By Nate Hill
When I imagine the stereotypical Japanese hot springs, I picture a steaming cyprus rotemburo surrounded by snowy mountains and wooden buildings. I have been to several such onsen during my time in Japan, and they really can’t be beat. However, I don’t always have the time or money to get away to these secluded hot springs paradises. Sometimes after work on a Tuesday I’m tired and stuck in town and looking for a way to unwind close to my apartment. Luckily for Kochi residents like myself, Ikku boasts a nice urban public bathhouse that will satisfy your sudden onsen craving without requiring an all-out vacation or breaking the bank.
Poka Poka Onsen is a family-friendly, comprehensive spa featuring hot springs baths, massage and tanning services, a cafeteria, and a laundromat. Its sodium and calcium chloride mineral springs are weakly alkaline. They are known to be good for a host of ailments including sprains, joint pain, women’s diseases, neuralgia, fatigue recovery, hemorrhoids, and chronic skin diseases.
The onsen is in a large yet unassuming building tucked away next to the river. Entering the lobby you can almost smell the hot water coming up from the ground. After placing your shoes in wooden cubbies you proceed to the ticket vending machine. After you show your ticket to the front desk and rent a towel, if you need one, you’ll slip through the red or blue curtain and enter a no-frills but spacious changing area. Lockers are 100 yen to use, but you get your money back.
The atmosphere is more like a modern health club than a traditional bathhouse, but it is relaxing nonetheless. Through the automatic glass doors you can usually see the steam rising from the water and hear the echoing laughter of children.
Upon entering the steamy tiled room, choose a shower station along one of the walls and avail yourself of the basic shampoo and soap provided. Many people bring additional products to use, but I always find the supplies to be adequate. There are no privacy dividers, and people sit on one long bench rather than separate stools, so throw modesty out the window...When in Japan, do as the Japanese do! After washing off, head to the large indoor bath for a relaxing soak. I like to use all the different jet areas before going outside. Many people quickly move between the cold and hot baths, as it is supposedly good for the skin. This is quite refreshing, but definitely not for the faint of heart!
The men’s and women’s areas are switched every other day. Both sides have large indoor and small outdoor baths, a cold (17-19 degrees C) bath, a salt sauna, and a regular sauna. One side’s outdoor bath is traditionally decorated with stone and a wooden overhang, but otherwise all baths are tile. The indoor baths have jets positioned for standing, sitting, and lying down, as well as an area with low frequency current to relieve pain and stiffness with rhythmic stimulation. Amusing signs in the salt sauna show how rubbing the salt into your stomach will reduce belly fat (if only!) as well as tighten and smooth skin.
This is a very popular place for families. Foreigners may get occasional stares from elderly people or children, but it is also a great place to strike up a conversation with friendly Kochi locals and participate in Japanese culture. Once a woman offered to rub salt on my back for me in the sauna!
Onsen are praised for their ability to eliminate stress and fatigue, as well as improve skin and metabolic function. When you can’t get far far away but are still in need of a mini-vacation, why not take advantage of a cheap, relaxing evening in the city at Poka Poka Onsen?
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