In my next life, I’d like to be an Onsen Bijin 温泉美人 or in other words a Hot Spring Beauty!
The geographic nature of Japan and its seismic activity means it is the land of volcanoes and earthquakes. It is from these two potentially deadly natural features that comes one of Japan’s most serene and relaxing features, the onsen 温泉 or Hot Spring.
Public bathing is a socially accepted activity in Japan. It is relaxing and consider good for the health. The custom of Public bathing has a very long history in Japan. It is very much linked to indigenous religion of Japan which is known as Shinto. Shinto stresses the importance of purity and cleanliness. The following is an excerpt from Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese say Goodbye by Marie Mutsuki Mockett illustrates the long history and cultural importance that bathing holds for the Japanese
In 297 AD a document known as “History of the Kingdom of Wei” presents the first eyewitness physical description of early Japanese. The people of Wa are described as short, with a penchant for bowing and clapping their hands at shrines and a preoccupation with ritual purification and bathing.
There are 2 main kinds of public bathing, onsen which are natural hot springs or traditional public bath houses which were popular back in the days when many people did not have their own baths in their houses. These wee gems can still be found in old-fashioned neighbourhoods. Modern versions are now very popular. They are much larger and have a range of different baths, restaurants, relaxation rooms and health and fitness rooms offering a variety of massages and beauty services The difference between an onsen and a bath house experience is an onsen has water coming from a natural hot spring source . Onsens have naturally occurring minerals in the water and are thought to be very therapeutic and beneficial to the health. A bathhouse has heated baths but the water is just from the tap.
This post will stick to the onsen. Bath houses could command a whole separate post in their own right.
Onsen can be found the whole length of Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
They can be a stand alone onsen in a beautiful natural setting or found in the middle of Tokyo. Onsen can be part of ryokan, a traditional inn or a modern hotel complex. Wherever they are, each one offers its own unique experience, whether it is the scenery which changes with the seasons, the different style of baths and architecture, the food served, the service or the location. An onsen is a place of calm. It is a relaxing experience to be savoured and enjoyed.
Many foreigners worry about the etiquette involved and feel a little self-conscious at the thought of being naked with complete strangers. The supposedly shy Japanese think nothing of getting their kit off and bathing naked with complete strangers while the brash outgoing foreigners suddenly find themselves on the bashful side of the fence. I always find it quite ironic that my Japanese students have no problem bathing together in their birthday suits but don’t like to try and answer a simple question like “what is your name” in front of their classmates because they feel self-conscious! True, I am comparing apple and oranges but I am amazed at the complete lack of self-consciousness when it comes to public bathing in Japan.
So to answer a few questions I am often asked by nervous friends as I drag them off to soak up a true Japanese experience I would say the following. The etiquette is not complex and as for being self-conscious, I would say the Japanese aren’t so why should you be? Are you really that special? Do you really think you are going to cause a major stir? If you let the self-consciousness deter you, you may be missing out on a wonderful once in a lifetime experience or the beginning of a major love affair with the world of onsen. I say give it a go at least once!
Let me allay so fears and misconceptions and give you the low down on etiquette.
1) Most onsen are segregated. Mixed bathing is unusual. There is one area for females and another for men. Some do offer mixed bathing but it is usually a separate option. Some places offer a private onsen pool for families or couples. The trick is to know which door leads to the female bathing area and the male area! Usually, the male bath sign is in a blue or a green while the female is in a red or a pink. Nowadays it is often a bilingual sign but if not the Kanji for male has a square cut in four quarters on top. think Hot Cross Bun for men.
Often the entrance ways are side by side. A wee trap not to fall into is some onsen switch the baths around day by day or week by week. This is because each bathing room might have different views or different style baths. Just check you are entering the sex appropriate bath each time if you are staying more than one night!
My sister once went to an onsen with her husband and some Japanese friends. The daughter in law of the family was very pregnant so she and the mother decided not to have a soak. The three men went in their side and my sister went in by herself to the female side. She disrobed and armed with the small towel provided for in the pools was about to slide open the door to the bathing area when she could hear very distinct male voices coming from inside. She suddenly thought it was a mixed bath and got a little embarrassed at the thought of bathing with male strangers. She spent about 20 mins trying to figure out how to utilise the small towel to best cover her privates. She finally heard her husband calling out “are you in yet?” She tentatively slid open the door to find it was single sex the dividing wall was very solid and high but had a gap right at the top.
