As someone who normally embraces all aspects of a country’s culture, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that the idea of Japanese onsen, or public baths, kind of freaked me out at first. Just a little. I was mostly worried about getting naked at the wrong time. Plus I couldn’t get past the unappealing image of myself sitting in an uncomfortably hot tub with a group of naked strangers. However, after nearly 6 months in Japan, I decided it was time to set aside my fears, and find out if this well-loved Japanese leisure activity is as therapeutic and wonderful as everyone claims.
Onsen can be naturally occurring hot spring pools, but in most cases, the hot spring water is funneled into spa-like facilities within hotels or stand-alone public bath houses. Most onsen are gender separated, with either different baths for men and women, or alternating bathing times for the same baths.
After a little research, we decided to try a hotel in Shin-Hirayu Onsen, one of 5 small onsen towns in the Okuhida region. This hotel offered the elusive mixed gender onsen, which would allow Brent and I to bathe together.
I was fairly nervous when we arrived at the hotel. My new experiences in Japan usually involve a lot of miscommunication and awkwardness, so I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like to throw nakedness into the mix as well.
Most hotel onsen are free for guests, while non-guests have to pay a small entrance fee. We paid at the front desk, and then headed back to the onsen.
As you would probably expect, male and female change rooms have separate entrances. Luckily, at this hotel, each entrance was labeled in English. You can also look at the curtain colour to determine which entrance to use: Male change rooms generally have blue curtains, while the female ones have red.
Inside the change room, women of all ages were stripping down and storing their clothes in small baskets. As a general rule, you’re expected to be naked in gender separated onsen, and swimsuits aren’t allowed. I had assumed that towels would be provided, and I now realized that this was not the case. Everyone had brought 2 towels: a large one, and a small one. They left the large towel in a basket with their clothes, and used it to dry off after they were finished bathing. The smaller towel came into the onsen with them. Brent told me later that some men used the small towel to cover up in the change room, but in my change room, none of the women were bothering to use the towel for modesty.
After I undressed, I passed into the washing area, which had about a dozen shower stalls. Each stall had a low shower head, and a stool to sit on during washing. This particular onsen also provided soap, but you might want to bring your own just in case. Most people used their small towel at this point to lather and scrub. If you only remember one onsen rule, make it this one: wash BEFORE you get into the onsen. Quite logically, the idea is to be clean before you hop into a big communal bath.
Next, I passed through 2 indoor, female-only onsen. It felt really bizarre to just walk down a corridor while stark naked, but that’s exactly what everyone else was doing.
At the entrance to the outdoor mixed gender onsen, there was a shelf stacked with special towels to put on before going outside. The naked policy doesn’t usually apply to mixed gender onsen – here, you’re expected to cover up.
In the outdoor pools, men and women were now bathing together, all wearing the special towels. I could immediately tell that I preferred the outdoor onsen. I liked the combination of the cool outside air and hot onsen water, as opposed to the alternative of sitting in a hot bath within a warm indoor room. Different onsen waters contain different mixtures of minerals, which are associated with various health benefits. This onsen water had a yellow-ish colour as a result of its high sulphur content, which is supposed to soften skin.
The mixed gender area had two baths: a warm one outside, as well as a hotter one tucked inside a cave. There were also cups available for drinking the onsen water as it flowed into the baths from small waterfalls and taps. Both baths had fantastic views of the surrounding forest and mountains. Once Brent emerged from the male side of the onsen, there was nothing to do but sink into the water and relax.
Overall, you can apply the “when in Rome” philosophy to avoid any embarrassing onsen mistakes. I just watched what everyone else was doing, and the whole experience went smoothly. If no one is naked, don’t strip down; if everyone is naked, then get naked and enjoy!
Have you ever tried onsen in Japan?