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THE SUBLIME SPRINGS OF JAPAN

Many first-time visitors to Japan complain that it's not as ''Asian'' as they expected. Amid Tokyo's nondescript modern architecture and the rampant concrete of the countryside, whatever happened to Japan's vaunted aesthetics of the serene, the subtle, and the sublime?

Don't despair. You can find scattered repositories of unspoiled Japan that refuse to die. They are the country's hidden hot springs.

With thousands of mineral springs dotting its islands, no culture has conducted as extensive a love affair with hot springs (onsen) as Japan. Most of those known to non-Japanese are in garish towns such as Atami, Beppu, and Kusatsu. But a number of bucolic and relatively isolated spots are easy to reach. They are served by picturesque inns that emphasize repose and refinement. Almost every spring claims curative powers, for rheumatism to allergies, cuts, and burns, and some boast that legendary warriors from centuries back nursed their wounds there.

A two-hour train ride from Tokyo and a short taxi hop will take you to Nanadaru Onsen and the cozy Kajika-an inn (tel: 81-5583-6-8311) on the Izu Peninsula southwest of Tokyo. Here you can sample several small indoor and outdoor pools and soak up redolent atmosphere.

Walk through the inn's portals and you're in the Japan of 100 years ago. Hanging over smoldering embers in the fireplace amid the snug lobby you'll encounter an iron kettle suspended from the ceiling. Abutting the lobby are several quaint tatami-matted rooms, each with a sunken hearth where dinner is served. (The specialty of the house is grilled river fish.) And although the Tsuchiya family members who run the place don't speak much English, they are used to foreigners.

Heading the other direction from Tokyo, ride the Joetsu bullet train for about an hour to Jomo Kogen and you can get picked up by a van from Kaya no Ie in Hotaka Onsen (81-278-52-2220). A majestic, thatched-roof structure, Kaya no Ie is unremittingly traditional. In winter, delightful aromas from the wood-burning stove permeate the place. The young staff wear peasant garb. The food is strictly vegetarian, and the large, cypress public baths are soothing. Ask for the captivating Toga no O suite, which has its own wooden bath. The Chujikan inn (81-272-83-3015), at Chuji Onsen, is in the same general vicinity. A meticulous reconstruction of an ancient farmhouse, isolated Chujikan sprawls along a slope of majestic Mt. Akagi.

At these places, expect to pay $130 to $170 per person per night. That includes breakfast and a lavish dinner that varies by season and locale. Expect both raw and grilled fish, a stew, wild vegetables, tempura, soup, rice, Japanese pickles, and fruit. Because few staffers speak English, get a Japanese-speaking friend, travel agent, or hotel concierge to make reservations for you. Keep in mind that Saturdays are usually booked far in advance. At most places, check-in time is after 3 p.m. Try to arrive no later than 4, so you'll have time for at least one bath before dinner.

Once you've arrived, a maid will escort you to your tatami room. She may serve you tea and a sweet. When she leaves, open the closet and you will find yukata, the light cotton kimonos that most guests wear throughout their stay. There should also be a small towel, and perhaps a larger Western-style one.

Change into your yukata and make your way to the baths, which average 109 degrees and are separated by gender. Enter the changing room and strip down, leaving everything in a basket. Take only the small towel into the bathing area, mainly to protect your modesty. Before entering the water, soap down and rinse off. Never wash in the pool. Now you're ready to soak. But don't expect any attendants; you are on your own, though you may encounter other guests. Talking quietly is fine, but don't swim or paddle around.

Soon after dinner, the maid will lay out your futon and tell you when breakfast will be served. Checkout is normally 10 a.m., so if you're staying for one night, you'll have time for at least three leisurely dips. Then you can return to civilization refreshed, relaxed, and more closely attuned to the spirit of old Japan.

By Robert Neff


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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