Onsen are Japanese natural hot spring baths, going on holiday to an onsen town to bathe and relax is a very traditional Japanese past time. Consequently Onsen towns carry a range of traditional entertainments such as bathing, banqueting or karaoke. Banquets can be accompanied by night time entertainers such as geisha at some onsen towns.
Onsen geisha traditionally are transient members of the geisha community. Entry into a geisha house in these towns is generally not strict as in Kyoto or Tokyo and at a time when geisha were rife onsen geisha could move from one onsen town to another throughout the season to perform. This in turn lead to a reputation of unsavoury girls who leave their past behind them whether this is true or not is rather subjective. What is true is that the kind of carousing and nudity welcome at onsen towns also attracts a more lewd sense of humour and entertainment.
They may be a little sneered at within the community for being a little tawdry and a lot less devoted to their arts but onsen geisha are accordingly a lot more affordable and a lot more accessible by your average Gaijin. Due to increased tourism in Japan onsen geisha generally perform to a large dinner theatre or tour group rather than small intimate banquets.
The Hakone Geisha Association can order a geisha to your room for entertainment during your kaiseki dinner at a cost of around 14000 Yen for the evening, with additional increments that can be purchased in 30 minute slots. Have your ryokan manager ring at least the day before on 0460-85-5338
The Atami Geisha perform weekly dances of the Yumemachi-odori Hananomai for the public on Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30, are only 1300 Yen. The Kenban also offers traditional Japanese dance lessons at a cost of 50 000 Yen a day including kimono rental have your ryokan manager ring 0557-81-3575.
To highlight the differing standards of onsen geisha the Atami geisha are also looking for new recruits! Interested parties should apply on their website.
Onsen for onsen’s sake
Whether you are a geisha enthusiast or not an onsen holiday is one of the most unique, relaxing and memorable vacations you can ever have. I have remarked in the past that if I were to only have one vacation for the rest of my life it would be an onsen stay.
Lavish kaiseki served in your room, local delicacies, traditional inns and a chance to just relax in a soothing hot mineral bath does wonders for the body and the soul. More than this many wealthy Japanese have retired to onsen towns and so tourist gems can be found littered throughout these quiet hideaways. Many onsen towns have limited mobile internet and their traditional ways force the workaholic to step away from the constant rush of modern life and just relax in the peace and quiet.
Some recommended onsen towns are:
- Hakone: Touristy but an easy trip from Tokyo making it an easy option for the business traveller. Stop by the outdoor art gallery to see an amazing collection of art installations and a building of Picassos
- Kusatsu: Huge hot springs right in the center of town are a sight to be seen on arrival, another popular choice only 2 hours from Tokyo by train
- Kinosaki: 7 different hot springs in this town mean you can don your yukata and trip around town
- Yudanaka: The famous “snow monkey” onsen where wild monkeys bathe in the warm mineral waters