Japan Journal: How to Bathe in an Onsen (Hot Springs Bath)

Here are a few pearls of wisdom concerning hot springs bathing in Japan.

  1. Know Before You Go. Try to distinguish between a mere communal bathhouse (OHURO) and a true hot springs bath (ONSEN). The latter, of course, will require access to a volcanic vent of some kind; but most towns with onsen will advertise them heavily, for they are a huge part of the tourist industry.
  2. Learn the Rules of the House. Onsen can be complicated. The larger establishments will have a small locker at the entrance, in which you store your shoes. Put in your 100 yen (which is usually returned when you leave) and take your key. Then, check your shoe locker key when you buy your entrance ticket and get your main locker key, which will usually be on a wristband (cause you gonna be nekkid in a minute, with no pocket to put it in). You will also need to know what amenities (like soap and shampoo) the house has available, either for free or for purchase; if they are not provided, you will have to bring them. Most experienced bathers invest in plastic baskets for their soap, shampoo, and towels. If they live in an onsen town like Hakodate (where I am now), they keep their baskets in their cars, enabling them to bathe on a whim, without having to return home for supplies (or for bathing). At any rate, when you enter the locker room, find your locker and put everything in it but your locker key. Smaller onsen might have wicker baskets instead of lockers, in which case, you might feel more comfortable leaving your wallet in the car or at home. Some bathers carry a washcloth into the bath area proper, to employ as a fig leaf, but you can go in buck nekkid, with nothing but the locker key around your wrist, and no one will call you daffy.
  3. The Washing. As most Americans know, in Japan, you don’t wash in the tub; you wash before getting in the tub. At an onsen, you do your washing while seated on a little stool at a washing station, which includes a hand-held shower head and a larger spigot for filling a little plastic or wooden bucket, also provided. The washing stations are in a row, before a long mirror. You will have to sit your ass down on the little stool, which is about six inches off the ground. Americans, unaccustomed to squatting, may find the action difficult; and Americans also tend to be more portly than the average Japanese, in which case they will find their bellies on their laps – or their laps on their bellies. Anyway, in this rather unnatural posture, you will wash yourself. You may use the hand-held shower sprayer, or you may fill your little bucket with water and dump it over yourself. You usually can control the water temperature, but many of the “on” levers are time-sensitive and will shut the water off after a few seconds, sometimes leaving you with a face full of soapsuds. This mode of washing is not as efficient as an American shower. You will find it especially challenging, whether you are portly or not – I should say no matter how portly you are – to wash and rinse your nether parts, while sitting on the stool. You may want to get back to your feet to do it, but rising again will require some exertion and will result in your standing nekkid next to another man, with his head about waist-high. Therefore, you will probably just have to discover some way to get the water down there while seated. The hand-held nozzle will do the trick, if you are aggressive with it, but you will have to get over your self-consciousness (if you still have any, that is) and forget how it looks. Warning: Some of the larger establishments might have one or two American-style showers in the room, and you will be tempted to sneak into one of these and get your washing done much faster; but these showers are for rinsing off the onsen water when you’re all done. If you use soap in there, you may get a talking to (by a nekkid man), as I did once, supposedly because you will have created a slip hazard with your soap but really because it’s not fair for you to shampoo and wash efficiently while no one else can. You must conform to the custom of the house, even if it means lathering and rinsing your bum, one cheek at a time, while doing a gyrating lap dance with a water jet, sitting on a low plastic stool with a hole in the middle of it.
