Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Go naked on the green mountain

The Japanese take a near-obsessive delight in washing, particularly in natural thermal baths

‘I was last night sent officially to witness the execution by harakiri (self-immolation through disembowelling) of Taki Zensaburo… As the harakiri is one of the customs of this country which has excited the greatest curiosity in Europe… I will tell you what occurred…’

In The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase, my anthology of dispatches from British diplomats abroad, this one, dating from 1868, is the oldest. The first eye-witness account of harakiri ever given by a European, it’s also the most grisly. I cannot match the horror or novelty, nor can I match its author, Bertie Mitford, in fine writing. But having just returned from my first visit to Japan, I thought to offer you a three-ha’penny postscript to Mitford’s fifty-guinea prose: on a practice infinitely less shocking, yet in its way as strangely ceremonious.

Travelling independently in Japan for ten days, mostly outside the cities, we fast became aware of the Japanese near-obsessive delight in washing, and their particular love for natural thermal baths. They call a hot spring an onsen, and wherever one occurs (there are thousands) you will find, clustered around the accidental geothermal leak like temples around the site of a miracle, the human infrastructure of leisure, pleasure and the rituals of bodily hygiene. There will be reception rooms, changing rooms, lockers, showers and loos, all leading up to two shallow indoor or outside pools: one for men and one for women, separated by screens, bamboo, or (in one case) a lifesize model elephant.

But our favourite was at the Iya Onsen Hotel. The Iya Valley — the course of a long, deep-set mountain river — nestles among mountains of almost Disneyesque steepness on the huge island of Shikoku. Except for its narrow coastal strip, Shikoku is nearly all densely cloud-forested green mountain, usually too steep for human habitation and often too steep for roads or even paths.

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