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Tea Leaves

Japan sees spiritual experience in the humble bath

Bathing is much more than a good long soak

An outdoor bath at an inn in Shiobara Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture. A sense of the divine power believed to reside in natural springs can be experienced at countless spas across the country. (Photo by Stephen Mansfield)

There was a cold snap in the air and snow on the ground when I arrived at my inn, a modest lodging in Shima Onsen, a hot spa town in Japan's Gunma Prefecture.

At first, I was puzzled about a curtain of green nylon webbing at the edge of the spring's elevated rotenburo (open-air bath), which partially obscured the view of a stunning valley. Then I spoke with a fellow bather. "They put the nets there to stop monkeys entering," he explained. "They like a good, healthy soak, especially at this time of year."

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