You’re in Japan and headed for one of their famous hot spring baths better known as Onsen. With nutrients like sulphur or hydrogen chlorides in the water, Onsens are renowned for beautifying skin and other assorted health benefits. If you’re not from a place where these natural wonders just sprout up all over – Singapore’s claim to hot spring fame is a single tap from which people fill up their pails and stick their feet in – here’s what you need to know to prep you for that awesome hot spring experience, Japanese style.
The Onsen Layout
There are 3 parts to a typical Onsen:
1) The robing area: where you divest yourself of clothes and accessories. There are usually baskets and lockers to keep your stuff in. Also, there is usually a powder room of sorts where you can freshen up before you leave – usually with hairdryers, lotions and even cotton buds.
2) The showers: these are 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 body for the hot water. I usually rinse off again when I am done, but some people say not to so that you can preserve the nutrients from the hot springs on your skin.
3) The pool: the hot waters have temperatures ranging anywhere from 38 -40+ degrees celcius. Larger Onsens usually have more than one pool, either of varying temperatures or mineral content, so you can soak in the one you like best. The Onsen pools are usually fairly shallow, and have slabs for sitting on so you can lounge and soak in peace.
Drop those drawers and your modesty because the Japanese style of bathing is to go stark naked. None of the modesty you see on TV where the hosts usually have a towel wrapped around them – the idea is that clothes introduce dirt into the pools, that’s why they are not allowed in the water. Most baths are segregated by gender so there’s really no need to be embarrassed.
The nudity in the Japanese Onsens was definitely a bit surprising for me because I first encountered hot springs in Taiwan, where you are required to be in a bathing suit in the public baths whether indoor or outdoor. Still, I got over my initial awkwardness quite quickly – you spend most of your time in the water anyway, and most of the people there aren’t supermodels so there’s no need to be body-shy.
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 realised that no one really takes any notice of anyone else, you are all in the same (naked) boat after all and 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 your body has settled, slowly start lowering yourself into the pool until you are 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.
Onsens are such a godsend for aching bodies and especially in freezing cold weather – your body straight out of the bath feels toasty warm and you are invincible against the cold for a few minutes because your body is still so warm. If you are thinking about skiing in Japan, an Onsen is HEAVEN to come back to after a long day out on the slopes.
Headed to Japan soon? Check out all my Japan articles, or if you want to read more about hot springs, check out some of my favourite ones in Taiwan, like this outdoor hot spring facing the sunrise on Green Island, and a rare cold spring in Su Ao.