... a dreamer, freelance writer, naturopath, mother & former social work student based in the Blue Mountains. Continue the journey with me- Soul Home: https://www.instagram.com/the_soul_home/thewildemoon: https://www.instagram.com/thewildemoon/
Published September 5th 2012
Shangri-la in the hills
Amazing natural spring waters of the health giving Japanese Bath House.
We arrive at the simple Tudor style house as if to Shangri-la.
Is it the crispness of the air stimulating my senses to a heightened awareness? Perhaps it's the dramatic journey through Victoria Pass into Hartley Vale and over the rolling hills of South Bowenfels? Or is it the fabulously secluded location overlooking the placid waters of Lake Lyall?
If you want a totally unique experience that encompasses health, relaxation, Japanese culture and tea-drinking with a mountainous location and a dash of oriental mystique, read on…
Alternatively, scroll down to the phone number at the bottom of this review and make a booking. Either way, you MUST come here. For in my opinion the Japanese Bath House (or Sparadise, the commercial tag by which it is far less commonly known) is surely NSW's best kept secret.
Japanese style entrance offers a sense of mystique.
We approach the Bath House's Japanese style entrance, as if to a secret den or sanctuary in the hills. Maybe it's the simplicity and non-commercialism of the building and grounds. Perhaps it's the silence that hovers like an aura of enchantment.
Before we reach the front door, a young woman in traditional Japanese attire slips from the door to officially greet us. She imparts basic instructions in a calm whisper. It could be a bird warbling - such is the calming effect on my nervous system.
In keeping with Japanese tradition, shoes are not worn inside. We are provided with disposable slippers. The subdued and formal outdoor greeting and the removing of shoes set the tone and tell me I'm in for an experience that is outside my known world.
Toning down my excitement, I follow the instructions. For this place has more in common with a spiritual retreat than it has to Club Med.
Upon entering, I immediately observe a strange smell - that is most likely herbal, but smells horribly like urine.
Inside we are given further instructions and ceremonial introduction by a second older Japanese woman. Her whisper could almost be a threat. Or an enticement. It could easily be both. I wonder if she has a sword hidden in a secret cupboard.
By contrast, my Western voice sounds like an insult. I immediately drop it to a whisper that matches the hosts'. Or try to. But, in this setting, the Australian accent sounds as horrible as a cockatoo's squawk.
Standing at the reception desk, we are informed that the Japanese Bathhouse, as it is humbly referred to by its hosts, is owned privately by a Japanese man, whose name I can't recall. This is his own personal retreat, open only to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Other days are by invitation only. The privilege to come here does not escape me. We are told that this is the only Japanese Bathhouse in NSW, a distinction, I don't forget.
We are told the Japanese owner's photograph can be viewed in the reception room. I am busting to have a gawk, but fear that might be disrespectful. Who is this man and is he some kind of wealthy guru? In the end I leave never having looked at the picture.
A quick tour of the facilities and indoctrination into the rules of the establishment follow. No loud talking or laughing. No jumping in or diving. No photographs within the bath house - to ensure the privacy of others present. No immersing hair or head beneath the waters. No talking in the meditation room. No make-up. No drinking water or wearing wet clothes inside the house. And so on.
The facilities include the delightful indoor hot spring overlooking Lake Lyall (mmm), an outdoor hot spring set in a small Japanese garden (ahhh!), the herbal steam room (oooh!) and the usual toilet and change-room facilities.
Prior to entering the waters one is required to wash one's body Japanese style using a bowl of water, liquid soap and hand towel while seated on a low stool. There are warm hand held showers for rinsing off. The reasoning behind this ritual is to avoid all body products contaminating the purity of the water or herbal steam bath. It is advised to soak in the waters no more than fifteen minutes and for only two to three times. Not sure what would happen if you submerged longer but I imagine it wouldn't be good.
Sure, the rules are numerous, but this, my partner later advises me, is very Japanese. As is the discipline and zen of this place. He'd been to Japan the previous year and returned a lover of all things Japanese.
In volcano-rich Japan, Onsens (natural hot springs) are popular tourist drawcards. As a mere ignorant Aussie I'd never heard of such things. Yet, less than half an hour from where I lived was the existence of a Japanese Onsen fed by a genuine natural spring - the only establishment of its kind in NSW. Which proves that some of the best things in life are not so well known and may even be on your back door step.
