Saturday, 10 May 2014

Expansion

Onsen soaking
Miho Tabuchi is a well-known name within the the global soaking culture. At home (Japan) she is known for a Japanese language onsen review site as well as a publicist of articles on onsen. The English language part of the world will be familiar with her onsensoaker blog.

Laying claim to being a global expert, at the time of this publication, Miho has visited 215 hot springs in 28 countries excluding Japan (and counting China and Taiwan separately). If including Japan, the number of soaking sites visited rises to 1,500 hot springs in 29 countries, a very impressive count indeed.

Miho at Jinata Onsen, Shikinejima (Shikine Island), Tokyo 

Gifted
Miho, what would be your favourite hot springs and why? 
"Let me answer my favourites this way:
My favourite hot springs area is Beppu, Oita prefecture, Japan. Beppu is a rather big area and actually consists of eight hot springs: Beppu, Kannawa, Myoban, Shibaseki, Kankaiji, Kamegawa, Horita and Hamawaki. There are various soaking spots in Beppu, especially many public baths. 
Outside of Japan I liked the hot springs of Iceland, Indonesia and Taiwan. Iceland and Indonesia are geothermally active. Taiwan is geothermally not so active, but this mountainous country has many unspoiled wild hot springs and Japanese style public baths. 
I prefer though the wild hot springs and public baths as I can feel hot springs are gift of mother natures while soaking in wild ones".
Mugen-no-sato, Horita Onsen, Beppu Onsenkyo, Beppu City

Trendy
In your blogs we see you are concerned with onsen closing. 
Do you have figures to illustrate this?
"The latest statistics from Japan's Ministry of the Environment (March 2013)  show that the number of the day-visit onsen (commercially run onsen without accommodation) was 7,771 which had increased by 54 from a year before. However the number of ryokan (onsen with accomodation) were 13,521: a decrease of 200.
Additionally, according to the first issue of the Onsen Hihyo, the number of konyoku decreased from more than 1,200 in 1993 to less than 700 in 2013".
Can you describe the reasons behind these trends? 
"I think the main reasons for the number of ryokans to decrease are a lack of successors and changes in our lifestyle. When the Japanese economy was booming, visiting big onsen hotels as part of a tour group was popular. Many larger hotels counted on these groups. But after our so-called economic bubble burst, the number of these tour groups decreased sharply. However, many hotels had invested in expanding their capacity and couldn’t avoid bankruptcy.
Small-scale ryokans and hotels also suffer from the economic down turn and the lack of successors. Very often ryokan owners’ children tend to prefer working in larger cities such as Tokyo or Osaka, rather than taking over the family business.
More recently, new building standards have been introduced to prevent damage by earthquakes. Since, some ryokans and hotels have had to close their business as they couldn’t afford to renovate their buildings in accordance with the new standards.
Revitalization / regeneration business is booming. Specialized companies acquire bankrupt hotels and ryokans, and turn them into economical hotels and ryokans. They omit service as much as possible to offer cheap accommodation prices. For example, they serve buffet dinner and breakfast. If you stay in traditional Japanese style ryokans, they will serve your meals dish by dish in your room".
As we have noticed, you have been to many hot springs outside of Japan. 
What are your ideas about the development of wild and / or rural hot springs into resorts?
"For Japanese, onsen means bath / soaking place. Outside of Japan, hot springs are for swimming / for leisure / for drinking / to cure disease / forcooking and so on. I always enjoy finding these different kinds of use. However, I don’t like resort type hot springs myself.
Resort hot springs are rapidly increasing in China and Southeast Asia. They are though nice places to visit and watch other visitors".
Resources I have the impression that taking an onsen bath in Japan is very important aspect of life. 
To what degree are the surroundings (natural / non-natural / enhancements), price, catering and the ability to stay overnight important aspects in selecting where to take an onsen?
"It’s very important to me personally, but generally speaking, I think we Japanese love taking bath. It’s usually humid in Japan and I take a bath every day. And if it’s an onsen bath, the better. I prefer natural onsen bath, but if impossible, circulated onsen water bath is fine to me. Sometimes after visiting a wild onsen, I have to drop in to another onsen to wash off mud and other dirt. 

