Public bathing in a Japanese onsen

Travel Tales, Windows into Culture — By on July 16, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Japanese onsenOne of the real wonders of travel is the opportunity to have cultural experiences that are quite removed from our daily lives at home. In Japan, one of those experiences is to indulge in a public bath in an onsen.

There are up to 3,000 onsen hot springs scattered across Japan, a result of the churning volcanic activity that takes place underground, and these springs are often connected to public bathing facilities. The bath’s thermal waters are believed to have a curative effect and they serve as a relaxing sanctuary for many people. At one time, such facilities were an integral part of the social culture in Japan but the advent of modern plumbing has considerably lessened the role of community baths. Nevertheless, they remain popular among the Japanese and are increasingly frequented by visitors to Japan. Some onsen offer mixed-sex bathing, but the majority are segregated by gender.

When I was in Tokyo a few years ago, my wife and I spent time with a Japanese family (mother and two adult daughters) with whom we had become friends. They wanted us to have a few local experiences and so they took us away from the city to an onsen in the countryside. Here is my account of that perplexing and humorous – but also quite interesting – cross-cultural experience. It’s excerpted from my travel memoir, Two Laps Around the World:

Initially, I was quite looking forward to this experience. I’d previously been to a Finnish sauna and a Turkish hamam, so I was excited to experience a Japanese onsen. After we arrived, though, it occurred to me that I had no idea what to do once I got inside and that my four traveling companions were all women and hence were heading to the women’s bath, leaving me to fend for myself among a bunch of naked Japanese men.

“It’s not a problem,” said Yumiko. “Just go in and follow what everyone else is doing. Meet us back out here in about an hour.”

Just follow what everyone else is doing. Well, that’s good advice for a sauna, where you merely sit there naked, or maybe run out and jump in cold water once in a while. But there is a ritual to a Japanese bath. A ritual about which I had no clue.

Nevertheless, I gamely walked into the dressing room, ignoring the stares that came with being the only Western male at a bath in the Japanese countryside. I undressed and walked into the next room, trying to disregard looks from a dozen naked local men. (I considered doing a naked version of the chicken dance or the macarena, so they’d really have something to look at, but, well…no.)

In the room adjoining the lockers, there was a row of stools next to some shower heads, with men washing themselves. There were also two tubs, with men soaking in them. Then there was a door leading outside to some hot springs. Two, maybe three, options. I searched my brain, for I knew that somewhere, someplace I had read about Japanese baths. I knew there was an order to the bath, just as there is an order to almost everything in Japanese society. Should I sit at a stool and start scrubbing? Should I lower myself into a hot tub next to one of those men? Should I…Should I…

Punt.

Yes, I cracked under the pressure of the stares. Not to mention the fact that contemplation time is severely limited when you are stark naked in a roomful of strangers. So I walked straight through the room and went outdoors. Except I couldn’t very well stand outside naked for any extended period of time, either, and I still didn’t know whether I could get into the hot springs without committing a social blunder. Soon, though, it became clear that the first thing the men seemed to be doing was washing themselves, and then soaking. Well, that made sense, I supposed.

For future reference, then, proper onsen etiquette is as follows:

  1. Remove all pieces of clothing and put them into the basket or locker that is provided. No swimsuits should be worn.
  2. Walk into the bath in the adjoining room and take along your wash towel. This towel is approximately large enough to cover your elbow and is used by many people as an interesting but not very effective means of covering their pelvic area. The pretense, though, is generally more important than the reality.
  3. Find an empty stool in front of one of the shower heads that comes out of the wall at hip level. Proceed to soap and rinse your body.
  4. Relax for as long as desired inside the tub of hot water, the outdoor hot springs, or both. Remember, the tub is where you relax after you are already clean.
  5. Dry off and get dressed again.

So I went back inside, grabbed a stool, soaped up and rinsed off. Quickly. My ritual duty thus complete, I retreated back to the outdoor serenity of the hot springs. There, I sank into the thermal waters and found a resting spot against a rock.

Once I settled down, the hot springs were perfectly relaxing. A misting rain fell and there was a cool bite to the air that contrasted nicely with the hot water. I sat buried to my neck in the heat and let myself be hypnotized by the rising steam as it faded into a silver-blue sky.

So there you have it. Next time you’re in Japan, be sure to seek out a local onsen. And feel free to clip and save my rules for onsen etiquette. 😉

Photo credit: Tsushima via Wikimedia Commons.

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5 Comments

  1. Jayne says:

    Very humorous. Sounds like a wonderful experience – will look for the nearest onsen if we ever get to Japan. Which I hope to!

  2. Dave and Deb says:

    Haha, we have been in that situation so many times. It is great going with the flow, but it can be very embarrassing at times. Glad you figured it out eventually.

  3. jessiev says:

    LOVE this. i’ve been there. what a great site you have!

  4. Daniel says:

    Sometimes the different baths are of different sizes. To be fair to everyone they switch genders day to day. The gender of the bath is indicated by a curtain with a Chinese character (for male or female)on it.
    Having had an experience much Like Mr. Riel’s on my first visit to an onsen, I thought I knew the program on day two — actually the next morning. I left my Japanese friends behind, and walked downstairs and right into the bath that I had been in the day before. You guessed it — I had entered the women’s bath. Somewhere there are probably some Japanese women still telling the story about how the naked Westerner entered the women’s bath.

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