The waters of the Bath House derive from a natural spring and are rich in health-giving minerals. Our soft-speaking yet stern host takes us outside to look at a view of the surrounding brown hill. She points towards a patch of grass, fed by the mineral rich spring, that stays permanently green. It seems miraculous and at the very least, provides proof of the mineral story.
I ask if it snows here - the usual dumb-tourist type question. Our host answers patiently in the affirmative. In fact snow was here not long ago and again fell in the previous week. She provides an account of how lovely it is to sit in the hot outdoor spring with the snow all around one. I am enchanted.
The usual accoutrements one associates with the spa environment are nowhere to be seen. There is an obvious absence of the usual fluffy towels, burning oils, candles and artificial flowers. If you are expecting Club Med,forget it. The Japanese Bathhouse offers something deeper than all that.
Instead there is an austerity to the decor of the Bath House that is not stern but dignified. Our host concentrates on telling us of the medicinal and health giving benefits of the mineral rich waters. They are said to aid arthritis, stimulate circulation and bestow minerals to the body. The herbal steamer is beneficial for asthma and helps remove toxins from the body.
I'd been looking forward to coming here from the moment I conceived the idea during a fit of hatred towards winter cold. The notion of hot natural springs in the hills seemed like a Tolkien fantasy. In reality, the Japanese Bath House feels more like a health retreat with a spiritual bent and Japanese flavour.
Once washed, we step into the waters of the Bath House. My toe goes in first and tells me the water is not just warm, it's hot. Once you're in, the contrast of your upper body with the cold winter air is delicious. With other people at close range it feels a bit like hanging at the public baths of Ancient Rome. Another fantasy fulfilled.
One soon sees the sense in the rule about silence. After a while the sound of voices becomes irritating, like splashes in the underlying peace. The groups of females are the worst for this
The profusion of Japanese customers (at least 50% of the clientele during my visit) combined with the Japanese staff and their etiquette, provide a sense of being in another country that makes for an exquisite, dare I say, exotic experience.
After ten or fifteen minutes in the hot water, I've had enough. It's not boredom, but the heat-inducing faintness and heart palpitations that makes me exit so soon. I attempt to follow my partner into the cold pool adjacent to the hot bath, but after the heat, it's more painful than icicles. I can only manage a quick agonising wade (with others in the Bath House smiling slightly at my woe) then I'm out of there.
The indoor Bath House overlooks Lake Lyall. A bit like hanging at the public Baths of Ancient Rome.
The herbal steam-room is next on the agenda. Inside, it's like entering a womb or some nether world. It's dark, airless, filled with white steam and smells divinely of herbs and oils. Others sit or lie draped on the wooden benches like souls awaiting their journey into the next world. As an asthmatic, it took me a while to feel comfortable with the lack of air. I try to think about how this self-induced claustrophobia will help me detox from those mercury fillings I had removed the previous week.
Following on from the herbal steam-room, we wander outside into the garden. If there is one disappointment I would profess, it was with the size of the Japanese garden. More of a tiny backyard, it hardly lives up to the description of garden. However, that's a small point. It does overlook the lake and there is a plantation of leafless deciduous trees that look suspiciously like they might be cherry blossom come spring.
Our host had suggested a barefoot walking meditation over the knobbled curving Japanese path. The theory is nice, but in reality it's difficult to meditate with strangers at such close range, and for me at least, I found myself too occupied with absorbing the novelty and excitement of the whole experience to down-vibe. The knobbly bits on the path do massage the bottom of one's feet nicely though.
We enter the outdoor spring. It's surprisingly hot! 'Delicious' could be another word. If you are thinking heated outdoor pool, forget it. This is the real thing. No chlorine and toxic fumes, screaming kids or cold water posing as hot. Instead the water is truly pure and hygienic, as hot as one can bear without boiling to death in it, and peace abides in this place. Few experiences on this earth can compare with sitting in a hot outdoor spring within a garden overlooking the mountains and a lake. Yet, one can only remain in the water for a few minutes before it starts to feel uncomfortably hot. I watch as one by one, people exit the nirvana or sit steaming on the stone border dangling only their legs in.
