Monday, November 3, 2008

Minatoyama Onsen - Its the Water ... Dummy

Minatoyama Onsen is a bit more troublesome to get to but its curative powers may prove to be well worth the extra effort. Folks who soak in its natural mineral waters may find relief from afflictions such as joint pain, stiff joints, a frozen shoulder, or even hemorrhoids. Drinking it may curb constant constipation or gout. This ancient, natural hot spring boasts a national certificate from the Nippon Onsen Kyokai which puts it on par with the worldly-known Arima hot springs.

Minatoyama Onsen first caught my eye on the hiking map for the Rokko Mountain area, north of the JR Motomachi train station. Its location is where the old road from Arima, a well-known, ancient hot spring area in Japan, meets the residential area north of the Kobe harbor. The map shows the onsen sign, the Japanese katakana script for yu meaning hot water. I took notice of yu because yu is rarely noted on this hiking map. With over a dozen onsen in the residential area of Kobe City on the Osaka Bay side, Coor's House to the northeast of JR Sannomiya station is the only other yu sign indicated.

The lobby area of Minatoyama Onsen resembled the more recently built onsen or renovated ones, like Nada Onsen, with tables and chairs so customers can relax with a draft beer or a soft drink before heading back home. We also see massage chairs for full-back massage, one for calf massages, and ones for feet massages, all at ¥100. Also, patrons can leave their valuables in a combination-lock box rather than leaving them locked in the changing room. Other onsen commonly price the bath charge at ¥380 plus the voluntary add-ons for a sauna to bring the price to ¥520. Minatoyama Onsen has a ¥600 flat price for adults. Local residents can buy 11 tickets for ¥6,000 to save some money. Even with the higher price, necessities are not included but soap (¥40), shampoo (¥160), or towels (¥120) are on sale.

The changing area seemed spacious and nearly empty, with only half-a-dozen guys, but I arrived at about 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Evenings could certainly show more patrons.

When stepping through the sliding glass door, the bathing area looked unimpressive with a large single, oval-shaped pool, divided into three sections, along with two other smaller separate pools. Common features like a sauna or rotenburo (ie., an outdoor bath) were absent. No waterfall, either.

The small, two or three-person pool to the left of the sliding door is the ambient temperature of this natural mineral water which varies between 26°C and 28°C.

At the far end of the room, the small, deep, circular pool seemed hot enough at 47°C to cook lobsters or boil eggs. I could only get in up to my knees and at that depth not for very long. Only a few of the veteran onsen goers, maybe only one out of 12, managed to soak in this pool.

The large, oval-shaped central pool offered a pleasant surprise even though it only looked like a large pool, divided into three parts. The nearest pool to the sliding door is a shallow pool, with jacuzzi-like bubbles, and is set to 40°C.

The deeper, larger middle pool, at 43°C, is too deep to actually sit on the bottom and keep one's head above water at the same time. Its temperature seemed closer to a comfortable 41°C (105.8°F) to me but a front desk staff member said otherwise. At both ends of this central pool, is an electric 'bath' which is a common feature in other onsen. One arrangement is the normal type of electric 'bath' where a steady electrical current which emanates between two underwater panels. So, the electricity steadily flows through the person who sits between these nodes. The second electric 'bath' was a real surprise because the electrical current automatically varies in intensity, maybe two kinds of electrical shock. The first was a pulsating current that on each shock grew from a weak to strong. The second kind of shock was a blast of current that seemed strong enough to shake the body, by contracting the lower back muscles. Later, a staff member told me that this second style of electric 'bath' was a newer technology. At other onsen I've visited, the electric bath intensity was steady and varied in its intensity simply by moving ones body closer to one of the electrical plates on the right or left.

The third pool, at 38°C, was probably only 40 cm. in depth. This pool seemed both too shallow to sit in or to stretch out in. One fellow sat in it and bent forward to stretch his legs as if he were preparing for or recovering from a race. This onsen is in the vicinity of a trail exit so maybe this fellow was a hiker.

It's the water. While in the ambient-temperature bath, an elderly gent next to me said he traveled one hour from Nishinomiya to get to this onsen. He swore that soaking in this particular mineral water cures lower back pain as well as knee joint pain. Later, while we were standing where this mineral water flows into a small bowl, he suggested that I drink it. This seems a common practice since two cups are set aside for use near the two spigot. Adults over 16 may drink as much as 220 ml., the notice states. Younger folks are advised to drink less.

This green-hued mineral water lacked the slippery, oily feel that builds up on the submerged skin when soaking at the Nada Onsen, along with less odor. Also, fewer CO2 bubbles than at Nada Onsen formed on the skin. Later, a friendly staff member said that the iron eon (Fe2+) is the unique feature at Minatoyama Onsen which is at about 1.87 mg. per kilogram.

Minatoyama Onsen may trace its history back hundreds of years. Photos in the lobby show male bathers there during the Taisho Era, around 1920, but the current owners have only maintained business there since about 1941. While taking photos around the lobby, a female staff member insisted that I take a photo of a placard showing that this onsen is a member of a national onsen group, nippon onsen kyokai. This placard may legitimize its status as a natural onsen and as I recall, it is not on display at other onsen in Kobe City. Here, the three pools only contain mineral spring water whereas most onsen have clear water (artisan well water or city water) pools along with mineral water pools.

Minatoyama Onsen is easily reached by taking Kobe City bus number 7 from Sannomiya, south, across the street from Hankyu Sannomiya. After getting off at the Hirano bus stop, cross the street to the north side, then cross the main Arima highway to the east side of the street. Minatoyama Onsen is about 200 meters to the north, on the other side of the shallow river. Address: Kobe-shi, Hyogo-ku, Minatoyama Machi 26-1; phone (078) 521-5839. It is open every day except Wednesdays from 7:00 to 22:00.

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