Visiting a public bathing house (called onsen) or natural hot spring is a daily ritual for many Japanese people. Aside from being super relaxing, the water is enriched with minerals believed to heal the skin and muscles of the body. Cities such as Tokyo are packed with public onsens, which are mostly comparable to a shower room at a gym. However, in the resort villages and areas such as Nagano, Hakone and Oboke, the indoor and outdoor baths usually offer unbeatable scenic views and luxury facilities. No matter where you choose to go, guests must conduct themselves according to Japanese tradition, which makes the experience much more fascinating than regular bath time. Here are five things you should know before you decide to take a dip.
There are no exceptions to the rule that all bathers must enter the bath completely naked. In Japan, being naked around the same sex doesn’t have the same stigma attached as most Western countries. Before you enter the bath, you must strip off and place your clothes in a wardrobe or wicker basket. Traditionally, you wear a gown called a yukata to and from your home for ease of changing. Prior to entering, you’ll be expected to sit on a wooden/plastic stool in front of a mirror and wash yourself using a hand-held hose. It sounds daunting, but most foreigners who go will tell you once you accept your nakedness, it’s a peaceful, worthwhile experience.
Depending on the quality of establishment you visit, you will be showered (literally) with free goodies. One of the best things about going to a Japanese bath house is not having to plan ahead or bring a thing. When you enter, you’ll be asked to leave your shoes at the door and offered a towel (some may charge a small fee). You’ll be assigned a locker to store your things which is usually situated around the freebie zone. By freebies, I mean body lotions, washes, scrubs, brushes (including pre-pasted toothbrushes!!) and a beauty bar for women (in fancy places). Once I spent more time squirting serums into my hair and trialing different hair ironing tools than sitting in the actual bath. Luxury capsule hotels are known for having some of the best facilities, including sleeping rooms and libraries full of manga to help you chill out pre and post soak.
The rule is that anyone with tattoos are banned from bathing due to the art form’s long-standing association with the yakuza (mafia). Some establishments are lenient with foreigners who have small tattoos, however it’s expected they are completely covered up. Those with full “sleeves” or full body pieces are likely to be denied entry, unless the company promotes having an “all welcome” policy (I’d recommend doing some online research). FYI, hair removal is not as common in Japan as Western countries so don’t feel pressured to present yourself all silky smooth. In fact, highly manicured bits are likely to draw subtle attention, for it’s considered taboo by the older generation.
It’s an unspoken agreement among patrons to keep chatting to a minimum once in the bath. This is perhaps why it’s uncommon to see children there—although there’s no rule saying they cannot enter. Bathing is meant to be a calming experience, where people can go to reflect and unwind from daily stresses. The indoor baths echo, so when people talk their voices amplify across the room. Japanese people are very polite, so it’s likely they won’t remind you how to behave. Don’t take advantage of this and become “that” person who ruined it for everyone else.
Almost no two bathing houses are the same, so if you enjoyed your first experience, make sure you visit different establishments around the country. Some of the most notable are those build into the side of cliff faces which require a cable cart entry (Iya Valley) or the art gallery bath house (Naoshima) which features a life size elephant sculpture and art embedded in the floor and faucets. In winter, the outdoor hot springs in the Northern Alps (Nagano) are spectacular. There you can find private baths in ryokans (traditional guesthouses), usually surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens covered in powdery snow.
Casey Hawkins grew up immersed in Australia’s sea, sun and surf culture. She first became a teacher because she was passionate about sharing ideas and experiences. Teaching has led her to explore some unique, remote locations and make friends with people from all walks of life. She is most passionate about learning and sharing their stories with others. Website: Nan’s Lucky Duck.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.