O is for Onsen

No country gets a harder time from Mother Nature than Japan. Earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, mosquitoes, blistering summer heat, freezing winters, crippling hay-fever seasons and insects that look like they’ve come from Satan’s sketchbook.

But now and then, nature throws this poor archipelago a bone. Because of the sheer amount of volcanic activity, one of the happy results of this is a country rich with steaming hot volcanic water, rich in minerals. Thankfully, some brave (or foolhardy) soul way back in the past took a dip in it and found that not only did he not immediately set on fire nor turn yellow from sulphur poisoning, it was actually hugely enjoyable, relaxing…and good for you. And so, ‘Onsen’ (温泉) sprung up the length and breadth of the land, an estimated 3,000 of them at last count.

The word ‘Onsen’ actually means ‘hot spring’, yet in practical terms it refers to the resorts, hotels and structured baths around the hot springs. And boy, are they wonderful things. Seriously, I think the onsen is one of the experiences too many tourists who visit Japan miss out on, partly because those sticking to the big cities won’t stumble across an onsen (or a natural one, at least), and even if they do, they may be reluctant to strip down to their birthday suit in an open bath full of strangers. And I will admit that the first time is pretty intimidating. When I had my first proper onsen in Nagano city, I was visibly nervous, doing some kind of crazy shuffle with my clothes and towel in the changing room so I could avoid going full nudie for as long as possible. But when you take your first dip…all of that reluctance dissipates into the billowing steam. It is sheer bliss.

So what is a typical onsen like? The resort can be anything from a glorified wooden shed to a full-on hotel, but core of the onsen experience itself is pretty much the same: you pay at the reception and are given a ‘modesty towel’, a small towel with which you can maintain a modicum of modesty in the bath. You separate into the either the men’s or women’s changing room, you throw all of your clothes belongings into a basket (lockers are sometimes available for valuables), and in you go. The only thing you can take in with you is said modesty towel.

Before you can dip into the hot spring, however, you must clean yourself. Yep, that is one of the interesting differences in view between Japan and most Western countries: you do not bathe to clean, but to relax. The same is true of baths in the home, too. So if you want to get in the onsen, you have to shower first. There are rows of shower booths where you can use soaps, detergents, or just fill up a big old bucket of water and dunk it over your head.

Then, finally, you can ease yourself into the onsen. Temperature and mineral type may vary, but in some of the larger onsens there is usually separated baths where you can ease yourself into the experience with a slightly cooler water (well, less hot anyway) before moving onto the roasting hot one.

As you may have expected in a place with so many naked strangers, there are certain rules of etiquette to follow. Think of it as a very wet church. Quiet chat is fine but rowdiness is frowned upon. You also don’t ‘swim’ in onsen water, nor do you dip your modesty towel in it: you will see other patrons lay their towel on the side of the bath or on their head. And, when you leave you should also shower again. This isn’t so much etiquette as it is common sense: onsen water can be pretty powerful stuff and you will want to wash off any residue it may leave on your skin.

After returning to clothed form, many people like to top off their relaxing bathe with a drink: the two classics are a cold beer or milk. Yes, milk. Call me crazy, but I promise you that milk tastes divine after an onsen. The onsen owners seem to know this too, as it is quite common to be greeted with a milk-bottle vending machine near the exit of the bath.

An onsen is one of the great experiences of Japan, one that you just seem to appreciate more and more with time. It’s a wonderful thing, and I would urge everyone who comes to Japan to get naked. At an onsen. Please don’t do it wherever you wish. The immigration officer in the airport may look at you funny.

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