I don’t limit myself as to how much I spend when visiting an onsen, if a reliable friend had made recommendations, then I will visit there. But my favourites are small, old, family-run ryokans and usually they offer rooms with meals costing 15,000-20,000 yen (150-200 $US) or less per person. Once I stayed at a ryokan costing just 3500 yen (35$) with dinner and breakfast! 

Gorgeous places are usually rather new ones. However it’s difficult to find naturally gushing hot springs at these places. Many of these are obtain their hot springs from deep bored wells. Of course there are always some exceptions".
 
A look inside the latest issue of Onsen Hihyo magazine. 
And the article on Singa Tatopani, Baglung district, Nepal written by Miho.
   
You recently authored an article in the Japanese publication Onsen Hihyo (Hot Spring Critique). 
How important are these sorts of publications in Japan?
"Though it might seem in book stores in Japan that there are many onsen publications, they are mostly not of much significance. Many of these publications carry articles on onsen which have been sponsored. They look like an usual article, but onsen owners pay for favourable reviews. I know the writers and editors of these publications get their information from websites, blogs and social media, but magazines and guidebooks are resourceful for those who recently got interested in onsen, I guess.
The Onsen Hihyo is an exception to the above, as it has no sponsored articles or advertorials.

Otherwise, good information is available through internet rather than magazines and / or guidebooks".
Li-song Hot Spring , southeastern Taiwan

Enthused
Is there an aspect of hot springs bathing which you would like to highlight?
"My most memorable hot spring experience is a recent visit to Li-song hot springs in Taiwan. Maybe because I came back just a few weeks ago and my memory is still vivid. The hot spring itself was amazing and support from the Taiwanese was impressive. 
Let me explain about Li-song hot spring a bit more. When I first saw a photo of Li-song in an in-flight magazine 8 years ago, it caught my breath: I couldn't imagine that such a beautiful hot spring was there in a neighbouring country. 
But I can't understand Chinese and without any friends there to help me, visiting Li-song was just a distant dream. Since then, I have visited Taiwan 7 times, learnt how to travel and one by one made some friends.
When I visited An-tong Hot Springs in October 2013, the general manager there told me, if I wanted to visit Li-song so much, he could come with me next time. He kept his promise, even asked the #1 specialist of wild hot springs in Taiwan to come with us and the specialist came out of kindness.
The trail was so steep, I had to cling to a rope, and crossed the river twice, with short swims in cold water, but it was rewarding. I'd never been to such a beautiful wild hot springs before. I'm so happy and looking for next main target".
 
"What I like to do is to make people of other countries get interested in onsen and want to come to Japan. 
I've been to more than 70 countries in the world. People are generally nice to me wherever I go. So I want to welcome people to Japan in turn. And I believe onsen is worth visiting while travelling in Japan, I want to provide useful information.

I also want to make Japanese people more interested in hot springs in other countries. 
It might sound strange, but Japanese onsen enthusiasts tend to look down on hot springs in other countries even though they don't know any. They say "Hey, they take hot spring bath in swim suites, right? That's a swimming pool, not a hot spring at all". I want to change this by explaining to them there are so many attractive hot springs in the world. 

Finally I would like to build a network of hot springs enthusiasts like myself.
To visit hot springs in the world, I need up-to-date information from other hot spring enthusiasts.
I think I'm doing well, gradually expanding my network".
Thank you Miho for your effort in giving an insight into how you experience wild soaks from the Japanese perspective. 
It's also very interesting reading about the trends affecting hot spring soaking in Japan. 
Good luck in your future endeavours to highlight global soaking!

Notes
All photo's are used courtesy of Miho Tabuchi.

For more info on Jinata onsen, see the onsensoaker report. 
Concerning Mugen-no-sato, onsenaddict has a blog entry.
Singa Tatopani has it's own Facebook pag.
Li-song hot springs is featured at Lonely Planet ("most beautiful natural hot spring in Taiwan").

Japanese soaking vernacular:
Konyoku (混浴): Mixed baths 
Onsen (温泉): Japanese for hot spring 
Ryokan (旅館) : Traditional Japanese style inn

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