Soaking Your Sorrows Away in Japan's Thermal Baths

Japan boasts some of the best skiing in Asia. Yamagata prefecture, on the country's chilly west coast, is home to the Zao Mountain ski resort, featuring a near-limitless supply of deep powder. But the best part of a Japanese winter is what happens après ski: an outdoor bath in a steaming hot spring, known as an onsen, with snowflakes drifting all around in the dusk. Though any onsen will do, the Meigetsuso inn (meigetsuso .co.jp) offers a particularly attractive version. Nine of its 20 rooms open onto small, private baths (called rotenburo) where guests can relax in quiet splendor with a view of the snow-covered garden and the mountain behind. Lanterns hand-carved from the snow lend a touch of warm light, and bathers can enjoy a sampling of the premium sakes stored in the inn's cellar.

There are some 28,000 natural hot springs in Japan; of those, about 15,000 come with hotels or inns attached. In 2006, visitors spent 137 million nights in onsen hotels—no small number, considering that Japan's population totals 127 million. Those visitors, of course, increasingly include foreigners as well, who have gradually discovered the peculiar ecstasy to be garnered from lolling around in mineral-rich, volcanically heated water. Yet even so, it probably wouldn't occur to most outsiders that winter is one of the best times to visit an onsen.

At Tadaya, another small inn on the windswept Noto Peninsula (tadaya.net), guests can luxuriate in a hot bath while gazing out over Nanao Bay. Kentaro Tada, the sixth-generation owner of the 123-year-old family hotel, says that winter reduces the landscape to the black-and-white purity of an ink-wash painting. "Visitors from foreign countries enjoy the beauty of the countryside, entirely different from experiences in urban hotels," he says. "They come here in search of uncivilized places." To be sure, "uncivilized" is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Tadaya prizes itself on its scrupulously seasonal cuisine—crabs are big in winter—paired with fine local sake served in a jar.

Tadaya is part of Wakura Onsen, a complex of hot springs that has drawn visitors since the eighth century. That staying power could be tested in the next few years. The global economic crisis has had the paradoxical effect of spurring a sharp rise in the value of the yen—particularly against the currency of Australia, a country that has boosted Japan's winter tourism over the past decade by sending thousands of skiing enthusiasts to its slopes. So drawing foreigners could be an increasingly tough sell. Onsen hotels are pushing employees to improve their English and using Web sites to target new customers. Perhaps they should use the economic crisis to their advantage; after all, in stressful times, nothing sounds more appealing than a nice, hot bath.

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