Hot Enough For Ya?

“Onsen” is often translated to “hot spring bath” in English but I feel that it’s a unique experience that really transcends this simple title. Hot springs can be found in many countries around the world but the Japanese variation is a special beast.

My first experience of an Onsen in Japan was graceless and scalding to say the least. There was a handful of foreigners from various backgrounds along with a couple of newly made Japanese friends on a brief beach bacation (…) and after frolicking in the sand we decided it was definitely Onsen time. Most of us were new arrivals at that time and had only heard about these Japanese baths. We found a small, cheap place near the beach and marched on in.

We gingerly striped down to our birthday suits in the cramped changing room and shuffled into the bath room. The men’s bath was just one small room, half of which was taken up with the pool and opposite there was a set of showers and mirrors lined up against the wall. Enter Problem 1: there were not enough showers for the number of boys. A key rule of Onsen-going is that you have to clean yourself before getting in the pool. So, while some showered off the rest were left to hover in the middle of the room. The thing about this was that common shower practice in Japan is to squat on a little plastic seat, which meant that the mirrors were lower down the wall. Perfect cock-level for whoever was standing behind you. How did I describe it? Oh yeah; graceless.

Once we were all suitably clean it was time to be afronted by Problem 2. Hot springs are supposed to be hot, hence the name, but it seems the owner of this particular place had been boiling lobsters or something before we arrived as the bath water was on the verge of abandoning it’s liquid form for good. So the final scene of this pantomime was a line of naked men squished together in a small room, intermitently dipping tootsies and pinkies into a sulphurous hell-pond while we waited for the cold tap to do it’s work.

After that we had ice cream.

Ice Cream

What To Do and How To Do It

As you might expect there are certain rules to be followed when you visit an Onsen and to save you from embarrassement I’ll give you a quick rundown of the basics.

  • First: Be naked. That’s right, there are no swim-suits allowed in these pools. In fact, unless you’re a toddler you shouldn’t really be swimming about the place anyway.
  • Number 2: Be considerate. Ever been swimming in a public pool and had that moment when a grotty plaster appears floating just before your nose? Not pleasant. If you’re going to be sharing a bathtub with someone, make sure you’re clean. Every Onsen I’ve been to has provided Body Soap and Shampoo next to the showers. USE THEM. Scrub every nook and cranny before you set foot in a pool. The main purpose of bathing is to relax, not to clean – that’s what the showers are for. I usually have a quicker clean before I leave as well. Oh, and make sure you properly rinse your shower area! A friend of mine was shouted at once for not properly removing his suds.
  • Threesome: Don’t dip your towel. It’s common to bring a small towel into the bathing area with you (I have one friend who doesn’t bother, but he’s … well … Canadian) which you can usually buy at the reception desk. Make sure not to take your main, big towel out of the changing area as you might look a bit odd. The purpose of the small towel is to cover your privates as you walk about, dry off a little before leaving the area, and some people use them while showering to get more of a deep clean going. When stepping in to a bath most people fold up the towel and plop it on their head. You could also stick it on the side of the bath. But one thing you shouldn’t do is dip the towel into the bath water and use it to wash yourself. I found this out after about a year of frowny glances …
  • Forthwith: Don’t be a bother. It probably goes without saying but running is a big no-no. Also, try not to splash about or make a lot of noise when in the tub. Remember, there are other people there trying to relax too.

Relax to the Max

Onsen-ing is really one of the most relaxing things I do with my time (I mean, there’s only so much bubble-wrap one man can pop) so I try to go pretty regularly. It’s pretty easy for me as they are in abundance around Northern Japan. I had a hard time finding one in central Tokyo. The only one I went to turned me away for “not speaking enough Japanese”, which I took as code for “No foreigners!” However, I have since been to a wonderful Foot Onsen/Cafe (Not “Foot Cafe”, that sounds weird! I mean Foot Onsen AND Cafe) somewhere in Ginza.

There are two main types of Onsen: the natural hot springs and the public baths. The water in the natural ones is chock full of super-minerals and the baths are often carved from rock or made from ageing wood. The public baths are sometimes part of a hotel, so they tend to be more convenient than going off to find a natural spring. The water in the public baths is just plain old scorching hot water, but this can also make them a cheaper option. Sometimes you will go to a place similar to my first experience – just a room with a pool. But more often than not there will be more variety on show. My favourite is the outside bath (called a roten-buro) into which you can huddle in the winter and peer out over the water at the gently falling snowflakes. You may also find a sauna plus super-chilly pool to really push your body to the limits of heart failure.

Watch out if you wear glasses though! I used to wear mine into the bath all the time as I was paranoid about falling down the steps into the pool, but then one day one of my lenses warpped beacuse of the heat and minerals in the air. Admittedly mine were a cheap pair so the damage may be due to inferior lenses but still, I’d recommend trying to squint your way around most of the time.

Finally, Friends.

Don’t be surprised if people start talking to you while you’re chillin’. Going for a bath is a communal thing that friends and family do together so sometimes people will just be in the mood to chat. Just the other day I was drowsily enjoying a bath when a guy walking past said “America? America?” After correcting him he told me a few things about himself. Namely: he owns a shop in town, he has an Irish friend, and he has cancer but “Onsen OK.”

So yeah, that was interesting.

Have I left out any rules? What have your experiences of Japanese Onsens been like? Please feel free to add your own insights and questions in the comments section!

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