Unlike today, in those days many spas had mixed bathing.
His shock changed to fascination when he was in senior high school. The American school he attended made arrangements with a Shizuoka Prefecture high school for a joint trip to a spa on the Izu peninsula. There, he ended up in a bath with the local people. The building stood all alone in the middle of some rice fields.
"The locals entire families would chat about everyday things, farming, whatever, while soaking in the hot water. It was a naked get-together with the neighbors, something unheard of in the U.S. The hot spring was the local community center. I found the ambience to be a wonderful part of Japanese culture."
Neff went to the United States for university. When he finished his master's program, his one desire was to return to Japan. So he decided to become a journalist that, he thought, would open the door to working abroad. In 1979, at the age of 32, he came back to Japan as the Tokyo correspondent for Business Week.
"Japan seemed to have changed overnight. Concrete buildings and vending machines everywhere.... The rustic scenery of the Japan I had loved seemed to have disappeared. But one part of it is still alive in spas hidden away in different parts of the country."
He knew that somewhere off the beaten track, surrounded by old wooden houses and the great outdoors, hot springs kept the traditions of old Japan alive. When not tied down at work, Neff would hunt for little-known hot springs, checking TV programs, going through magazines page by page, traveling all over the country. He has been doing that for about 20 years, and has visited more than 200 hot spring spas to date.
"If you stay in a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) at some out-of-the-way spa, you'll eat meals made from local foods, and the landlord or landlady will welcome you with open arms. I'll always treasure experiences like that."
The treasure he loves is the warm, folksy atmosphere of Japan's good old days.
Today, he lives with his wife, Fumiko, in a tastefully designed house in Kanagawa Prefecture. When home, he wears a yukata, a casual type of kimono he grew to like (yukata are commonly worn in Japanese spas). He grins, "I'm going to keep visiting hot springs until I die, here in Japan."