The delicious outdoor hot mineral spring. At 30 degrees celcius it's roasting in winter.
The beauty of this place is that for $55 you can hang out at the Bath House for three hours. Usually to visit a conventional spa in Australia you will pay far more than that for an hour in the spa or alternatively must be a fully paying guest to use such facilities. Well, let's say, I'm open for someone to challenge me on that one. There is also a massage service available – but at $75 for half an hour, $110 for 45 minutes and $140 for an hour, this isn't cheap. Still, my feeling is that it would complete the experience. If you can afford it, go for it.
In addition to therapeutic massage, aromatherapy massage and an aromatherapy facial are also available. All prices are listed clearly on the website. It is also possible to book a multiple entry all day pass to the Bath House. This costs $80 per person.
Three hours might seem short, but we found it timed to perfection for all one needs and desires. The time allows you to fit in several sinks in the communal spas, two sittings in the Herbal Steam room, tea and a meal at the Tea Shack and wander through the garden, all at a deliciously leisurely pace. For what you won't know (but which I have been trying to get across) is you cannot stay within the hot spring waters for very long without feeling like you are going to pass out.
The Tea Shack - yummo Japanese food and delicious herbal teas.
Which leads onto the delicious subject of refreshments at the Tea Shack. At the side of reception, there is a little room where basic refreshments are served. This has to be one of the most under-stated snack places I've ever encountered. I had expected perhaps a nori roll and a basic herbal tea. Instead, we were the recipients of a delicious Japanese luncheon complete with rice, noodles, bean curd, exotic mushrooms and vegies. The tea selections are divine and when sipped from the tiny cups the tea is subtle and full of tranquility, just like everything else about this experience. If you love Japanese food and tea-drinking, make sure you partake.
Lunch is experienced seated Japanese style on the floor. This isn't luxury, but it's authentic and quaint.
Accommodation packages are available at the Bath House (either separate cabin accommodation or in the house) and include breakfast and massage treatments. Prices range from $250 to $300 for a night. While I did not stay on site, I imagine it would be as simple yet neat as the rest of the establishment. Full details including prices can be found on the website. Click here.
To get to Blue Mountains Sparadise, head West of Katoomba on the Great Western Highway. It is approximately 30 minutes drive from there. You will travel through Mt Victoria then Hartley Historical Site. Turn left at the Shell petrol station (on your left) into Magpie Hollow Road. Drive for about 2 km and turn right at the big yellow tea pot sign.
A few other things you need to know: this is one of those cash-only establishments. Secondly, make sure to book in advance. The Bath House is popular and only takes a limited number of bookings at a time. On my first attempt to visit I couldn't book in and was forced to wait two weeks until I could get another day off. You will need to bring swimmers and a towel, but they will remind you of that when you book. Apparently, like other Japanese Onsons, nudity (for the sake of water purity) was enforced, but fortunately (for most of us that is) that rule no longer applies.
If you make it to the Japanese Bath House, remember to take a look at the photograph of the master of the house. Perhaps you can tell me what he looks like.
The japanese bath house visit was a very bad experience for us, we arrived there at 7:05 pm and had one hour and fourty minutes to use the bath. The staff were supposed to guid us to the bath and let us to enjoy the spring water instead they tried to waste our little time by giving us speechs about the history of the place and when I objected they still insisted to force the unneccesary infos about the Founder of the place. We drove to there from Sydney for two hours to obly enjoy the spring water and I made it clear to them and despite that management was persistant to enforce some timekilling info on us and they call it their protocol. The management protocol is to kill time so people wouldn't be in the water which its main reason for their visit. We were very disappointed by them and they did not leave a good impression of Japanese custom on us. We felt that it is a custom of force by the way that they made us to wear their flip flops and also forcing a lecture on us. Eventually we refused this none sense service got our money back and drove back two hours ,l
I went there a couple of years ago. We were staying in Katoomba with some friends it was colld, wet and miserable. The husbands sat on the floor drinking tea whilst they read their Sydney Morning Heralds. My friend and I had no swimming costumes with us so we opted for massage. We both agreed that someone had walked down our backs but it was a brilliant massage and we were able to walk afterwards!
We didn't realise what we missed out on. I can't wait to try out the delights of the hot springs with swimmers in the bag next time. Thanks for the info.