If you’re okay with getting naked in public then you’ll love the Japanese onsen experience. It’s very addictive. In short order you’ll find a way to carve out the minimum 30 minutes you need to visit an onsen. But many or even most westerners are going to have to get over their aversion to getting naked in public, myself included.
What is a Japanese onsen?
A Japanese onsen is basically a public-style bath that uses geothermally heated water. Reportedly the minerals in the water have therapeutic powers that the Japanese believe cures many diseases. Since Japan is a volcanic country it’s blessed with a huge number of hot springs – over 30,000 that are naturally occurring along with an incredible 3,000 plus onsen resorts. Don’t be surprised to see Japanese kids in the onsen. It’s all part of the culture and starts the minute they’re potty trained.
Etiquette dictates that the onsen experience is in your birthsuit only.
I am not one for prancing around naked. In fact on the way to our first overnight stop in Hokkaido I was filled with dread after listening to a description of the do’s and don’ts related to onsen etiquette. Maybe if I had the body of a svelte 25 year old, I’d be fine. But this body of mine, decades in the making, is showing some wear and tear. On a positive note, our guide promised that every visit to an onsen would make us look five years younger.
My first onsen experience
There was an onsen, a fabulous one with a view of the drift ice in the Sea of Ohkotsk at our first stop in Hokkaido – Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort. At breakfast on the first day, Sue an Australian woman just a few years younger than me, positively glowed after her first experience. She couldn’t stop raving about the onsen – how wonderful it was and how good it made her feel.
So I gave it some thought. Checked out the hours. Figured how bad could the experience be. I should do it once. Then it’s over. Incessant chattering in my brain I couldn’t turn off.
And then I went.
At 5:30 AM because heh, I wasn’t on the time zone and I knew the onsen would be empty.
I re-read the handouts about etiquette in the onsen ahead of time – and heeded the pointers from people in our group who had already been.
First off, I left my shoes in the front area of the onsen and put on a pair of the slippers provided. Then it was off to the dressing room. No one around. This is good.
I undressed. Quickly. Grabbed the eensy, weensy hand towel you’re allowed to take into the baths – though it’s not to touch the water! Practically ran to the bathing room. Hmm. What do I do now? I spy cubicles all lined up with shower wands, shampoo and God knows what other beauty products because I can’t read a word of Japanese. I knew you’re supposed to bathe before entering the baths. So I sprayed myself with water, enjoyed a good soaping, rinsed off and then made a beeline for the hot pool. At this point I spy a lone woman some distance away so I checkout what she is doing so I don’t make any faux pas. She’s got her eensy, weensy towel on her head – so that’s where I put mine.
And then I succumb to the glorious warmth of the water. A feeling of delicious relaxation. The years melting away. Okay, maybe not quite but I get now what Sue was talking about. After about 10 minutes in the hot pool I opt for the cold water immersion as I’ve been told it’s really invigorating.
It’s definitely invigorating; frigging cold would be another way to describe the experience. I stay in for maybe a minute and then head for the sauna. Ten minutes later and I’m cooked…and even more relaxed. It’s back to the cold pool and then into the hot pool outdoors with the view of the drift ice.
By now I’m in heaven or Gokuraku-gokurako – an expression of bliss that makes you feel as if you were in heaven. And a little more comfortable in my own skin.
As the week passes there are a few more opportunities to visit onsens. I become a big fan of the outdoor ones enjoying a warm body and a cold head – with a view.
Kudos to the Japanese culture for destigmatizing nakedness, making it feel more natural even when your body is far from perfect. It doesn’t matter if you have curves or wrinkly skin – though tattoos are forbidden in onsens and you’ll be kicked out if they see one on you. Apparently it is related to the Japanese mafia or yakzua, who usually have tattoos.
The Japanese onsen experience is a happy, exhilarating one. Perhaps it really does add years to one’s life as the Japanese believe. If you’re nervous, choose a quiet time and just get comfortable with the getting naked experience. I bet you’ll be hooked in short order.
A big thank you to the Adventure Travel Trade Association for hosting my stay and to the women in our group who unknowingly pathed the way for my onsen experience.
PS. There are no other photos as cameras are forbidden in the onsens.
For a look at the other highlights of my week long trip to Hokkaido check out this video.