It starts with a warm greeting as I step through the doors of Yunomori Onsen & Spa—it’s like the feeling of coming home, even though it’s my first time here. I lock my shoes safely away before getting myself registered. A couple of minutes and a few forms later, I am whisked away to the changing room straight down the hall.
You see, the thing about onsens is that you’ll find yourself in quite the Adam and Eve situation—some might feel right at home baring it all to strangers, but the thought of strutting around butt-naked in front of someone else other than yourself or your partner leaves little to be desired, at least in a conservative, sometimes inhibited society like Singapore’s.
Which is why I (secretly) heave a sigh of relief upon being handed a pair of disposable panties and a tube-like bra—tailored for the abashed such as myself. A small yet significant gesture that goes a long way in making guests feel tenfold more at ease. I’m sure many appreciate the gesture behind accommodating such an exception—especially since onsens in Japan typically strictly disallow garments of any form within the bath areas. In more prudent onsens, even the tattoo-ed would be denied entry.
Each guest is assigned a personal locker to securely store belongings and clothes, especially since you’re effectively not supposed to bring anything except yourself and your water-proof locker tag into the baths. I tuck my jewellery, clothes, and phone neatly away in my locker, hold my head up high, and venture into uncharted yet highly-anticipated territory—the bath area.
Before immersing myself—and with me, whatever grime or dirt I’ve accumulated along the way—into the steaming water, I quickly rinse myself at the shower area. All guests are strongly advised to do this in the name of hygiene and common courtesy. We’re allowed to rid ourselves of our dreaded face masks in the baths, but once we’re back in the common areas like the cafe and relaxation room, it’s time to mask back up.
There are 5 different baths for your dipping pleasure—the soda bath, silk bath, cold bath, bubble bath, and jet bath. Unfortunately, the bubble bath isn’t what your imagination has conjured from your childhood days. Instead, it is a hot bath of about 38 to 39 degree celsius spitting out a continuous stream of light bubbles that tickle your senses in the sweet spot between relaxing and stimulating.
While each bath is delightfully soothing in its own right, my favourite has to be the good ol’ jet bath. It emulates your traditional jacuzzi tub, with resting platforms ergonomically fitted to caress your every curve, and warm jets of water pulsing beneath each muscle.
It’s amazing how your mind finds a myriad of ways to entertain itself. The thought of having to do nothing as I shrivel up like an over-soaked grape in the onsen bath scares me a great deal—which, come to think of it, is problematic in its own way. But that aside, I keep myself occupied by thinking about what to have for dinner as the waltzy ‘Stuck With U’ by Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande plays continuously in my head.
As I lay drifting in and out of consciousness (because, to clarify, I’m falling asleep and not passing out) to the low hum of water bubbling over, I can’t help but wonder how unfair this whole experience must be for transfolk. By nature of the onsens being gender-segregated, drawing the line between the two binaries have left those that conform to neither or both, forgotten.
For something supposedly simple and relaxing, it has surely, albeit unintentionally, become divisive and exclusive, of sorts. Then again, I’m not quite sure what the best solution to this might be, but perhaps having a mixed gender bath or private rooms might be a good start.
My time in the closest thing to heaven is cut short by a thai massage that awaits, and I make a mental note to my beloved baths—I’ll definitely be back for you. I slip on a baby pink Yukata (traditional Japanese kimono) that was handed to me and I’m off for another version of bliss.
I am led down the dimly-lit hallways past the cafe and into the massage area, along rows and rows of carefully curated rooms built for ultimate relaxation. Before the massage commences, I’m handed a form to fill in where I can indicate areas on my body to focus on and to avoid.
As I’m ushered into my designated room, a set of loose-fitting garments sits neatly folded on the bed. Just as I’m done changing, two soft knocks indicate that the massage therapist is ready and we can now commence.
If you’ve treated yourself to a massage in Thailand, then you’d probably know the works. A full body massage that starts with where working from home has taken a toll on us the most—the shoulders, kneading down to the back, legs, arms, and finally the head.
It has always amazed me how therapists somehow manage to utilise nearly every inch of their bodies in the process, how they know just where to work, and exactly how much pressure to apply. A thai massage is systematic and orderly, designed such that tension leaves your body methodically.
Though comfortable, it really is just that—comfortable. There isn’t anything extremely unique about the experience that jumps at me, a very regular massage through and thorough. Starting at S$94.16 (GST included) for a 60-minute full body Thai massage, I’d say to skip it altogether and just head straight for the good stuff—the onsen.
Come dinner time, I peruse the menu to find a surprising but impressive spread. I’m expecting to choose from a few bowls of rice and a couple of cakes, but I find Ochazuke, Sashimi, Chawanmushi, Hokkaido milk, and much more available for order.
My spread of choice consists of the Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen (S$16.90), Salmon Sashimi (S$9.90), Matcha Crepe Cake (S$8.90), and a bottle of fresh Hokkaido milk (S$4.80)—that last item being highly recommended as a post-onsen beverage.
Admittedly, these dishes are nothing to tell your kampung about, but I still appreciate the extensive menu and variety of options. The Hokkaido milk, though, deserves a chef’s kiss.
With a full belly and relaxed mind, I stumble into the relaxation room next door which boasts rows of sofa beds stacked against each other to form a giant cosy patch—and a sure-way to fall asleep. I unlock my phone and continue on my e-book for a grand total of 4 minutes before I feel my eyes start to flutter shut, and before I even realise, sleep whooshes me away.
I open my eyes to the sound of a friendly employee gently waking me up to inform me that the spa is closing in 15 minutes. How did I stay here until closing time? I’m no Stephen Strange, but Yunomori has a funny way of bending time and space indeed.
Like a child leaving the playground, I reluctantly trudge to the locker room to change back into my boring, regular clothes, drop my used garments off, and bid farewell to the haven of respite. At exactly 10pm sharp, I walk through the doors of Yunomori, silently promising that this wouldn’t be the last it’s seen of me.
For those familiar with the Taiwanese 温泉 (Wen Quan or warm springs) and the Korean 찜질방 (Jjimjilbang or steamed room) experiences, the onsen is a Japanese iteration of them, and an incredible one at that.
S$40.70 (w GST), to me, is just a small price to pay for an entire day of relaxation, restoration, and wellness. A rare chance to trade your responsibilities and worries for a peace of mind is one that money truly cannot buy.
It’s time to put back what COVID-19 has taken out of you. Go forth, and make a day (or date!) out of this.
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