‘Less is more’
Japan’s oldest spa town offers a spiritual zen honeymoon getaway. – Priyanka Pradhan
Published in GLAM Qatar May 2015
It’s fascinating to see the relevance of ancient Japanese philosophy even today, as it resonates across the natural theatre of Arima Onsen, and ricochets off the Spartan, zen-inspired homes of
this hilltop town. As it turns out, Arima Onsen, which lies in the Kobe region of Japan, is not
only the country’s oldest natural hot springs spa-town, but is also a slice of mystique, folklore
I’m sitting at the quaintly decked out, yet ultra-modern luxury ryokan, the Arimasansoh
Goshobessho Hot Springs resort, waiting for an induction into the ancient Japanese tradition of
onsen (hot springs) community bath. My eyes wander towards a bright, somewhat circular
emblem seen across the room.
“It’s like a wheel – a circular device with spokes that converge at a central point,” Kazushige
Kanai, the young scion of Arima Onsen’s most prominent business families, follows my gaze and
attempts to explain to me. He introduces himself as CEO apprentice for his family’s ancestral
properties, the Arimasansho Goshobessho resort and ancient parent property, Tocen
Goshoboh, before continuing.
“What do you see at the center of the wheel? Nothing!” he says passionately. “It’s an empty
space – a ‘functional nothingness’. It’s functional because this ‘nothingness’ is what makes the
wheel useful to man. How would you attach the wheel to anything if it wasn’t for this empty
space in the center?”
He continues, “According to Japanese philosophers, people (and things) should have a certain
emptiness at the core, in order to understand, appreciate and serve a purpose. The wheel-like
emblem for our resort follows the same philosophy.”
Arimasansoh Goshobessho, the hot springs spa resort that’s responsible for launching us into
the throes of philosophy is tucked away innocuously atop the steep slopes of Arima, just a few
steps away from his family’s ancient spa, Tocen Goshoboh. The latter was established as far
back as the Kamakura period in Japanese history (12th century), lying adjacent to the only hot-
spring bathhouse of Arima at the time.
Today, with more than 30 inns and onsen resorts, Arima onsen is known to be a haven for
alternative therapy as well as spirituality. For Arima locals, however, the therapeutic powers of
hot springs are mythical.
According to the history of the ancient Tousen Jinja shrine in Arima, two Shinto gods discovered
Arima onsen more than 1300 years ago. When they passed by the town, they happened to see
three injured crows drink water from an onsen pool who were immediately healed, much to the
astonishment of the gods. Legend has it that these ‘three crows of Arima’ were then
considered supernatural and became the only birds permitted to live in the town.
A few yards uphill from the Goshobessho, lies the same Tousen Jinja shrine, which takes more
than 50 rugged stone steps to climb. Cloaked in silence, the shrine houses the protecting deity
of Arima onsen and has the three crows carved into the entrance doorway. Wooden wishing
plagues called Ema brush against each other and water gushes out of an elaborate tsukubai
(stone basin), making the only two sounds heard across the compound. A peek inside the
sanctum sanctorum reveals a very simple and beautiful design, with prominent empty space in
the center, reiterating the ancient Japanese perspective of ‘less is more’.
Back at the resort, I’m staring at another sparsely furnished space – the community onsen
bathhouse. I’m wondering whether to plunge into the pool of steaming hot, reddish- gold
waters of the onsen, or simply return to the reassuring confines of my villa. My trepidation is
mainly because I’m told that one can only take a dip in this onsen completely in the nude – a
very common community bath custom in onsen tradition, but a bit of a culture shock to me.
Lying before me is the ‘Kinsen’, or ‘golden hot-spring’, one of the three types of natural springs
found in Arima. The strongly basic ferruginous sodium chloride spring is known for its beauty
benefits, as the thermal water leaves the skin extremely smooth and moisturized. Therapeutic
effects of this onsen include healing of external wounds, menstrual disorder and infertility in
women, chronic digestive disease, rheumatism and even motor paralysis. It is also known to
help in therapy for active tuberculosis, malignant tumors, severe heart disease and anemia,
among other acute ailments.
“The hot springs in Arima surface from upto 60 meters underground, at temperatures more
than 98 degree centigrade,” Mr Kanai had informed me earlier. “Special pipes are then used to
route it straight to the bath houses of our two properties, where the temperature is controlled
at around 40 degree centigrade.”
A walk around the town, which is small enough to be explored entirely on foot, uncovers a
number of active onsen sources, seen steaming and whistling out of long pipes. Spices,
condiments, confectionery and tea are sold at every corner of the narrow, steeply sloping main
street of the town, which was once the path of a flowing stream across the town.
Local life is simple and relatively uninterrupted by the world outside, shielded by Mount Rokko
and wrapped in the rich heritage of the traditional onsen. However, the esoteric charms of this
ancient spa town have attracted travelers from across the world, including some that even set
up a small Western colony here, in the pre-World War II era.
As for me, I did eventually take a plunge into the onsen’s hypnotic waters and in doing so,
surrendered myself to a unique spiritual experience – one that stays with me long after the
effects of the onsen have worn off.
How to Get There:
Emirates flies direct and daily from Dubai to Osaka. The business class service aboard the Airbus A380 offers the perfect start to the spa vacation. With the chauffeur-driven service from your doorstep to the Emirates business class lounge in Dubai, and from in-flight services to regionally-inspired onboard gourmet dining, the Emirates business class service aims to be a seamless luxury travel experience.
Emirates also flies daily between Dubai and Doha, Qatar.
Where to Stay:
Arimasansoh Goshobessho, Arima Onsen. Guests have the option to choose between villas or two-storey maisonettes at the resort, established on the site of the ancient Arima Kiyomizu temple. Both types of stay offer views of the Kiyomizu lake or the Taki river and come with private thermal rooms and access to the community onsen. http://www.goshobessho.com/en