By Jeannie Gan
One of the downsides to the location of Osaka is that there are few natural hot springs in the area. Luckily, there is one in a very prominent location downtown, and no one can ever say Osakans aren't innovative in creating the kitschy, over-the-top super sento Spa World with it.
Quickly becoming a popular tourist draw, Spa World is located in the aging Shinsekai district, an area with its own particular brand of charm. Shinsekai both unnerved me and excited me whenever I went there - I had a sense that time here had come almost to a stop. Shinsekai never quite made it out of its 1950s heyday, and many things really are just literally falling apart down there. But it is a lively spot if you know where to look - and I do advise that you look in the daytime, unless you know where you're going!
The first time I went, I found the area quite a turn-off. Then I found Spa World. This massive, massive bathouse takes the cake for unique bathing experiences I have had in Japan - and that's saying something.
The Spa World experience is divided up by floors: the bottom floor, of course, is the lobby, with access to the adjoining hotel, arcade, gift shops and shoe lockers. Before you enter the lobby proper, buy your ticket from the vending machines. If you're lucky, Spa World frequently does special "campaigns" whereby you can have 24-hour access for 1,000 yen. This is a steal compared to the regular price, especially for unlimited, 24-hour use!
After you present your ticket at the desk, you'll be given a green bracelet that tracks any money you spend inside, so that you can pay it later. Put this on immediately and don't take it off until you leave - it's waterproof, of course. You can check your balance at machines placed around the building. Also, put your shoes or boots away immediately after you arrive! Don't take them upstairs with you! The locker will refund your 100 yen when you return.
The baths are on the 4th and 6th floors - they switch off every month so that both floors can be enjoyed by both sexes. Usually, women are on the 4th floor during the odd-numbered months, and men have the 4th floor during the even-numbered months. The bathing floors are also where you'll find the lockers, so it's best to store your things away up here. Just pick any locker you like. If you want to hit the baths immediately, they'll be attached to the locker room. Make sure to rinse yourself thoroughly before you climb in! If you'd rather explore first, you can put on the loungewear, located between the baths and the locker rooms. If you're meeting someone of the opposite sex in one of the common areas, you'll need to wear these, or your bathing suit, if you are heading up to the mixed-gender pool and rooftop bath. The pool elevators are located across from the information desk on both bathing floors, and you can also rent a swimsuit here, if necessary. Note: Do not wear your swimsuit into the regular baths! It is only for use in the pool and 8th floor mixed baths. Also note that visible tattoos are not permitted.
Now to the main draw - the baths themselves. The 4th floor is called the European Zone and features baths of that nature. Each area is named after its locational theme - Ancient Rome, Greece, Spain, the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantis, Finland, and Italy's Grotto Azzura. Almost all of them have a special draw to give the visitor a diverse experience - Finland had cold-water baths and two sauna houses; Spain is an open-air bath with a waterfall; Atlantis features live fish and baby sharks under its glass floor! You can also visit the Spanish cafe with its footbaths, and enjoy a snack or a drink charged to your bracelet. Greece, with its herbal and tea baths, offers akazuri skin treatments. You can visit a mudbath here in Greece, or relax in the salt sauna outside the Grotto Azzura. Rome offers the hottest baths alongside golden cold-water tubs, and deck chairs are submerged beneath the water of the Mediterranean Sea for the ultimate in relaxation.
The Asia Zone is on the 6th floor, accessible by women in the even-numbered months and men in the odd. The feel of the Asia Zone is much more typical of a Japanese bathouse, right down to the hinoki (cedar) tubs and the open-air rotenburo baths of Japan. Real cherry blossom trees bloom over the outdoor baths in the springtime.
Other areas in the Asia Zone include Bali with its mudbaths and massage area, Islam's stone bath, India's salt sauna, Persia with its milky waters and resting area, and a Japanese-style lounge with cafe. There's also Dr. Spa, with three pools designed for the body's well-being by pumping oxygen and carbon dioxide into the water.
Finally, the 8th floor offers a mixed-bathing area, including a large indoor bath and an outdoor rooftop bath with a bar. You can even use the access rivers to get from inside to outside in the winter months! A nice view of Tsutenkaku is visible from here - don't miss this. A rock spa is between the two baths, and the enormous pool with its three waterslides, cafe, lazy river and childrens' play area is the biggest draw of the top floor. Be aware - this floor is only open from 10 AM until 10 PM, and the pool sometimes closes for long maintenance stretches during the winter months. You'll also get hit by the late-night charge of 1,300 yen if you stay after midnight, instilled to get a little extra from people using the relaxation floors to stay in the facility overnight.
After your trip to the baths, you can relax in the public areas, play arcade games or eat at one of the many restaurants on the 3rd floor. Massages are available for good prices, as well as other salon and spa services. There are also relaxation rooms on both bathing floors, complete with blankets, pillows, televisions and easy chairs - perfect for a nice nap to recharge you for a second round of the baths!
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When I was young, I dreamed of going overseas and having a great adventure. By the time I was in university studying Japanese, I knew that place would be Japan. After three years teaching and learning Kansai-ben in the one and only Osaka, I returned to Canada. Lately I've enjoyed blogging and writing stories about my second home, so that others can share the places I knew and loved - I'll definitely go back there someday soon.