2) After passing through the curtains, you enter a changing area. There are often shelves with baskets or lockers. Here you disrobe completely. and place your clothes in the area provided. You leave your big towel there. Most places provide you with a small hand towel for bathing with and a large towel for drying off at the end. If they are not given to you they usually can be rented for a minimal charge. There are toilets etc here so it is advisable to use here if needed. You take your naked self and hand towel through into the bathing area. When you come back out it is good form to wring your hand towel out and wipe yourself down rather than come dripping wet back out into the changing area. If the flooring is tatami mat you will probably see everyone has removed their slippers. A good rule of thumb is to mimic the locals and just hope you haven’t hooked on to the visiting American who has an Asian heritage but knows even less than you!
3) Once you enter the bathing area you will see the bathing pool or pools depending on the size of the place. There will be a showering area. Often body soap and shampoo are provided. You must shower and rinse off thoroughly before getting in the bath. The bath itself is all about relaxing. You must be clean and suds free before entering. If you lather up using your hand towel make sure you rinse it thoroughly too before entering the pools. Many of the showers have a system where the water runs for a few minutes then stops until you press the button again. You will see most people wet themselves down. Then with the water off soap up and then turn the water on again to rinse off. You can take your own toiletries in if you want. There are small stools and a bucket provided. Most people rinse these off before and after using. Some showers have partitions between them and some don’t. It’s basic good manners to try and be aware of those around you and not hose them down as you rinse off yourself.
4) The little hand towel is used to delicately drape in front of your privates as you walk from pool to pool, or wipe your face as you work up a sweat. People wrap around their head or place on the side of the pool rather than have it in the water.
5) Obviously diving bombing into a pool or splashing are not acceptable exploits in an onsen. They are generally places of relaxation. One important thing to note is people with Tattoos are often denied entry into a hot spring. I have been told this is because tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. People apparently feel very intimidated by tattoos. Yakuza tattoos are very distinctive and often full body however it must be said that dainty butterfly on you butt or the Celtic cross on your bicep may also prohibit your entry. You need check the onsen policy before maybe booking in for a weekend. Some onsen do provide a special sticky plaster to cover the tattoo if it is not too large. Not sure that I get that, as nothing screams tattoo more than an obvious tattoo covering plaster.
Should you strip down to your lily white natural state and stride confidently into an onsen or bath house, safe in the knowledge you have the procedure down pat thanks to my blog, and come face to face with clientele sporting these kind of tattoos you may be in a club with members who belong to a very select fraternity. At this point, I haven’t a clue what advice to give you! Make up your own mind, either way, start a blog, it will make a great story!
So just to recap.
Day trips to Onsen are easy and reasonably cheap. You can go and stay at an onsen hotel or inn and experience the full package, the pools, the food and the accommodation. If you are at an inn or a hotel you are provided with all you need including a cotton kimono called a yukata to get to and from the bath. Often after bathing people don their Yukata and dine at the hotel restaurants. I took my friend to a very nice hotel in Hakone. As we headed down to the bath he wondered how the hotel staff would know we were guests. I suggested the fact we were wearing the hotel yukata and slippers emblazoned with the hotel name might be a giveaway!
Many onsen have lovely Rotenburo which are outdoor baths. They are often situated to make the most of natural scenery or planted and designed to change with the seasons and incorporate Japanese rock gardens and architecture
If the thought of bathing naked still worries you, Many onsen towns have Ashiyu which are hot spring troughs where you can sit and soak your weary feet, often for free. Make sure you have a towel in your bag!
I like to visit an day spa type onsen near my house called Yukemuri no Sato. It has six different type pools and a lovely outdoor rotenburo area. For about $12 I can spend a day of bliss relaxing here. The restaurant is very good and they have a lovely relaxation room with big reclining chairs to kick back in after a bath. Please note the full sized towel in the onsen pool is for the photos only. Real life is the small hand towel! Be realistic folks!
I hope you will take the chance to visit and onsen here and just take the time to relax, soak up some Japanese ambiance and enjoy the bliss.
Yoroshiku Onegai shimasu
Photos sourced from Google images