Recently, I joined the Most Hon. First Marquess Curzon of Kedleston for an overnight trip to Oedo Onsen Monogatari. In case you’ve never heard of this place before, it’s a big hot springs place located on Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay known for its strange array of attractions (e.g. Kenzo Tange’s freaky-looking Fuji TV Building and a “European village” that people rent out for weddings).
Oedo Onsen Monogatari is, likewise, a strange attraction. When I think of onsen, I usually think of Arima Onsen or the various onsen in Nikko—places up in the mountains, pretty far from civilization, where you can enjoy the cool air and the hot water and the view of the valley. Or I think of Azabu Onsen, the tiny sento-type place in Minato-ku close to where I go to school. Comparing these places to Oedo Onsen Monogatari is like comparing a small American town to Main Street USA at Disney World.
You first realize this when you see the onsen from the outside. It’s a big building with a giant Japanese-style roof outlined in Christmas lights, and it looks like the kind of big Japanese restaurant you might see along a suburban highway in the US.
Then you go inside, and it gets weirder. Before you even get to the baths, you’re given a yukata and obi, in your choice of colors and wacky designs (mine had a big honkin’ samurai on it). After changing, you go through a giant room decorated to resemble a Japanese city in the 1700s (complete with signage in old-school bungotai Japanese), where you can buy various knickknacks or pick up something to eat from one of the food stalls.
Curzon and I wandered around this area for a few minutes before we noticed out loud that a good half of the people around us were Chinese. “And that makes sense,” he said, “when you consider that this is what most of China is like…”
A Chinese lady then offered to paint our nails for ¥3,000, but we declined that offer, seeing as it was kind of expensive and, well, pretty gay. “But guys get their nails painted too!” she protested. “See?” … motioning toward Polaroids on the wall behind her. We thanked her for the offer and moved on.
Oedo Onsen Monogatari doesn’t close until 9 in the morning, although you have to pay extra to stay for the late night hours. If you have the cojones, you can hang around the baths all night. We decided to upgrade the experience a bit, so we booked into the in-house capsule hotel—which was also appropriately themed as the “Black Ship Bunk Room” with wooden paneling on the walls. We quickly mulled over the political incorrectness of Americans staying in the Black Ship, and then booked our capsules, which were surprisingly comfortable and, for ¥3,500 each, a pretty good deal as far as Tokyo lodging goes. (Admission to the onsen is about ¥1,500, so you can spend the night for a total of less than 50 USD.)
For all that, the baths themselves were fairly standard fare. The only interesting highlight was when a couple of yakuza types with full-body tattoos showed up. I was initially nervous to get into the same rotemburo as them, but they turned out to be harmless… until they decided to have a screaming fight inside the Black Ship at 5 in the morning. On the flip side, waking up early gave us plenty of time to enjoy a morning dip, then head over for breakfast at Tsukiji.
All in all, not a bad experience. Just typically strange.