realized that if I did not mind them, they did not bother me either. I even had the opportunity to chat with one of them in my rudimentary Japanese as we both watched the sumo bouts during the summer tournament on the small TV inside the sauna.
The Oedo Onsen Monogatari
The Oedo Onsen gets its name from the fact that its water from a source located more than 1400 meters below the Tokyo Bay. The fact that it is one of the few real onsen area in the Tokyo area makes it one of the most appealing features of the place. However, what really makes it unique is the fact that more than being also one of the largest onsen in Japan, it doubles as an amusement park, a restaurant and a relaxation area.
Regulars visitors of public baths houses will easily find their marks as you need to part with your shoes at the entrance and leave your personal belongings in a locker. You must then choose a yukata that you will wear later but first, you must head for the separate men and women sections that contains the bath itself. No need to carry cash with you since all purchases are recorded on an electronic bracelet that is given to you at the entrance. The main room contains two main baths, but guests can also relax in a basin placed outside.
Video of my latest visit at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in the Odaiba Bay
Once you have completed you ablutions, you must put on your yukata and gather with your friends of both sexes in the common area, a sort of rococo reconstitution of medieval Edo that hosts all the areas of entertainment. Many stalls offer food and drinks that can then be enjoyed in large lounges covered with tatami and low coffee tables in which visitors often doze for a few minutes, even hours. The most active visitors can enjoy the live entertainment (comedy, magic, etc..) and other events taking place in the central part. You can also enjoy massage rooms and the outdoor relaxation space dressed as a Japanese garden, especially the foot baths that contain the “doctor fish” that will feed on dead skin on your feet.
It is interesting to note that contrary to what one might expect, the vast majority of visitors actually consists of Japanese people. In spite of the rather naive decor, if you let yourself get taken by the overall enthusiasm, you are sure to have a good time in this rather unique place, associated with an informative experience on how Japanese view their culture and what relaxation should be about.