A "hot spring amusement park" exists on this earth, and on a recent trip to Japan I was lucky enough (or maybe unlucky enough? I'll let you decide after you read the story) to give it a try. Let's just say I'm a sucker for "unique" beauty treatments, and it often gets me into trouble.
Bathing culture is huge in Japan. According to BBC, natural hot springs that run through the country provide water to feed onsens, which are essentially group or public baths. They can be indoor or outdoor, are separated by sex, and are generally visited in the nude. It’s seen as a way to bond with others — one of my tour guides told me he learned to communicate with other people from his time spent in the public baths as a child — as well as a way to relax and de-stress.
Hakone, which is two hours outside of Tokyo by train, is ripe with these natural springs and has become a sort of bathing destination within Japan. Some brilliant human had the wherewithal to turn these hot springs into a full-on, bath-themed amusement park — complete with red wine, sake, green tea, and coffee baths — which is an actual dream I once had. Obviously, on a recent trip to Japan, I had to go.
When my mom (who I was traveling with) and I walked into the park, we immediately realized that it was… not anything like a traditional onsen. It looked more like the entrance to Splashtown USA than a peaceful place to relax. The entryway was enormous, complete with a set of escalators, and parts of the ceiling were painted to look like an aquarium. There were also two gift shops, which had everything from pool floats (though not the trendy, Instagrammable swan ones) to swim diapers. (Swim diapers?! Oh boy.)
I don't know what I was expecting, but this was definitely much more "amusement park" than "spa."
We waited in a Disneyland-style line for a few minutes and finally made it to the front to check in. “Do you want access to the naked area, swimsuit area, or both?” Asked the man behind the desk.
At this point, my mom politely informed me that I would be doing this on my own.
I opted to stick with the clothed option, mostly because the baths I wanted to try were in the clothed area.
Upon entering the facility, we were asked to take off our shoes, which is the norm in many Japanese homes and businesses. The locker room was spotless, and you were provided with slippers to walk around in. I popped on my least favorite bikini (because who knows what happens to bathing suits when you put them in coffee?) and mentally prepared myself to get into a bunch of hot indoor pools filled with alcoholic and morning beverages.
Walking barefoot down the damp carpet toward the baths, I started to have second thoughts. My hair had already started frizzing out from the humidity, and it didn’t help that my mom kept asking, “Are you sure you want to do this?” every 30 seconds. (She was there for moral support, but wouldn't get inside the tubs with me.) When we got inside the space, which could have doubled as a YMCA indoor pool area, but with more kids, there was a professional photographer who offered me a lei and asked if I wanted to take a picture in front of a cruise ship-style backdrop. I politely declined.
As someone who has never been a fan of waterparks (I blame the kid who pooped in the pool on a summer camp field trip in 2001), I was starting to fear that this would be a lot more like that experience than the traditional baths I had been expecting. I loved the idea of getting to experience Japanese bathing culture, but there was something about infusing it with coffee, wine, and a cruise director-inspired photographer which made me feel like this wasn't anything like the traditional baths our guide grew up going to. This, from what I understood, was a tourist-ified version.
The centerpiece of the facility is the “Aegean Bath,” which is decorated to look like it came out of Greek Mythology. It’s filled with hot spring water, which I know is chock full of good-for-your-skin minerals, but it was also chock full of other humans (many of them kids, many of them in swim diapers), and I couldn't help but think that it looked a whole lot like human soup. The steam coming off of the top certainly didn't help.
To the left, there was an entire pool filled with “doctor fish,” which deliver the world’s most uncomfortable pedicure by eating dead skin off of your feet. I tried it once in Thailand, and hated it. It tickles so (so, so, so) much, but moving your feet in response to the tickling runs the risk of accidentally killing a fish, which I found to be very stressful. Thankfully, this pool was closed (to give the fish a break, maybe?), so I didn't have to consider giving it a second chance.
Finally, I made it to the baths I could handle.
First up: The red wine bath. I’ve bathed in red wine before, but the last time I did it it involved a luxury spa, a private vat, and someone massaging my head while I snacked on cheese and grapes like a straight-up Greek goddess. This was not like that at all. I don’t usually like my red wine experience (when I'm drinking or bathing in it) to be accompanied by screaming, sopping wet children, which was exactly who I had the pleasure of sharing this one with. But I know there are some legit skin benefits to dipping in the stuff, so I hopped in and tried to relax.
"Red wine contains resveratrol, which has been shown to be a powerful antioxidant, which helps combat the signs of aging. It may also help fight sun damage,” Sarah Walker, Family Nurse Practitioner at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center, tells me in an email. "Other components of red wine, like tannins, may decrease inflammation that causes acceleration of the aging process [when you bathe in it.]"
After paddling around for a bit, I took some time to art direct my mom through a wine-related photo shoot, complete with me pretending to drink the red tinted bath water.
Next up was the coffee bath. This one, admittedly, grossed me out a bit — probably because of the waterpark pooper from back in the day. I drink approximately as much coffee as Lorelai Gilmore, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of lounging around in the stuff. My concerns were not at all quelled by the fact that you could smell the coffee from 100 yards away — this stuff was strong, and it was definitely, definitely the real deal.
"Coffee baths may help to dilate blood vessels, which temporarily tones and tightens tissue while improving blood circulation and reducing water retention,” says Walker. "Those benefits may help temporarily smooth that dimpled appearance of cellulite.”
I dunked in and hoped for the best. I lasted approximately a minute and a half before moving on.
Next came the sake and green tea baths, which looked almost identical. Compared to the other two, these were actually much more appealing. They were much smaller, and the water in each was a pretty light green color that actually did evoke feelings of being in an actual spa.
"A green tea bath can aid in relaxation and detoxification. Green tea has potent antioxidants to help fight aging and also soften skin. It also contains vitamin B and minerals that help keep the skin youthful and flexible,” Walker explains.
"Sake is rice wine that has been fermented. During the fermentation process, amino acids and kojic acids are released. Amino acids are potent anti-agers and kojic acids help to moisturize, soften, and brighten the skin,” Walker added. I hung out in these two baths for a bit (... as the only single person among a group of happy-looking couples), and was even lucky enough to have them to myself for a few minutes.
After my indoor soaks, we headed to the outdoor area. It was freezing, so I was actually dying to get into the water this time. It helped that there were fewer people out here and that there wasn’t all of that humid, indoor air hanging around. There was a water slide situation that fed into a big pool, but my fear of heights (and general disdain of waterparks) kept me from getting on.
The best part of the whole experience, by far, was the “open air hot spring with a fine view,” which was literally exactly what it sounded like. It was set on the side of the facility, and overlooked the nearby mountain range. I dipped into one of the cascading pools and just chilled — for the first time in the entire experience, I’d finally gotten the moment of zen I’d been looking for.
It's worth noting that the naked area of the spa, which I didn't make it into into, is a bit more spa-like than the parts that I saw, in case you were wondering. According to Instagram, it looks like this:
While Yunessun wasn’t exactly what I expected, it was definitely once in a lifetime experience. Later in the trip, when I had the chance to see what traditional onsens are actually like, I realized just how unique my intro into group bathing really was. As I'd assumed, there was no coffee/wine/professional photographers in the other onsens I visited, and they were far more peaceful and pleasant than the amusement park version (and FYI — there were no swim diapers in sight). And yes — I even braved the naked ones.