Onsen are popular Japanese outdoor and indoor hot spring baths. The attraction comes from the popular belief that the water is good for your health and very therapeutic, which is known as “Toji”. Since Japan is situated along the ring of fire and is therefore a very volcanically active country, you can find onsen all over the length and breadth of Japan. There are a few different types, depending where you go to and each establishment likes to advertise what type of water their onsen contains. Some contain sulphur, giving them an almost milky appearance, while others contain sodium chloride, hydrogen carbonate or iron, which all are supposed to have various benefits related to the therapeutic beliefs about onsen.
“So! This is all well and good,” I hear you say, “but how does one partake in the onsen experience?” Well first of all I would like to talk about the obstacles that a visitor to Japan might face before talking about the bathing bit! It’s a well-known fact that tattoos are still a bit on the taboo side. This is because of the older association with criminal gangs. Attitudes towards tattoos however are changing, especially with the fashion trends of the younger generations and with the influx of foreign visitors. Still, a fair few onsen places do not allow patrons with tattoos to enter, or require them to be covered – so it is wise to check beforehand. There are quite a lot of tattoo friendly places in the more touristy areas, so there shouldn’t be an issue finding a place to take a relaxing dip overall.
Another aspect about onsen that might make people blush is the nudity! Most onsen require the patrons to bath in the nude with everyone. Not to worry, usually the baths are segregated, (though there are mixed baths dotted around), however you are only allowed to bring a little towel in with you. If basking in your birthday suit is a little too much, you’ll be glad to know there are ‘water-park’ like onsen that allows people to wear swimsuits. A famous one in Hakone has onsen with different ‘flavoured’ water, such as wine and coffee. If you want to check that sort of thing out, lookup Yunessun (though bear in mind people with visible tattoos are not allowed to enter the baths). Of course, there are also private or couple baths available, if you’d like to avoid other tourists altogether.
Having found a place to bath at, what now? How do we proceed? Usually once walking into the changing room area you’ll be greeted by lockers wall to wall. Pick a locker you want to use and get undressed. It is very common for people to just strip where they stand with no personal cubicle, so try not to feel shy while getting undressed (and please don’t stare). Grab your little personal towel and then head into the showering area and it’s advised that you don’t head straight to the onsen. The reason for showering first is that you are washing your body as to not make the bath itself dirty. Lots of people use it, so it’s polite to be already clean when entering. There are usually free shampoo, conditioner and body soap to use, but there is an order of doing things! Each little shower has a sitting stool, a bucket and shower head with mirror in front of you. You can use the bucket to fill with water in order to douse the stool before you sit. Wash your hair and body however you like and finally douse the stool and shower area again with water to rinse off any leftover soup suds. Once again this is all for consideration of others since many people use the facilities throughout the day. Now you are ready to enter the onsen bath! People usually use their little towel to cover themselves for modesty’s sake while walking in between the baths, so feel free to do so. Once settled into a bath, most people either wrap the towel around their heads, fold it on top or place it near them on the edge of the bath. Whichever way is fine. Then… relaaaaaax…. Eventually when you decide to leave, you can rinse off again in the shower if you wish, but it’s not necessary, so feel free to head back into the changing rooms to get dry and dressed. Hopefully your first experience will be smooth sailing. As for me, my first time was extremely awkward only because a Japanese relative had to teach me on the go. Not only was there a slight language barrier, but I was also not at all used to being in the nude in front of so many people. I was awkward, which made everyone else feel a bit awkward so the whole thing was awkward….. SO awkward. After that, I felt there was no way I could be even more embarrassed so the next time I went to an onsen it was a 100 times better. Now I absolutely love going and find it extremely relaxing. Of course it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do hope you all have a go given the chance. If public bathing is definitely off the cards, you can always find somewhere that has a private bath, which is just as good. Some even come with the room you are staying in as usually these days a lot of hotels have some form of onsen bath, especially in the popular tourist locations.
I hope I have helped you with elevating any worries or concerns. If you would like to try out baths in the Tokyo area, a couple of places you can try are:
http://daikokuyu.com/english/index.html Which is near the Skytree
http://www.sadachiyo.co.jp/en/ Which is styled as a traditional Ryokan hotel.
However, if you wish to escape the city and head towards the beautiful mountain area, Hakone has plenty of lovely places to bathe such as:
http://www.samurai-hakone.com/ Which is styled a guest house.
https://www.yunessun.com/en/ Which is the waterpark mentioned early.
A personal favorite of mind, though not very traditional, is Hotel Kukuna near the lakes around Mt Fuji http://kukuna.jp/eng/index.html We had a fantastic view of Mt Fuji from across the lake and the staff were very welcoming. Highly recommend it.
Photography © Kim Sato, 2018.