There is an old ONSEN Ryokan (ONSEN Inn) with a long history in SHIMODA (下田) City, SHIZUOKA Prefecture. It is “KANAYA RYOKAN (金谷旅館)” which has a history of over 150 years since its opening in 1867. It’s located 4 minutes walking distance from RENDAIJI Station (蓮台寺駅) of IZU KYUKO (IZUKYU) Line, and nestled into the mountains.
Its extensive grounds covering 6600 square meters look like a vast garden, and the main building which was built in 1929 is calmly standing in the garden. The appearance of this historical building nestled into the garden is really beautiful. Here in SHIMODA City, “NAMAKO Walls (なまこ壁)”, which black and white checkers are crossing diagonally, are often seen. These walls are made by recoating many layers of soil, placing flat roof tiles, and putting mortar at the joints. Since the mortar put on this wall looks like sea cucumber (“Namako” in Japanese), this wall is called “NAMAKO Walls”. This is a traditional architectural technique in Japan from 100 to 200 years ago, and it’s used at this KANAYA RYOKAN.
KANAYA RYOKAN is famous for its “SEN’NIN BURO (千人風呂)”, meaning “Thousand person’s bath”, which is the largest all-cypress bath in Japan. Not just bathtub but also walls and ceiling are built of wood. The bathtub partially has a depth of 1 meter, so that you can even swim inside the bathtub. I visited SHIMODA all the way from Tokyo just to see and bathe in this legendary ONSEN.
When I reached there, “MANYO NO YU (万葉の湯)”, the bath for women, was just in the process of drawing a bath. The owner told me that it would be ready soon, but I was already ready to see the process itself that ONSEN was poured into bathtub. Fresh ONSEN which kept poured here is weak alkaline simple spring. At first I misunderstood this was “SEN’NIN BURO” because this “MANYO NO YU” was also quite huge. Actually, this MANYO NO YU is the Japan’s largest women’s bath.
In Japan, mixed bathing (混浴 / KON’YOKU), which men and women bathe in the same bathtub, used to be a common culture. In the ancient times, people enjoyed bathing in this blessings of nature gushing out from underground. People shared it equally without any separation of men and women. In the late EDO Period, when Japan was a closed country, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who led “Black Ships” and came to this place SHIMODA to urge Japan to open the country, was astonished at this culture of mix bathing. He must have felt “What a vulgar culture this is!!”. With seeing this reaction of him, Japanese Government decided to ban mix bathing, in addition that they agreed to open the country. This was the background why the Japanese historical culture of mix bathing was officially banned , just to care about how Western countries would see Japan. Actually this fact is not well known even among Japanese people.
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However, even though the mix bathing was officially banned then, this common culture among Japanese people have been kept remain somehow. Even at the present day, you can see some ONSEN places still have mixed bath. According to “Hotel Business Law”, which was enforced in 1948, it is prohibited to build new mixed bath at new hotel / Ryokan (inn) which would be built after 1948. This means, the law doesn’t regulate (or “doesn’t mention anything” or “tolerate”) the mixed bath which had been built before this law was enforced. This is why some traditional mixed bathes which had been built before 1948 are still operating even today. Having said that, the thing is, this historical & traditional culture of Japan is destined to diminish, and thus it has become more valuable in rarity. I hope this precious culture will be kept sustained, with keeping inheriting the tradition and keeping good manners of each customer.
Since these old hotels and inns had started their operation with only 1 mixed bathtub, even if later they separated the bathroom into men’s and women’s, most of them use the original large bathroom as men’s bathroom, and build additional bathroom for women’s. Therefore, in many cases, women’s bathroom is smaller than that of men’s.
However, at this KANAYA RYOKAN here, even women’s bathroom is so large (the largest women’s bath in Japan). Thus, if you are women, it’s definitely worth visiting even if you hesitate to try mixed bath.
This historical KANAYA RYOKAN also has traditional mixed bath. That is “SEN’NIN BURO (千人風呂 / Thousand person’s bath)”. Women can directly access to this SEN’NIN BURO from women’s bathroom “MANYO NO YU” through a locked door. Although you are not permitted to wear swim suit, you can wear YUAMIGI (湯浴み着 / bathing clothes) or bath towel instead. When I visited here, there was no male customer there, so that I was able to enjoy this huge bathroom privately. Moreover, each outdoor bathes separately for men’s and women’s has waterfall ONSEN and Jacuzzi ONSEN, and also there are 2 private family bathrooms which only overnight guests can use exclusively. Obviously this RYOKAN has plentiful amount of natural ONSEN.
SEN’NIN BURO is the largest all-cypress bath in Japan, and it really looks like swimming pool with its length of 15 meter and width of 5 meter. There are 3 bronze statues of female figure decorated in the center of bathtub, which are creating the artistic atmosphere. I felt tempted to dive into its huge bathtub filled with blessings of nature. Seemed like the depth was around 1 meter. I heard that it’s ok to swim there if it doesn’t bother other customers. That reminded me of the story of “BOTCHAN (坊ちゃん)”, a novel written by SOSEKI NATSUME (夏目漱石). In this novel, the main character “Botchan”, who is a school teacher, is transferred to EHIME Prefecture, and because he swam in the bathtub of his loved ONSEN “DOGO ONSEN (道後温泉)” every day, one day the notice saying “don’t swim in the bathtub” is put on the wall. If Botchan were transferred here in SHIMODA, SHIZUOKA Prefecture, he could have enjoyed swimming in this huge bathtub as he wanted. Me? Yes, since there was nobody else, I swam as I wanted, needless to say!
This SEN’NIN BURO has several water supply ports, and this huge bathtub is divided into small-sized bathtub and medium-sized bathtub by wooden partition. Therefore, you can enjoy various water temperature depending on the spot you are soaked in; for example, if you bathe in near the water supply port, water temperature is higher, and vice versa. Depending on the distance from water supply ports and the size of bathtub you choose, you may enjoy approx. 4 levels of different temperature of ONSEN. It was really thoughtful for any preference of the customers.
The rest area “MATSUKAZE NO MA (松風の間)” is a very cozy space. You can feel the peaceful atmosphere which Japanese traditional house creates from its TATAMI (畳) floor, low dining table called “CHABU-DAI (ちゃぶ台)”, round window and “SHOJI (障子 / Paper sliding window)”, lattice ceiling, and the central pillar called “DAIKOKU-BASHIRA (大黒柱)”. As its name “MATSUKAZE” suggests, you can feel nice breeze in this rest area. This is the best place to cool down after bathing in ONSEN.