As temperatures around the country plummet, the Japanese winter can seem harsh, particularly if you are not fortunate enough to live in an environment that is equipped with central heating. However, as unlikely as it seems, there is some cause for celebration, as the winter is the perfect time to indulge in the Japanese pastime of onsen.
What is an onsen?
An onsen is probably best described as a hot spring bathing spa, and their use is a long held tradition in Japan. While it may seem unpleasant to live in a nation of constantly shifting tectonic plates, the pay off is a near endless supply of geothermal springs in which the locals love to bathe. Though traditionally located outdoors there are nowadays many indoor bathing spots throughout Japan for you to enjoy.
(NB: These indoor onsen, heated by water from natural geothermal springs, should not be confused with sento. Onsen must legally contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements including iron, sulfur and metabolic acid, while the artificially warmed sento public baths do not).
What are the rules?
Like many aspects of Japanese culture there are strict forms of etiquette to consider when visiting an onsen, and if you wish to impress your hosts it is best if you follow the rules.
Shoes off – If you have spent any time in Japan, this will probably be a no brainier. Onsen pretty much always have tatami floors, and thus the wearing of shoes is strictly prohibited.
Get naked – Once the shoes are off, it’s time for the clothes. Japanese talk about the benefits of “naked communion”, hadaka no tsukiai, the breaking down barriers and meeting on a level footing. This can be somewhat daunting for those not used to public nudity, but as baths are usually same sex, it is no different to a gym or swimming bath locker room. If you do feel the need to cover your modesty, you can use your towel (more of which, later).
Once you have removed your clothes, place them in a basket. There are often coin lockers for valuables. Ask at the front desk for details. (Before you have undressed, of course!)
Wash properly – Before taking the plunge, it is important to wash thoroughly. All onsen will provide washing stations with stools, faucets and wooden buckets. Most have showerheads and toiletries, though some do not, so it is advisable to bring your own soap just in case. Washing with soap and shampoo is not necessarily required, however many younger bathers choose to do so. If you do use soap, be sure that you rinse well afterwards, ensuring that no suds fall into the bath water. In some older onsen you may need to scoop water from the baths. If this is the case, it is acceptable not to use toiletries as to avoid soap suds getting into the bath water. Once you have finished, clean and rinse your washing station.
Towel – Anyone who is a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will know the importance of bringing a towel, and onsen is one of those places where it is especially crucial. Many onsen will provide a smallish hand towel, sometimes at a similarly small fee, although many guests will bring their own. This towel is dual-purposed as it can be used to wipe away sweat in the humid air, as well as providing a degree of modesty for those who require it.
At no point should your towel enter, and thus contaminate, the bath water. Towels can be laid by the side of the pool or balanced folded on the head. If a towel accidentally drops into the water, wring it out outside of the bath.
Wash again – This is less a rule than a recommendation. After bathing for a while it is advisable to wash once more (using soap if you prefer) before returning the bath. This will clean away your sweat as well as giving you an opportunity to cool down. Onsen can be very hot (the water should be a minimum of 25 degrees) and can cause fainting, particularly if alcohol has been consumed previously.
Once you are clean again, lower yourself for another dip.
After bath – When you are finished, wipe off as much sweat and excess water as possible with your hand towel before returning to the locker room. Some bathers may wish to wash one last time, but for the spring water’s minerals to have a full effect, it is advisable not to rinse before dressing.
Can I go with my family?
Onsen is considered a communal affair and people often go with friends, families and even colleagues. Traditionally men and women bathed together in both onsen and sento, but this ended with the introduction of western values during the Meiji era.
This can make family excursions difficult, however young children of either sex are usually accepted in either the men’s or women’s baths. For older children, or couples wanting to spend their onsen time together, there are konyoku baths. In these mixed bathing onsen men cover their genitals with a towel and women will wrap themselves in a full sized towel. In some prefectures, Tokyo included, mixed-nude bathing is banned, so swimsuits or special bathing suits called yugi are required.
Are my tattoos okay?
Unfortunately not. Despite radical changes in skin art culture in Japan in recent years, tattoos are still seen as, if not necessarily the sign of gangster membership, at the very least a symbol of delinquency. As such, many onsen ban bathers sporting body art, no matter how small or non-confrontational. If it is small enough you may be able to get away with wearing a water resistant bandage, but otherwise you should be respectful of the establishment’s regulations.
By Mark Guthrie
Image: flickr.com "Us at onsen" by Meg Scheminske (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified