Japan is clearly viewed as a nation of hardworking people. The “play hard” view of Japan is less well known, and the “relax hard” view is even more hidden. This side of Japan can be found in the onsen, saunas and sentō where Japanese spend hours during off-days; the rest rooms floored with tatami where they drink jars of coffee-flavored milk and smoke cigarettes afterwards; and the restaurants they then retreat to for beer and eats.
This isn’t true of all Japanese, of course. I’d say this applies mostly to older people who live slightly outside of the major metropoli. But even younger people and those who live in cities take their hygiene and relaxation seriously.
While most people stick to their local onsen and sentō, higher quality springs and scenery draw people on 日帰り(ひがえり)温泉 trips. Break it down and it’s a ghost of a trip – you’re traveling long distances to do very little other than have a bath. However once you’ve done a couple and become accustomed to the whole group bathing phenomenon, they’re hard to live without.
Travel agencies offer package sets that generally include round-trip train fare, lunch, and entrance price for one of the baths. These can run anywhere from 5000 – 9000 yen. Not a bad deal, but using a Seishun 18 Kippu will cover your train fare for five separate trips for 11,500 yen. Read more about the ticket here.
Here’s one example of a trip out to 長寿館 in 法師温泉 – one of the least accessible onsen ever made:
This compound literally means “blue/green spring," close enough to its actually meaning – “youth.” It’s used all over the place, notably in 青春１８切符 – the Youth 18 Ticket, a special Japanese train ticket that gives you five days of unlimited rides on local trains. While the title of the ticket includes both “youth” and “18,” anyone can use the ticket. It’s only available during school holidays – summer (July 20 to September 10), winter (December 10 – January 20), and spring (March 1 – April 10) vacations.
The five days can be used non-consecutively, but you have to ride local trains – i.e. trains that don’t require a 特急券 (とっきゅうけん, express fee), so some 快速 are included. The best part of the ticket is that it costs a mere 11,000 yen, or just over 2000 yen per day! To be used effectively, though, it does require that you ride for hours on end, but, hey, get some beers and a bento and enjoy the ride.
Some of the special trains that are somewhat-limited-express are the overnight trains. I’ve only ever taken the Moonlight Kyushu that runs between Hakata and Shin-Osaka, but there are several others. The Moonlight Nagara has a stop that departs after midnight, which means you only need to use one of your five days (if you are on the train when it crosses over midnight, you’ll have to stamp twice…unless you’re lucky – video requires facebook membership).
Summer vacation doesn’t start for a while, but it’s critical that you reserve your spot on these overnight trains a month in advance (the reservation only costs an extra 500 yen…make sure to tell them you’re using the Youth 18 Ticket). They sell seats on these trains starting a month before departure, and they are extremely popular (especially the dates around the start and end of the New Years’ holidays); people line up to buy tickets at 5am on the day one month before they leave.
For more information, please consult the following sites: