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Letters from Tokyo, June 2021: Choosing Onsen Over Olympics

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

My favorite kind of getaway is a stay at an onsen-yado (Japanese hot springs hotel). It used to rotate among my top three, but the pandemic has edged it into the top spot.

An onsen-yado relieves you of the burden of choice as soon as you step into its entrance. Your shoes and luggage are whisked away. You are quietly ushered to your room. Padding through the halls, you are told when your dinner will be served and shown what you will wear: a robe, a sash, slippers—with two-toed tabi socks optional. No matching of ties to dinner jackets or puzzles over pumps or flats.

Then you soak in hot, mineral-rich water that transforms your joints into gentle friends of your body.

Early June is a good time for hitting onsen. Spring holidays are over but the kids are still in school, and tsuyu’s rainy season grays take the edges off.

In Tokyo, May’s bright sunny days can make everyone look hurried and feel hyperactive. June reminds you—what’s the point?—but isn’t yet so humid that you couldn’t hurry anyway.

This May, when it became clear that Tokyo’s “state of emergency” declaration over Covid-19 would be extended yet again into late June, I knew it was time to pack the overnight bags, laptop and books, and take the train down the Izu peninsula, roughly two hours south of Tokyo by rail.

I realize that sounds counterintuitive, even irresponsible. Doesn’t a state of emergency mean you should stay put and hunker down at home? What kind of emergency sends you on holiday to a hot springs?

But where I live in central Tokyo, I share each square mile with over 16,000 neighbors. If I don’t immediately see someone strolling below when I look out one of my windows, I will very soon. And the moment I step from my building’s courtyard to the sidewalk, I join the coursing crowds weaving past and dodging one another on sidewalks that can barely accommodate three adjacent modestly-sized bodies.

Choosing to wear a mask, sanitize, and speak quietly or not at all is possible, and most of us choose to do all three. Social distancing, however, is not.

Comparatively, there was no one in Izu. And no one on the quaint old Limited-Express Odoriko line to Izu, whose empty lace-doilied seats feel a little like a theme park ride from the 1980s, reassuringly out-of-date. And even in historic Shuzenji, whose fairy-tale Kamakura-age pathways are usually clogged with tourists, local craftspeople and rickshaw-runners, you could pause in the bamboo forest and breathe in the air, letting your mask slip for a moment or two near the naked Katsura river.

The onsen-yado staff did what they do: serving omakase meals designed to highlight local seafood and vegetable specialties on menus over which you had absolutely zero choice. I soaked for hours, read two short books, wrote in fits and starts and took long walks along the river, taking too many photos of some late-blooming wisteria.

Near Shuzenji Temple, founded in the 9th century, I saw three old Tokyo 2020 Olympics banners announcing that the torch relay would soon pass through town. The juxtaposition was rich: something about to happen felt more dated than something truly ancient.

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