You’re in Japan and headed for one of their famous hot spring baths better known as Onsen. With nutrients like Sulphur and Hydrogen Chlorides in the water, Onsens are renown for beautifying skin and other assorted health benefits) If you’re not from a place with these natural wonders sprouting all over the place (Singapore’s claim to hot spring fame is a single tap from which people fill up their pails and stick their feet in. Everything I know about hot springs are from my travels), here’s what you need to know to prep you for that awesome hot spring experience, Japanese style.
There are 3 parts to a typical Onsen:
1) The robing area: where you divest yourself of clothes and accessories, and there are baskets and lockers to keep your stuff in. Also, there’s usually a powder room of sorts where you can freshen up after a soak.
2) The showers: they’re usually next to the pool areas, but with a fresh water source. You need to rinse off before going into the pools, both for hygiene reasons as well as to prep your bodies for the hot water. You normally don’t shower when you emerge so as to preserve the nutrients from the hot springs on your skin.
3) The pool: the waters are typically around 40 degrees, and larger Onsens can have more than one pool, usually of varying temperatures, so you can soak in the one which you like best. These are usually shallow, and have slabs for sitting on so you can lounge and soak in peace.
Drop those drawers and your modesty, the Japanese style of bathing is to go stark naked. Most baths are segregated by gender so there’s really no need to be embarrassed. Generally they don’t allow any clothes or towels in the pools, so you can’t have a towel wrapped around you. Remember to take out your accessories as well, especially the metal ones, as you never know how they might react with the nutrients in the hot spring water.
I was a little awkward about it the first few times, but soon realized that no one really takes any notice of anyone else, you’re all in the same (naked) boat after all. Everyone pretty much goes about their own business, so follow that cue and as curious as you might be, try not to stare too openly at other people.
If privacy is an issue though, there is the option of finding private bath cubicles or hot spring hotels with private facilities where you can soak in peace. Japan has some pretty awesome Onsen hotels and if you’re willing to pay, you can have a pool all to yourself, right in your room.
Take It Easy
Enter the baths in a relaxed way – don’t go in too fast or the sudden change in temperatures might make you faint. Start off by sitting at the edge and sticking your feet in first. Once that’s ok, slowly start lowering yourself into the pool until you’re comfortable. If you start to feel woozy or light headed, get out of the pool and let your body cool down before you try again.
Some tips I’ve had from seasoned bathers: One way to counter the lightheadedness is to place a little towel soaked in hot water on the top of your head to ‘balance’ the temperature from head to toe. While you can’t bring in big towels, you can usually bring a small towel with you to the pools, but refrain from using it like a washcloth. Another suggested keeping the chest out of the water (i.e. your lungs) so you don’t have difficulty breathing.
Have you been to the Onsens in Japan? How did you like them?
The nudity in the Japanese Onsens was definitely a bit surprising after the baths that I was used to in Taiwan, with most of the public baths requiring bathing suits. Still, I got over my initial awkwardness quite quickly – you’re spending a lot of time in the water anyway, and most of the people there aren’t supermodels so there’s no need to be body-shy.
You’re usually not supposed to take photos in the onsen, but there was no one around when I was in the pool in the Awara Onsen way back in 2006, so here’s a better visualization of the typical onsen layout:
I miss Onsens, especially with my aching shoulders now! They were a godsend, especially in the freezing cold weather, where your body would be toasty warm in the water even if the wind was blowing (in the outdoor pools!). It was really fun feeling invincible and walking through the snow without a jacket straight after a bath, while you were still exuding heat from the bath!