  4. The Soaking. Now that you’re squeaky clean, you’re ready for the onsen proper. All onsen will have at least one indoor pool, and most will also have an outdoor pool. If there is more than one indoor pool, they probably contain water of different temperatures, usually medium, scalding, and boiling. There may also be a special, “herbal” pool featuring a treatment du jour such as aloe, lavender, chamomile, and so on; and some bathhouses include a pool of cold water, for polar bears. Go ahead and try as many as there are (except the polar bear water). The hotter baths you will only be able to stand for a minute or so. Note that when you move while immersed, you will get burned. This is because your body is cooling the water; so when you move your leg, for example, you are moving it out of cooler water and into the real soup. Stay in each pool until you are miserable, and then move to the next one. When you feel that your chest has turned into a pot roast, it’s time to step outside.
  5. The Air. Here is where your experience will turn delightful. The outdoor pool, if there is one, will be situated on a terrace or in an enclosed garden-like area. By all means, take an additional soak in the outdoor pool, but your objective, after your body temperature is maxed out, will be to get out of the water (take it easy as you climb out, or you might faint) and to find a nice place to sit down, where you won’t be disturbed. It may be a rock (which will leave an interesting pattern on your tooshie) or a lawn chair (the plastic will feel icky at first contact – splash some onsen water on it first) or a flat tree stump. Your body will be so hot that the season won’t matter; you can stay out in the open, even in winter. I myself enjoy winter bathing for the unique experience of hanging out nekkid in the falling snow, with the public address playing atmospheric music-box sounds, and ice forming in my hair. Even in summer, though, the air feels marvelous (it will always be cooler than what you’ve just been in), and if the sulfur of the onsen has done its work, your lungs will have opened, cleared, and expanded to such a degree that every deep inhalation will seem to fill your whole body, your whole world, your whole soul. You will lose your anchor to the earth and expect to float off the ground. If you are in a truly exquisite onsen, the outdoor pool will have been designed with a dreamlike view. A few hours ago, I was perched on a rock next to the outdoor pool at the Isaribikan, hollowed out and euphoric, gazing across at Mount Hakodate, all sparkling at night, while squid boats bearing isaribi (the bright squid-attracting lights that give the Isaribikan its name) rounded Cape Tachimachi and formed a dotted line across the water (just like in the photo, except that I’m a man and I was out of the water). My skin was tingling, as it dried in the caressing breeze.
  6. The Rinse. The light, unlocked feeling will stay with you, even after you remember yourself and sense that it’s time to go to rejoin your family or friends. You will need to rinse the sulfur water off, back at a washing station or in the shower, if there is one. As you do so, you may wish to try one last sensual experiment: Use the plastic or wooden bucket to douse yourself with cool water. It sure feels nice running through your hair and down your back. Then, dry off, get dressed, and go home feeling like a million bucks.
  7. Answers to Questions You May Be Afraid to Ask. Many Americans fantasize about uninhibited exotics and assume that coed bathing is common in Japan. It isn’t. About 99% of Japanese onsen, every one I’ve visited, are segregated by sex. If you happen to find a KONYOKU (coed onsen), it will probably be empty or filled with elderly people who, presumably, aren’t the reason you want to go. If you want to get nekkid with your significant other (of the opposite sex), you can try a family (KAZOKU) onsen, but you will find it about as romantic as an ordinary bathroom, which is pretty much what it is. I’m also not sure if groups of unrelated people would be allowed into a family onsen. There is one other thing you may try (besides going someplace really sleazy, in which case, I can provide no insight): At some of the outdoor onsen, the male and female pools are separated only by a partition; it may be possible, if no one else is around, to lean out beyond the partition and give your friend(s) on the other side a little peep show.
  8. One More Thing. Until recently, tattoos in Japan would mark a man as a gangster and a woman as a prostitute. Attitudes concerning tattoos are changing, but many onsen may still bar your entry, if you have one. Once, however, I was at a large onsen, toward closing time, and suddenly, about twenty men with full-back tattoos came in all at once. I suppose that that particular onsen had made some kind of deal with the yakuza, allowing their members to get in for a few minutes before the end of business. So there I was, standing nekkid in the shower, surrounded by twenty gangsters. In the event, I didn’t look at them, and they didn’t look at me. It was as though there were a nekkid gentlemen’s agreement.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and a soon to be published novelist.

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