Chojukan is one of the rare places that still offer mixed-sex bath - which was the norm until western influences led to gender segregation.
THERE is no shower. How do you say, "where is the shower?" in Japanese? You tap and push around the walls of the tiny toilet cubicle,in the hope that a secret compartment pops open to reveal a compact glass-enclosure equipped with showerhead and shampoo. Your heart sinks - there is no shower, no tub, nothing.
"You can bathe in the women's public bath," explains the kindly Kunio Okamura, sixth generation owner of Hoshi Onsen Chojukan, almost apologetically and in near perfect English. "But please check the time because at certain hours it is only for men. And other times it is open to the public as well."
What price dignity? You've already dialled down any expectations of luxury in the pursuit of the ultimate authentic onsen experience; you've already accepted that hot spring nudity is not only the norm but compulsory; yet the realisation that people had no concept of personal showering facilities 150 years ago makes you want to cry.
The only concession to modern times that Hoshi Chojukan has made is proper sanitary ware and plumbing, but other than that, this ryokan deep in the Minakami mountain region within Gunma prefecture remains as it did when it was built 140 years ago. As far as the owners are concerned, they want to keep it this way, which is why Chojukan has been designated a cultural heritage building. A 30-minute drive from the nearest town, it's not easy to get to, but that's also part of its appeal as one of the top onsens in Japan. It's not just one of the oldest onsens in the country, it's one of only 15 or 16 hot springs in the whole country which boasts a natural temperature of 41 degrees - perfect for soaking.
Hot springs in Japan are generally too hot or too cool to just jump into, and the practice for all onsen operators is to pipe in the water and moderate the temperature manually. None of this is required in Chojukan, where nature has already determined the right temperature without the need for human interference. And once you get over the initial trauma of public exposure and sink into the dim, vast, wooden-clad pool, you'll find yourself drifting back in time to the late Meiji era, when Chojukan was a popular rest stop for weary travellers who would stop by for a soak and place their clothes in the wooden cubby holes that are now a distinctive feature of the bath.
Above you, high wooden rafters offer plenty of room for the steam to circulate as it rises from the pool, divided into different sections with wooden beams. The spring water that surges from below ranges in temperature naturally - so some parts are hotter at 41 to 42 degrees celsius, while other sections are cooler at around 39 degrees. A dim orange glow shrouds the bathers so you can't see their faces unless you stare, which you shouldn't because nobody looks at each other - that's how discreet the Japanese are. To the point that showering while sitting on stools and filling wooden basins with water flowing from a large wooden tap (with modern shower gel and shampoo) becomes the most natural thing to do.
Chojukan has been in Mr Okumura's family from day one. While his older brother is technically the boss as ownership passes down to the first born son, the soft-spoken gentleman runs the day-to-day operations. He jokingly replies "no money" when asked why he hasn't followed in the footsteps of other ryokans which have renovated and modernised to attract a more urbane, international clientele. The truth is that it actually costs more to maintain an old structure, and the family wants to keep things as authentic as possible, even at the cost of modern amenities.
Chojukan, then, is a living tribute to Mr Okumura's ancestor - a wealthy landowner from Niigata who travelled so often to Tokyo that he lobbied to have a railroad built between the two. It was during his constant commutes that he found out about the onsen and built the ryokan Chojukan over it. It was big for its day - 34 rooms - but Mr Okumura is glad his ancestor had the foresight to build it that size.
The overall structure is original, although minor repairs have been done over the years. The oldest rooms date back 70 years, while a "newer" section is 25 years old. Everything looks old, of course - from the open hearth in the lobby to the quirky stuffed animals displayed in various spots around the labyrinthian building. But everything is well maintained and comfortable, and the charm unmistakable.
But as it is with most things, what mother Earth gives she also takes away. While blessed with natural, perfect-temperature hotsprings, recent earthquakes have taken their toll on the ground, lowering the temperature by a couple of degrees. While it managed to spring back to normal after the Niigata and tsunami earthquakes, more recent earthquakes have been too strong for it. Now, a bit of heating is necessary in the winter but generally, it's still an au naturel experience.
And it's an experience that well outweighs the inconvenience of getting there (it's a one-and-a-half-hour train ride from Tokyo to Jomo-Kogen, and another two buses to get to Chojukan). It's a dip into the past that you won't find in other ryokans (Chojukan is one of the rare places that still offer mixed-sex bath - which was the norm until western influences led to gender segregation), and the skin-softening quality of the water is superior to other onsens. Even if you only stay a night, the memory of Chojukan will stay with you for much longer.
- Hoshi Onsen Chojukan, 650 Nagai, Minakami-machi, Tone-gun, Gunma Prefecture 379-1401, Japan. Priced from 15,000-30,000 yen per person per night, inclusive of breakfast and dinner.