My Onsen Wuwaki in Ikaho Onsen

Windy Yang, the so-called ‘Spa Lady’, discovered Japanese Hot Springs, or ‘Onsen’, twenty years ago in Japan and so her love affair began. Share her special experiences and you may find yourself falling in love with Onsen too.
(JNTO Website Column 2000 Spa Lady Onsen Love Stories Series No 6)

My Onsen Wuwaki in Ikaho, Gunma

When I feel his touch for the first time, my heart skips a beat, I shake with anticipation, I luxuriate in his affection. When he wraps his warm, watery arms around my shoulders, I sigh with delight….oh, my new Onsen lover!

Have you ever been in love? If you have, I am sure you know of the feelings that you go through in those initial weeks. Think of the sleepless nights as you lie awake dreaming of your new love, the restlessness as you sit by the telephone waiting for it to ring and the pounding in your heart as you anticipate a meeting. The early stages in a new relationship are filled with an, almost, electric passion that consumes you and becomes your only existence. I have, as you know, been in love for over twenty years and as my lover is constantly changing, Spa Lady Windy has been suspended in a state of passion for a long time!

The Japanese like to say that you have found “Wuwaki” when you find a new love. Wuwaki(浮氣) is a new love but not necessarily the only love in your life. It may be a new love affair on the side or love found for the first time. What is sure that it will be passionate and consuming and will have an enormous impact on your life!
They say that few forms of relaxation can rival the sheer pleasure of soaking in hot spring water. Gunma Prefecture(群馬縣) offers a diversity of hot springs experiences – pools by rivers, in old wooden buildings, on mountainsides – try it once and you are likely to be hooked for life! I now know this to be the case and these days need to travel far and wide to get my new ‘fix’. Few are aware but Ikaho has strong connections with Hawaii. When Hawaii was still an independent country, Ikaho was often used as a retreat by the Minister to Japan, a place where he could escape the pressures of diplomatic life. Today, as Honolulu’s sister, Ikaho is not too removed from the infamous paradise of warm and sunny Hawaii. While many people flock to the sandy beaches of Hawaii, I like to think that my paradise on earth, my idyllic spot lies in the warm embrace of my watery Onsen. Ikaho Onsen(伊香保溫泉) is a perfect destination for my obsession. Located on the slopes of Mt. Haruma(榛名山) in Gunma Prefecture, only two hours from Tokyo, Ikaho Onsen has many open air baths filled with hot water, rich in iron. The iron reacts with other properties to create a fluid that resembles the color of Oolong tea(烏龍茶) with a dash of milk. The content of the baths is perfect for women, many of whom are prone to iron deficiency. With a temperature of 40 degrees, I felt like I was bathing in a large elegant cup of perfectly cooled, delicious oolong tea. Although over 1,700 years old, the hot spring gained fame after an article was published in "Hototogisu"(不如歸), a famous magazine of about thirty pages, in the late 1800s. The story, written by Tokutomi Roka(德富蘆花) in the Meiji era, told of a beautiful girl who was inflicted with a terrible disease. She visited the Onsen at Ikaho and felt as if she had come home. Although she gained much comfort from the Onsen, her disease was incurable and she finally died in her beloved land. This sad tale is among Japan’s collectibles and, over the years, has been translated into many different languages. Many people flock to the site to see if the magic can work for them.

Although magical, the Onsen also has support from non-supernatural sources. It is believed that the waters in the spring can greatly enhance fertility. Many women, who were believed by doctors to be infertile, have miraculously fallen pregnant after bathing in the spa. It is also thought that bathing in and drinking the water can help women to fight syndromes that leave them exhausted and lacking energy as well as making the skin more beautiful and shiny. So, perhaps we can nickname Ikaho Onsen, as ‘Health & Beauty Onsen’ or perhaps even ‘Baby Giving Onsen’!

Ikaho is also home to a very respected character in Onsen circles, Dr. Kindayu Kogure(木暮金大夫先生), past President of the Japanese Onsen Association(日本溫泉協會). Besides the healing properties of Ikaho Onsen’s murky waters, people also find it very easy to unwind, relax and forget all their troubles as they bathe in the waters. Writers of many calibers (not least Spa Lady Windy!) visit Ikaho and bathe in the spring in the hope of gaining inspiration from the surrounding beauty. The majestic mountain that rises up behind the resort, the combination of the mountain mist mingling with the steam from the hot spring and the fresh mountain air seem to give a scribe’s pen the freedom to create a masterpiece. The twenty-five poetic stanzas of the Manyo Poetry collection contain within them, nine pieces about Ikaho. Nine monuments, dedicated to these can be found dotted around town. As you bathe in the waters of the hot spring, if you listen clearly, you can also hear the whispers of poetry and literary classics from the Meiji and Taisho eras that remind you of the power of the spa. The remains of the ancient gate in the town seem to protect the spring, as it was intended to when it was built.

Artist Yumeji Takehisa(竹久夢二) first visited Ikaho in 1919 and is said to have fallen immediately in love with the spring and its surrounds. He loved the steaming waters of the spa and the quaint atmosphere of the town, which seems to display its ancient relics with pride. Renowned for his dramatic depiction of women in sorrow, he also reportedly gained much inspiration from the dramatic scenery at Ikaho. Yumeji Takehisa who died tragically at the age of thirty-six, is very popular with women as much for his poetry and children’s folk songs as for his dramatic art. It seems that, in Ikaho, his legacy lives on. Women flock to the resort year round to pay their respects to his spirit and to the Onsen that gave him inspiration.

Ikaho has been my old friend for many years now and I have traveled there on numerous occasions, once to train as a Nakai-san(waitress at Japanese Ryokan). I am fortunate to have a warm relationship with several of the presidents of the local hotels. Many times, I check my post in the morning to find a warm invitation on my doormat. With such generous hospitality being offered, I often find myself with no choice but to accept! Many of the hotels are steeped in tradition and often the same family has enjoyed ownership for generations, son taking over from father time after time.

One such president is Tom Fukuda(福田朋英), who is the seventeenth member of his family line to run the well-renowned “Fukuichi Hotel”(福一旅館). Educated in Germany, he is tall, good-looking and well known in the industry. Running Chigira Jinsentei(千明仁泉亭), another local hotel, is Hidehiko Chigira, who is renowned in the area for his wit and humor. Already twenty-two generations old, his property boasts as long a history as Fukuichi Hotel. Furthermore, it is believed that this is where the author who penned the famous article in ‘Hototogisu’ stayed. Although in his fifties he has a quick wit that is guaranteed to charm. On one occasion, while making a speech, he described his wife as like a small kitten when they married. Now, he said, she has become a tigress!

Although these presidents play an active role in the activities of the hotel, most will leave the organization of the day to day operations in the hands of a capable Okami(女將, female hotelier, wife to president). While the presidents are the power behind the hotel, the Okami are the attractive public front and in fact wield considerable influence in all areas. This leaves the presidents free to pursue other interests and it is a common sight to see these men drinking sake and chatting in the elegant surroundings of the hotel as the Okami take care of all business details. Gunma Prefecture is thus well known for its women who are rumored to be very powerful in one respect – keeping their men relaxed!

I am attracted to Ikaho, not by the handsome presidents that warmly welcome me as their VIP guest but by the powerful Oolong tea springs. Although Ikaho is home to a multitude of beautiful flowers, the spring season at Ikaho is particularly brilliant. The slopes of Mt. Haruna are blanketed in a purple haze of wild Fuji flowers. As I bathe in the warm water and dream of becoming a more sparkling Spa Lady, how could I not fall in love with this purple Wuwaki?