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Located in Kobe, Arima Onsen is among Japan's most popular hot spring destinations. Though not often frequented by tourists, this charming town is a favourite of locals and those looking to relax.

Saturday morning on the Kobe Electric Railway.

Unapologetic rays of afternoon sunlight filter through the clear train windows as we chug along the hilly terrain of Hyogo prefecture.

For three days now, we’d traipsed through what felt like the entirety of Japan, pausing to pray at Shinto shrines, wandering through open-air, high-ceilinged marketplaces, and lingering longingly at the aisles of every 7-11 or Family Mart we came across. Tired, and with our aching feet beneath us, we pointed our toes toward the ancient hot spring town of Arima Onsen.

Arima is by no means a tourist trap. In fact, I’d noticed that we were the only ones there. Frequented by Osaka and Kobe residents, Arima Onsen boasts an impressive thousand-year history as one of the country’s oldest hot spring resorts. Reachable by the Shintetsu Arima Line, the onsen town opens up to an impressive natural hot spring. Visitors can walk down rock stairs and stroll along paths that divide the hot spring into various pools and streams. It is the town's pièce de résistance, an impressive reminder of what it is most celebrated for. 

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Being tourists, we simply had no clue. We followed the stream of people towards whichever bathhouse they were headed to and simply fell in line in front of a nondescript yellow building one kilometre from the train station. As with everything in Japan, tickets were sold from vending machines: we slipped in a few thousand yen and watched as the machine spat out crisp, white slips of paper. 

As we walked further along inside the brightly lit building, it occurred to me that I'd never been to a public bath before. Of course, I knew there would be other people, but I hadn't realised that public nudity could induce such nervousness. As I stood in front of the smiling employee—who took my ticket and returned with a towel and a bow—I wondered how things would get along. 

On the second floor, the men and women separated. Public bathhouses are conservatively segregated by gender. Walking together, my mother and I entered the locker room into the women's area, where we were greeted by Japanese mothers with young children in tow. Most had already disrobed, preparing to enter the baths. Nervously, we followed suit. 

The bathhouse we went to (unnamed due to my forgetful memory and inability to read Japanese) features three public pools. One is a 37-degree Ginsen pool, filled with clear water that contains radium and carbonate. It is supposedly the best option for those looking to alleviate muscle and joint ailments. It is also the coolest of the three pools and a precursor for those looking to dip their toes into the 40-degree and 42-degree Kinsen baths.

At first glance, the Kinsen bath may look suspicious. Its brown colour lends no confidence to the novice bather, though it is in fact, a fantastic option for those looking to relieve not just muscle pain but skin problems as well. The suspicious colour is due to the rich iron deposits of the hot spring and is perfectly safe for bathing. At one end of the room is a row of showers. 

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Before entering a pool, it's a necessary first to gingerly step your toes inside the water. Because the temperatures are different for each pool, it's important to acclimate your body to lower temperatures before settling into waters of 42 degrees. The process is gradual, leisurely almost, and allows the bather to fully immerse themselves in the experience. 

Needless to say, it also came as somewhat of a surprise to me that sitting unclothed in a 40-degree Kinsen pool, surrounded by other women and their children, came quite naturally to me. There was no sense of shame or embarrassment: just human bodies enjoying a lovely day at the baths. Women of different shapes and sizes came and went, some were short, some were tall, some petite, some more buxom. But in that afternoon, there was no sense of judgement—you came as you were, and you left as you were—although perhaps happier and more relaxed. 

 

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