Culture Vulture

An onsen in Sante Fe - for 'real'

No details were spared to create an authentic Japanese-style hot spring bath in south-west America

Pinyon pines and coniferous junipers cluster on the hill, partially obscuring a set of modest, rustic-looking wooden buildings.

Step inside and one is greeted with an onsen complex offering everything from a communal bath to private dips. Soak away the cares of this world as you ease into the hot water and contemplate the serene view of nature before you.

This is not Anywhere, Japan, though. Instead, Ten Thousand Waves swirls around on the edge of Hyde Memorial State Park, just outside the city limits of the art-and-adobe-architecture city of Santa Fe in south-west America.

According to their website, the place is inspired by Japanese mountain hot spring resorts.

The literature adds: "Everything we do from the gardens to the woodwork, from the therapies to the therapists, has been constantly and thoughtfully refined over the last 34 years. We pride ourselves on being 'real'."

Authenticity is clearly a selling point here.

The novelty alone of a Japanese hot spring experience on a chilly spring day in New Mexico was initially irresistible to me and my travel companion. But there was also the shadow of a doubt as to whether this would be more kitsch than kosher.

After all, this was transplanting a very different bathing style 10,000km to a place better known for its harsh landscapes and native American culture.

Would "real", used with quotation marks on the website, turn out to be like "natural" and "home-made" - words debased of meaning when used in marketing and advertising?

On first impression, the place appeared to pass muster. The forest setting of the nearby national park was well-chosen and it was clear that great care had been taken with the architecture. The use of wood and stone gave a distinctive sense of place and signalled that one was not quite in New Mexico anymore.

Dark-blue noren, traditional Japanese fabric dividers, were hung in a doorway.

The attention to detail continued indoors. Patrons were issued yukata robes and the array of cleansing gels and lotions were scented with hinoki, a Japanese cypress, and yuzu, a Japanese citrus.

But in the end, there were limits to authenticity.

A small statue of Buddha respectfully housed outdoors in a wooden structure seemed a little out of place. That does not seem very Japanese, groused my friend.

The pre-bath cleaning areas featured showerheads one stands under rather than low stools for you to sit on as you perform your ablutions.

The communal pool turned out to be rather small and there was the forced proximity of having to sit right next to strangers. The tiny pocket of personal space here was perhaps more Western than Asian.

So was the wooden sauna cabin located adjacent to the pool. After all, there is a rich tradition of public baths in the West, from the thermal waters of the sprawling Szechenyi Baths in Budapest to the sweltering sauna. The term sauna itself is an old Finnish word which refers to the traditional Finnish bath and the bathhouse.

Also, the communal hot tub at Ten Thousand Waves is open to both men and women. In Japan, however, the baths have been segregated by gender since the Meiji restoration, which spanned the late 19th and early 20th century.

This is according to Wikipedia because how else would a non-Japanese be able to assess the purported authenticity of a Japanese-style onsen?

We crave the idea of authenticity as both an ideal and perhaps as a bragging right. Not all experiences are equal so surely the truer one is superior - even if the yardstick for measuring the degree of authenticity is beyond our grasp. After all, bathing culture in Singapore is more likely to be a quick zip to the shower than a long soak of any kind.

In comparison, determining whether an eatery offering a foreign cuisine is authentic seems easier, at least in Singapore. Take a look at the clientele and see if there are natives dining there. It is trickier to do so at Izanami, the Japanese restaurant on the grounds of Ten Thousand Waves, given that New Mexico is not exactly a magnet for the Japanese.

But even if there are limits to how authentic an onsen can be in Sante Fe, one appreciates the effort that went into creating an unusual bathing experience.

A tweaking and adaptation of imported customs and cultures can certainly be a good thing. And a slavish and rigid adherence to the orthodoxy of authenticity can well stifle the flow of creative juices and prevent innovation and breakthroughs.

Thoughts can start to drift when you let Ten Thousand Waves carry you away.

Next time though, I would book ahead for a private tub.

bchan@sph.com.sg