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Onsen 'therapy
(Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-03-24 08:50

Sitting in a scalding hot bath with naked strangers sounds more like punishment than a popular pastime.

But for generations, the Japanese have found no better way to relax than soaking together in a hot spring bath. And now an economic upturn and worries about travelling abroad are encouraging even more to take the dip.

"This is just the best thing," said Ayako Hatano, a retired teacher, soaking in a murky white bath with her friends in Nikko, a mountainous hot spring resort three hours north of Tokyo.

"You come out so relaxed, like a totally different person."

Hatano is one of more than 100 million travellers this year visiting the "onsen", or hot springs, that dot Japan's volcanic archipelago and are believed to relieve muscle tension and work wonders for the skin.

Japan Travel Bureau, the biggest travel agent in the country, expects a rise of 1 per cent in domestic travel this year, boosted by the economic recovery and continuing fears of travelling abroad after the September 2001 attacks in the United States and health scares around Asia.

Since about a third of all tourist travel inside Japan involves a trip to an onsen, that's good news for the sector.

All this will be welcome relief for an industry estimated by some analysts to generate 400 billion yen (US$3.6 billion) a year in revenue but struggling to recover from over-expansion in the 1980s.

After the bursting of the bubble economy, many onsen hotels found themselves in a saturated market and soaking in debt.

Debt and deflation

The plight of the onsen industry is nowhere more evident than in Kinugawa, a once-popular resort near Nikko.

At night, lantern-lit streets give off the ambience of a quaint onsen town, but daylight reveals a row of decrepit buildings and huge concrete hotels with cracked facades.

The failure of the local Ashikaga Bank late last year has aggravated the situation, making many hotel owners worried their loans will not be rolled over.

Many local residents are pinning their hopes on talk that the State-backed Industrial Revitalization Corp of Japan plans to buy the debts of struggling hotels and help them restructure.

But debts are not the only problem.

Like much of the economy, onsen hotels are also suffering from deflation and room rates are still falling, even though the number of guests is recovering.

Most consumers these days expect onsen hotels to offer a room with a view and an impressive dinner for about US$100-150 per person, down by about US$30-50 from a couple of years ago, JTB said.

While luxury inns offering rooms for around US$500 per person are still said to be flourishing, the country's growing population of pensioners means consumers will want to travel more frequently, and for less money.

Back to basics

To many, an onsen is still the epitome of indulgence, often experienced in combination with a lavish meal of fresh fish and some chilled "sake" rice wine.

Dedicated onsen fans, however, say bathing in hot springs was never meant to be a costly treat, but something more communal.

By visiting public bathhouses in neighbourhoods with hot springs, even the most frugal traveller can experience their therapeutic effects and bask in the after-onsen glow, otherwise known as the "boiled octopus" look.

Some of the most popular onsen are outdoors, where bathers can gaze at fluttering snow in the winter or lush green mountains in the summer.

"Just sitting in a bath, looking at scenery, and talking to friends can feel so good," said Chio Yamada, a clerk at a trading company in Tokyo.

Perhaps the best news for first-time visitors is that an increasing number of hotels are offering private baths for couples and families - although aficionados swear that letting go of inhibitions is an essential part of the experience.

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