On my second night ever in Japan, I had my first public Onsen experience. I had arrived at Nozawa Onsen, a beautiful little village in Nagano, and was looking forward to some snowboarding the next day. Following our agreed ‘try everything once’ motto, my wife and I decided we would walk down to one of the local Onsen. Spoilt for choice in Nozawa, we decided upon the Onsen with the most traditional architecture. It was called Oyu. We agreed to meet outside in half an hour, and in we went.
Firstly, let me say that the weather outside was about 0 degrees, so getting undressed seemed like a crazy thing to be doing, even in a small enclosed bath-house. I had done my homework, and slipped off my clothes and put them on the provided shelves. Then, feeling very naked and self-conscious, I walked over to the edge of the Onsen, with my soap and my towel in hand. There were 3 Nihonjin in the water. Two young guys having a chat, and one old guy who was trying hard to ignore the fact that a 190cm naked Gaijin was just about to hop in the bath with him.
As custom decrees, I soaped myself down away from the Onsen edge, and washed myself off. This is when it felt like hypothermia was about to take hold of me. The stone floor felt like ice, and pouring the hot water over myself did nothing to stop my whole body shaking. ‘It’s OK’ I thought, ‘I’m just about to hop into a nice warm bath, everything will be fine’. So as soon as I could, I slid into the Onsen. IT WAS SOOOO HOT!!! I practically leapt straight out again, much to the delight of the old Nihonjin. The water felt like it was boiling, and my shivering skin screamed at me to get out.
So there I was, back sitting on the cold stone edge. And of course now my body starts shaking again from the cold. I try dipping my feet back in, but they refuse to go. ‘This is ridiculous’ I say to myself, ‘stop being weak and just get in.’ So I slid into the boiling hot water again… AGONY! I couldn’t stay under the water for more than 5 seconds. So back I hop onto the cold stone edge. At this point I could have just gotten dressed and left, but something stopped me: Pride. ‘There is no way I am going to let these Nihonjin laugh about me and tell their workmates on Monday morning what a hilarious Gaijin they saw on the weekend’ I thought to myself. So I slid back in for a third time. At this point my body was just about going into shock, having been dragged back and forth between freezing cold and boiling hot for the last 2 minutes, and I would not have been surprised if I had a heart attack.
Luckily however, one of the young Nihonjin must have taken pity on me, and showed me by example a solution to my problem. He sat up on the edge, and scooped hot water on himself continuously with one of the little buckets. Following this method I was able keep some semblance of dignity for the next 20 minutes until I felt like I could retreat back to my clothes. I met my wife outside, and asked her how she enjoyed her Onsen experience. ‘Oh, it was too hot for me, so I just left after 5 minutes’ she replied. Women can be so much more intelligent than us men…. Did I enjoy my first Onsen experience? Not really. Would I do it again? Yes. Later on I found out that Oyu means ‘hot water’ in Japanese. They really didn’t mess around when they named that Onsen.