Hot spring bathing is one thing you're always advised not to miss in Japan, and I agree! It's an ancient tradition that's still an incredibly popular part of life here. I've found that Japanese people are always curious to find out if you enjoy it as much as they do.
There are many types of onsen to choose from. If you want to treat yo' self, stay in a ryokan (hot spring inn) for a wonderful private bathing experience, usually with meals included. There are also many day-only options, where the price can be as little as 500 yen. I'd recommend looking for facilities with a rotemburo, an outdoor bath. There is nothing like bathing naked outside, especially in winter when the cold air (and snow) is a refreshing relief from the scalding hot water. The water varies from place to place too, with baths containing different minerals, variations in temperature, cloudiness, and amount of sulphur. It's good to find one with multiple baths so that you can try them all!
Okay, first up.
- If you have tattoos, do your research! Tattoos are not allowed in most onsen due to their organised crime associations. I find that Google reviews are a good place to check. I always cover my tattoo with muscle support tape anyway, and I've gotten away with it if the baths are quiet. Otherwise, you'll have to opt for a private bath option.
- You have to be naked! Don't think you'll get away with a swimming costume.
- Don't take photos. Obviously. People are naked. So as beautiful as it is, you should not instagram it.
My first Japanese bathing experience was in probably the smallest, busiest sento (public bath) in Tokyo that our entire running club visits post-track session. It was June, the humidity levels were through the roof, I'd just run intervals for an hour and I was SO ANXIOUS. And sweaty. Oh so sweaty. I was stressing about doing everything wrong. Luckily I bluffed my way through and, to my knowledge, didn't offend anyone.
Follow a few basic guidelines and you'll have a stress-free, relaxing onsen experience! Usually, baths will have posters with images to remind you of the dos and don'ts.
- Take off your shoes before you enter the changing rooms! The baths are gender separated - if you aren't sure which is which, wait until someone enters or leaves.
- There are usually baskets or lockers to leave your belongings and clothes in.
- Take a small towel or flannel into the baths, as well as a band to keep your hair out of the water, and shampoo etc if you don't want to use the basic ones provided.
- Wash first! Take a tiny, tiny stool that seems to have been made for a child, and use the shower head or bowl to wash your body and hair. Don't forget to rinse the stool afterwards for the next bum!
- Put your towel on your head, or leave it out of the way on the side, and enter the water S L O W L Y ! If there are multiple baths, pick the coolest first! Sit on the side first and gradually lower yourself in.
- I can only stay submerged for a few minutes before I start to feel dizzy. Make sure to bring some fresh water in case you feel dehydrated, which will almost certainly happen. It's perfectly acceptable to sit with just your feet in the water, or to get out entirely for a few minutes.
- I've been told that you are not supposed to shower again or rinse after you've left the sulphuric bath, as it's beneficial for your skin. However. You will potentially smell of eggs. So it's up to you.
- Dry yourself with your little towel as much as possible before going back into the changing room.
And you've onsen-ed! It truly is an enjoyable experience, and I'm surprised at how comfortable and happy I feel bathing naked. I like this quote from a book called Yudo: Art of the Bath;
"Scrubbed clean of daily life and soaking in the bath, ordinary social barriers break down, providing a chance to speak unusually openly and honestly with one another. In the bath, everyone is equal."
If I've missed anything, or if you'd like to share your own onsen experience, please leave a comment, I'd love to hear it!