In the spirit of “When in Rome,” a visit to Japan should definitely include one of the Japanese people’s greatest pastimes: a trip to onsen. The tradition of bathing in hot springs is more than a thousand years old and is deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche. Melting into a mineral bath is seen as a relaxing, restorative experience, and I would have to strongly agree that it is.
The idea of stripping down with your friends/co-workers/relatives doesn’t seem to bother anyone here- and yes, you will be naked (most onsen have separate areas for men and women). For foreigners, such an excursion may seem daunting, especially if you don’t have an onsen veteran to guide you. But not to worry- having myself progressed from onsen amateur to enthusiast in just a short time, I am happy to walk you through the procedure so that you may enjoy your first onsen experience in comfort.
Before You Go
If you have tattoos, make sure you check beforehand to see whether you will be allowed to bathe. In Japan, tattoos are often associated with the yakuza (mafia/gangs), so flat-out bans are common for some onsen, even for foreigners. That being said, I haven’t personally come across one yet that denied me access when I asked if tattoos were ok.
When You Arrive
There is usually a ticket machine where you purchase your bath ticket, as well as any towels you may need (you are welcome to bring your own). You will need at least one small- to medium-sized towel to dry and cover some of yourself with. Enter the bath area according to your gender. Then find a bin or locker to put your things in. If it’s a locker, you will get to keep the key on your wrist; it’s fine to take it in the water with you.
At this point, you’ll go ahead and remove your clothes, remembering to take your small towel with you. It’s good to make a show of trying to preserve your modesty by covering up at least a bit with the towel, although ultimately there is no point. The experience of disregarding your own and everyone else’s nudity is actually quite freeing – it’s a chance to unburden yourself not only of clothes, but also of body image issues and uptight cultural values.
Before You Dip
Get in line to give yourself a THOROUGH scrub-down. That is not an exaggeration. Most people spend lots of time making sure they are spotless before entering the bath, which must be shared with so many other people. When it’s your turn, sit down on the stool and give yourself a good dousing with the shower. Shampoo and body soap are generally provided, but if you have some special regimen feel free to bring your own products. When you’re sure that you’re cleaner than you have ever been before, grab your towel and head to the bath.
Cover up a bit with the towel until you get in the water. Make sure to tie your hair back if it’s long. Enter slowly in order to adjust to the temperature, as well as not to splash anyone. Fold the towel up and plop it on your head. The only thing left to do: relax!
When you’re ready to get out (hopefully after sitting a good while and thinking about absolutely nothing), take the towel off your head and again perform the illusion of modesty, being careful not to slip as you get out. Before you wander back into the changing area, you must make sure you are completely dry – apparently even one tiny drop of water could cause a catastrophe. Then grab your clothes out of your locker, put them on, and wait in line if you would like to use the hair-dryer or mirror. If you rented a towel, be sure to deposit it before you leave.
From here you could head out of the onsen directly, but why not partake of even more relaxation by sitting at the little floor tables in the hall and enjoying some refreshments. Tea, water and vending machine delicacies are likely to be on hand. Once you feel fully revitalized you can go back into the wider chaotic world, but remember to carry with you a piece of your newfound peace!
It is incredibly difficult to find a consensus as to the best onsen in Japan. There are simply hundreds to choose from. Many well-known onsen are only a short distance from some of the major destinations in Japan. From Tokyo, try Hakone – an old classic in a beautiful natural setting. From Nagoya, the quaint river town of Gero is reachable. From Osaka, don’t miss Shirahama – complete with white-sand beaches. And from Kyoto, go to Kinosaki, along the gorgeous Sea of Japan coast.
Currently, All Nippon Airways (ANA) is offering flights to tourists for only ¥10,500 to all domestic destinations. Take advantage to reach the onsen of your dreams. Visit their website https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/#/japanfare for more details. Enjoy your bath.