The word “onsen,” which refers to “hot springs” in Japanese, often conjures images of misty mountain inns where bathers commune with snow monkeys. Sadly, going to a distant onsen every weekend is not economically feasible for most Tokyoites, but if you do live in Tokyo and love public baths, don’t fear; you probably live within walking distance of a 460-yen sentō (銭湯, public bath), some of which are natural hot springs.
A few sentō have fantastically gaudy facades, and some only display an A4 piece of paper with rules to indicate that they are a bath house. Shimizuyu Onsen strikes a balance between the two, with a clean, old-fashioned exterior and a warm homey inside.
Shimizuyu is a bath house with two types of natural onsen near Tokyo’s Musashi-Koyama Station. This area has plenty of 30,000-yen apartments, but these apartments come with a price: no bath or even shower. While this may explain some of the crowd at Shimizuyu on the Saturday evening I visited, the atmosphere is a draw for anybody, regardless of the home bathroom situation.
Upon storing your shoes in a locker, the first thing you have to do at Shimizuyu is buy a bathing ticket (入浴券, nyūyokuken). The standard price across Tokyo for an adult bathing ticket is currently 460 yen (2014). For visitors who want a little more, Shimizuyu also has a normal sauna (サウナ, 400 yen) and the stone sauna (岩盤浴, ganbanyoku, 1300 yen, women only). Before jumping into the bath, you might want to check out the lobby, which has milk, beer, and apple vinegar drink vending machines, as well as a television. You can also scope out the upstairs napping and massage chair area once you’ve finished your bath.
The baths, of course, are the real attraction. Unlike tourist-oriented onsen, Shimizuyu doesn’t provide soap, shampoo, or towels for free. You can buy these items from the bath house staff, which is what I did, but most people bring their own toiletries.
After taking the obligatory shower, you can explore the many baths and hot springs. With at least half a dozen, you have plenty from which to choose.
My personal favorite was the Golden Hot Spring (黄金の湯, ougon no yu), which contains water at 38 degrees Celsius brought up from 1500 meters below. A visit to a Tokyo onsen wouldn’t be complete, though, without taking a dip in a Tokyo Black Hot Spring (黒湯温泉, kuroyu onsen). The Black Hot Springs are brought up from 200 meters and said to promote skin softening and moisturizing. The Golden Hot Spring and Black Hot Spring are the two you must try, but before leaving the bathing area, be sure also to try the standard baths.
While the baths were wonderful, the small things were what made the visit special: accidentally eating half the shell of my onsen tamago (egg cooked in a hot spring), drinking a cup of diluted apple vinegar, stretching out my feet on the foot massage tiles, enjoying the cool night breeze on a reclining chair next to the outdoor baths (露天風呂, rotenburo).
Having me leave my earrings at Shimizuyu must be my brain’s subconscious way of telling me to go back. Thank you, brain.
Musashi-Koyama Onsen Shimizuyu [Japanese]
Address: Tokyo-to, Shinagawa-ku, Oyama 3-9-1
Weekdays, 12:00 to 24:00
Sunday 8:00 to 24:00
Holidays 8:00 to 24:00
Closed Mondays (except holidays)
Bathing Admission Ticket (2014)
Adults: 460 yen
Middle School: 300 yen
Children: 180 yen
Sauna: 400 yen
Stone sauna: 1300 yen (women only)