By Kumiko Matter
Japanese baths, or onsens in Japanese, are relaxing and natural hot springs that have been a vital part of Japanese culture for centuries. You’ll find onsens in the hills of Hakone, the countryside of Hokkaido, and almost everywhere else around the land of the rising sun, but not general in the cities. In Tokyo, you’ll find public baths called sentos, which use tap water heated manually, instead of geothermally. Japanese bathing rituals are different from Western ones, so remember these tips for the next time you plan on soaking in a bath in Japan.
Take Your Slippers Off
It is typical in Western culture to wear sandals into bathing areas to avoid athlete’s foot and other gross bacteria found on pool decks. In Japan, they leave their slippers at the entrance to the onsen in shoe cubbies. Store them there before going into the changing room and don’t worry about anybody stealing them.
Wear Your Birthday Suit!
Because the Japanese want to prevent the pure onsen waters from getting contaminated, guests are required to enter the onsen in the nude. It does seem uncomfortable at first for those who aren’t used to it, and sometimes you might find the other women staring at you. If you find yourself a little insecure, cross your arms and legs or kneel facing outwards. Once you visit the onsens on a regular basis, it becomes normal to enter naked. Everyone else is naked too so you won’t stand out.
Continuing with the cleanliness of the onsen, visitors must scrub every nook and cranny of the body before slipping into the healing waters. Showers and stools are located usually along the edges of the onsen for this purpose. Bring a good loofah to slough off dead skin and body soap to lather up thoroughly. Just make sure you wash off the soapy residue before entering the onsen. Some onsens will provide soap and shampoo, but it is not a guarantee.
Remember Which Days to Visit
Smaller onsens will either have rotating days for men or women only, or switch the onsens every other day so guests can visit both. Check with the receptionist for schedule information. It is wise to check the onsen entrance to see if the entry curtain shows which gender is allowed in. Larger onsens generally have separate facilities for men and women available during any open time.
Be Prepared for Some Heat
If you’re not used to taking really steamy baths, then the temperature of the onsens might take you by surprise. It’s hot! The water is heated deep underground from natural springs. Start out your onsen session by dipping your feet in first, and then slowly go in all the way. Modern onsens often have cold pools for contrast and hydrotherapy benefits, which helps muscle rehabilitation. Otherwise, use the showers to cool off your body when you start to overheat and then go back in the onsen. Be careful to not overheat too much, and make sure to slowly rise out of the onsen so you don’t get dizzy.
Visiting a Japanese bath is a wonderful experience, so relax and enjoy some quiet time away from the typical hustle and bustle of big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. If you find any mineral deposits, it just shows the quality of the onsen water source. Just take a deep breath and submerge into the steamy hot water!