Contributed by Wandering Soul Camper
What is an onsen?
Image credit: 663highland
Onsen is the Japanese word for hot spring. It is also a term used for the bathing facilities and inns around the hot spring areas in Japan. The geothermally heated waters literally “spring up” in areas where volcanic activity is present.
According to Preservation and Use of Hot Springs, Ministry of the Environment, there are more than 3,000 registered hot spring resorts in Japan and around 30,000 resort spas. Japan’s hot spring resorts are ready to welcome everyone (locals and foreigner tourists) for a therapeutic experience.
An onsen contains many types of chemical ingredients. Depending on the type of onsen, different therapeutic effects can be expected by bathing in it. By definition, it must have at least one of around 20 elements including iron, sulphur, radon, gypsum and metabolic acid, and must be at 25 °C or warmer temperatures.
Different onsen types include chloride, sodium bicarbonate saline, ferruginous, sulphur, carbon dioxide, and radioactive springs. These springs have therapeutic effects on but not limited to cuts, burns, chronic skin diseases, arteriosclerosis, gout, anaemia, menstrual disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, joint pains, rheumatism, and circulatory diseases.
Historically, an onsen is used during purifying rituals in the Japanese religion “Shinto” and at the same time a source of enjoyment for emperors. Other folklores claimed that people gather around the onsen to hunt wild animals which will generally come to drink hot spring water to absorb minerals.
It cannot be denied that one of the big tourist attractions in Japan is their onsen. Your trip to Japan won’t be that rewarding without the onsen experience. The Japanese emphasised the virtues of “naked communication” for breaking down barriers and getting to know other people more whether family members, loved ones, friends or strangers you just met in a relaxed and homey atmosphere.
Also read: The Onsen Battle: Taiwan vs Japan
Due to a large increase of tourists from other countries, their private onsen bathing tub (reserved onsen) is getting more popular but they still have their public onsen separate for male and female aside from the traditional mixed onsen for any gender (not so common these days).
My onsen experience
Accommodation @ K’s House
My trouble started when my boss told our Japanese counterparts that she wanted to experience an onsen before going back to the Philippines. Our counterparts had agreed to visit one of the hot spring resorts over the weekend.
They were very excited about it, but I was not as I am not a fan of onsen upon knowing that you must be totally naked while bathing. They invited me to come. I was about to say no but out of respect for our managers, I said I will go with them. Anyway, I thought I could just stroll around the place while they are enjoying the onsen.
While we were on the way, my boss asked me if I am ready for the onsen and I was shocked. I told her that I never said I would try it and I said I really won’t. She said that our Japanese male counterparts (Senior Engineer and Senior Manager) had come just for me to have company on the onsen. It was really a miscommunication!
My worries were heightened to a million level as I am not comfortable even wearing trunks in resorts, how much more being naked in front of my bosses and total strangers? I kept on thinking of alibis on how to ditch the onsen bath, but they already assumed that I was up for it! I was so restless until we arrived at the hostel in Ito. We stayed at K’s House, a refined hostel in a 100-year old building in Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture.
After settling down, we headed to a nearby hot spring. I was so anxious about what’s going to happen. It’s like submitting myself to be sexually harassed. But seriously, I had lizards (butterflies are too cute for the situation) in my stomach, that I just wished I had an invisible cloak so that I can disappear in an instant. I even hoped that I can catch fever really fast to have a valid alibi.
Of course, I could not say that my boss just assumed that I wanted to try the onsen too, it’s too disrespectful that they drove around 5 hours from Tokyo only to have NO as an answer from me. They came with us to accompany me in the first place! Komatta na! (I’m in trouble!).
We arrived at the onsen resort and secured our valuables in the lockers. When we were heading to the dressing room, I was literally sweating a lot despite the fact that the place was air-conditioned. At the reception area before the dressing room, the staff reminded us of the do’s and don’ts.
- Generally, no camera or camera phone is allowed inside the bathing area.
- No towels are allowed in the bathing area; towels must be left on the sides.
