Q&A with Steve Wide and Michelle Macintosh

Onsen of Japan.

Michelle and Steve are a thoroughly generous and inspiring couple. I've been fortunate to get to know them over the last three years. Together they have written several books on Japan, individually they have created books on famous people in music and art and on crafting.

Their work transcends the obvious boundaries I would have assumed for a guide or how-to book, instead, their books are full of warmth and passion highlighting their deep connection to their subject. 

In the days before we launched Onsen I asked them some questions about this book and working together.

Alasdair: How did your fascination with Japan and Japanese culture begin?

Michelle: In year eleven at hight school I had a Japanese exchange student in my class, she taught me origami and many interesting things about Japan. At university I became obsessed with Japanese (mostly logo) design. I also studied cinema history at university and the films or Ozu, Kurosawa and the film Tampopo made huge impressions on me.


A: One thing I’ve noticed talking to people who have travelled to Japan is that they rarely visit once, why do you think this is?

M: If Japanese culture is something that fascinates you or appeals to you, one visit will start a life long love of travel to the land of the rising sun. 


A: How many times have you travelled to Japan?

M: Aound 40. We have been going 3-4 times a year for the past 10 years and 1-2 times a year since the late 90s. We have spent winter in Japan ever year for the past 20 years.


A: Is each visit research for a new book project?

M: We started writing books on Japan 5 years ago, 15 years after our first visit. Every trip now does involve the making of a book (or 3) however I would always call each trip a holiday as to us this work a passion to us.

A: Have you developed a network of friends in Japan and has this influenced your projects?

M: We have close friends in Japan, people we love a d love to visit. Japanese design has always influenced my work, no more now than when I was at university. It’s a life long love.


A: Your latest book, Onsen of Japan, is very detailed. It covers the history of bathing in Japan to water type and etiquette - how long did it take to amass this information.

M: It took two years to write Onsen of Japan. We travelled all over the country and experienced so many different kinds of onsen and sento. We learnt so much about each town bath their bath houses. We also learnt a lot about ourselves in the making of this book. How to relax, how to take time out to experience different things, get outside our comfort zones, how to travel to remote areas and how to talk to people about what public bathing means to them.

A: How do you prepare for a writing task like this, where do you start and what reading did you do? Are there any books, you'd like to share with us that you found most fascinating on the subject of Onsen culture?

M: There isn’t really a book on onsen culture, I think ours is the first of its kind. Our book is the culmination of conversations, experiences, staying in ryokans. My brother is a Professor of Glaciology and my sister inlaw has a doctorate in earthquakes so I am very interested in the earth science of hot springs.


A: It seems that Onsen are a place of national health and well being, both physical and mental, how do you think they contribute to everyday wellness in Japan?

M: Families visit together, people of all ages enjoy hot springs. It doesn’t cost much money to visit and it can set you up for the day or help you wind down at the end of the day.


A: The concept of wellness is relatively new in mainstream Australian society, do you feel that there's a well-established understanding of wellness in Japan?

M: It’s part of people’s ever day in Japan, not an expensive marketing catch phrase or  expensive spa visit. Many sento visits in Japan are under $5, some rural onsens are free you can get a multiple onsen passes in onsen towns for around $15 


A: Is Onsen culture part of an holistic approach to life?

M: People visit onsen for health reasons, to relax or as a social visit with friends of family. ‘Supersento’ are visited on weekend by the whole family, you can stay for lunch, have a beer, a massage or even spot of nude yoga! 


A: Do you have a favourite Onsen or Onsen region

M: Kinosaki Onsen and Kusatsu Onsen are brilliant Onsen towns if you are looking for a day experience where you can try a few different kinds of baths.


A: What is your favourite pastime in Japan when you're not researching?

M: Visiting galleries, vintage shopping, doing craft classes, eating seasonal food, everything really!


A: Collaboration is at the heart of your published work, do you have strict roles you observe when you’re working together

M: Steve does most of the writing and I do most of the photography and design the book. We plan the listings based on our visits and joint opinion, and always do a read through together. If there are any listing skewed subjects I am passionate about I will write them or give Steve lots of notes.

A: Thank you for taking the time to talk, I know you're busy preparing for another deadline! See you at the launch.

Copies of Onsen of Japan, collaborative chocolate, bathhouse packs and Hinoki pine soaps available in-store.