- Tattooed individuals are generally not allowed inside the bathing area (case to case).
- It is a place for relaxation, not for cleaning. Have a shower first at the shower area.
- Follow the suggested maximum time on dipping/submerging yourself in the hot spring.
Getting Naked is not always that easy
My boss had gone to the other side with my female colleagues. While my Japanese counterparts and I headed for the male dressing room. The dressing room walls were mostly mirrors.
The dressing room had a big towel and a small towel provided in each basket. The small towel has the size of a square-shaped face towel. I don’t know what to do in the dressing room (I felt so dumb at that moment), at the back of my mind, I was thinking that the place was the undressing room, the naked room!
My counterparts immediately took off their clothes, got naked fast and even instructed me to place my clothes in one of the baskets. They don’t really care being naked in front of anybody. I waited for them to proceed to the shower area before getting naked myself. I was shocked when I was about to take off my clothes, my counterpart checked up on me as it took me almost forever to get naked. HAHAHA.
I came to my senses and scolded myself for being such a baby and a worrier. If they can do it, why can’t I? I didn’t look around, I didn’t think, I didn’t worry. I simply took off my clothes and grabbed the small towel and went outside to the shower area covering just a portion of me. (Sweating again).
The public bath area had few goers at that time. My manager noticed me getting out from the dressing room and went inside the shower area to assist me. He grabbed the small stool and got some soap and shampoo for me. WAAAA that awkward moment when your manager is naked in front of you and you are naked too! Culture differences are really challenging! That moment was so uncomfortable for me, but not really for them. I must admit, I am not even comfortable being naked in front of my loved ones sometimes. How much more to my boss?
After the quick shower, I joined them outside in the public bath. I was thinking again if I am going to cover my private parts with that cute towel like what I did from the dressing room to the shower area. But upon observing them outside, they didn’t even bother to cover anything with their hands. By this time, it’s not lizards inside my stomach but I can feel I had a hundred frogs jumping back and forth. I was so pissed off with myself with what I am about to do.
I slowly slid the glass door from the shower room to the public bath area leaving my small towel at the side. I just kept a thought in my mind this time that these people do not know me at all. I didn’t care if they will take a look at me walking naked. I didn’t even look at my Japanese counterparts while I was walking towards the bathing area. Then I quickly submerged myself to the water not minding how hot it was! After few minutes of dipping in the hot water of the spring, my body had adjusted to the water temperature and I felt a bit relaxed. I had small chit chats with my counterparts. It was not really super awkward though as there were just a few of us in the bathing area.
My counterparts helped me feel comfortable at that awkward moment by always talking to me. That was the time when I really felt liberated and my shyness went away. I was thinking, we are all equal here, everyone has nothing but those small towels on the sides. It was really an amazing experience, a truly multi-sensory one! I couldn’t think of anywhere else I would rather be naked in public.
Having fun @ K’s House
My take home for that one of a kind experience was that, aside from it being therapeutic, I just found out that my greatest fear is not being in a close, dark space or free falling (skydiving) but “being naked in front of people.” It was more challenging than spelunking, skydiving, deep sea diving, etc. Well, at least for someone like me who is not really comfortable showing my “private skin” to anybody.
After that onsen experience, we went back to the hostel and cooked our dinner. Our counterparts wanted us to cook the famous Pinoy Adobo, so we did. We also met some tourists from other Asian countries, had short talks with them and called it a night after dinner and games plus wine. We had the private onsen at the hostel the next day.
We often say that wherever we’ll go, we need to adjust, adapt and live like the locals. But sometimes, cultures may be a little too much for us to adapt quickly. It is not like an algebra assignment that can be done overnight. It’s a long process. It’s easier said than done sometimes. But at the end of the day, I can proudly say that I conquered my greatest fear!
I really recommend it to everybody. Whether for the reason of conquering your fears of being naked in front of others, for relaxation, or for the sake of experiencing Japanese culture yourself. After all, it’s really worth a try.
So, did I convinced you to try an onsen on your visit to Japan? Or the other way around?