Onsen and Bathing
A chain of volcanic islands on the fiery Pacific Rim, Japan has developed a splendid subculture around one of the more manageable manifestations of this powerful resource: the onsen thermal spa.
The benchmark Japanese weekend excursion—be it family outing, company retreat, or romantic getaway—is the hot spring resort. Fissured from end to end with volcanic cracks and crannies, the country positively wheezes with geothermal springs. Hot water gushes and sprays almost everywhere—but most especially in the mountains; there are hot springs in every prefecture, on every offshore island—even in cities built, incautiously, above the very fault lines themselves. And to all these superheated hollows flock the Japanese in endless enthusiasm, putting many thousands of people to work, catering to their needs; onsen are as nearly recession-proof an industry as the nation has. It's not too much to say, that to understand the Japanese, to discover their innermost nature, you need to get naked with them a while in hot mineral water.
If you're new to Japan, you might be astounded with the popularity of thermal baths. It begins to seem like the only way for a town to hope to bring in Japanese tourists is to have an onsen. Quite naturally, the Japanese have developed a subculture around one of the more manageable manifestations of this powerful resource.
The Japanese have a special term for that blissful state of total immersion: yudedako—literally "boiled octopus"—and Japanese people of all ages and both sexes will journey for miles to attain it. Getting boiled is a step on the road to sound health, good digestion, clear skin, marital harmony—to whatever it is that gives you a general sense of being at one with the universe.
The Onsen Experience
An onsen can refer to a particular region or subregion, like Yufuin in Oita Prefecture, Kinugawa in Tochigi, or Hakone in Kanagawa: a resort destination especially well endowed with thermal springs. Or it can mean more specifically a public bathhouse with a spring-fed pool, where you pay an admission fee and soak at your leisure. (At last count, there were some 6,700 of these nationwide.) Or it could mean a lodging—one of two basic varieties—with a spring of its own. One type is the kanko hotel: a mega-onsen with multiple baths, in grand pharaonic styles with mosaics and waterfalls, and banquet halls and dinner shows, as well as tatami guest rooms that sleep six—and, inevitably, discos and karaoke bars and souvenir shops. The other type is the onsen of everyone's dreams: the picture-perfect traditional inn, a ryokan of half a dozen rooms, nestled up somewhere in the mountains all by itself, with a spectacular view and a rotenburo—an outdoor pool—to enjoy it from.
Ah! the rotenburo! At smaller onsen, you can book the exquisitely crafted pool, with its stepping stones and lanterns, and bamboo screens, for a private soak: an hour or so of the purest luxury, especially by moonlight. The rotenburo is a year-round indulgence; the view from the pool might be a mountainside white with cherry blossoms in spring, or a lakefront brilliant in the red and gold of maples in autumn, or—best of all, perhaps—a winter panorama, with the snow piled high on the pines and hedges that frame the landscape, to contemplate from your snug, steamy vantage point while you slowly wrinkle yourself like a prune. Be warned: whatever the season, you'll need to make reservations well in advance, for onsen accommodations of any sort. Japan has more than 3,000 registered spas; collectively, they draw nearly 140 million visitors a year, and hotel space is not easy to come by.
What Is an Onsen?
By law, an onsen is only an onsen if the water comes out of the ground at a specified minimum temperature, and contains at least one of 19 designated minerals and chemical compounds—which makes for a wide range of choices. There are iron springs with red water; there are silky-smooth alkali springs; there are springs with radon and sulphur sodium bicarbonate: there are springs with water at a comfortable 100°F (37.8°C), and springs so hot they have bath masters to make sure you stay only for three minutes and not a fatal second longer.
One reason many Westerners are reluctant to go bathing in Japan is the fact that you have to take all your clothes off. In front of everyone else. There is that issue—no getting around it: Japanese communal bathing is done in the buff—but that shouldn't deter you from the experience of a truly good thing. The bath is a great equalizer: in a sense the bath is Japan, in its unalloyed egalitarianism. Here, rank and title are stripped away: there is no way to tell if the body boiling beside you belongs to a captain of industry or his humble employee, to an ambassador, to a pauper, to a mendicant priest—and each bather offers the other an equal degree of respect and regard; no one ever behaves in a way that might spoil the enjoyment of any other bather; no one is embarrassed or causes embarrassment.
Another reason you might have for your reluctance is the worrisome conviction that bathing with a bunch of strangers comes with a raft of rules—rules all those strangers know from childhood, but at least one of which you're bound to break, to your everlasting horror and shame. "What if I drop the soap in the bath?" is a typical fear.
In fact, the pitfalls are not at all so awful. There certainly are protocols to follow, but it's a short list.
1. While there are still a few spas that keep alive the old custom of konyoku (mixed bathing), all of them have separate entrances for men and women, announced in Japanese characters on hangings over the doors. If in doubt, ask.
2. A word of warning: body tattoos, in Japan, are indelibly associated with the yakuza—organized crime families and their minions—and spas commonly refuse entry to tattooed visitors, to avoid upsetting their regular clientele. The rule is strictly enforced—and could extend to that little butterfly you got on your shoulder when you were young and reckless. Put a bandage over it.
3. The first room you come to inside is the dressing room. It's almost always tatami-floored: take your shoes or slippers off in the entryway. The dressing room will have lockers for your keys and valuables, and rows of wicker or plastic baskets on shelves; pick one, and put your clothes in it. If you're staying overnight at an inn with a spa of its own, you'll find a cotton kimono called a nemaki in your room—you sleep in it, in lieu of pajamas—and a light quilted jacket called a hanten. Night or day, this is standard gear to wear from your room to the spa, anywhere else around the inn, and even for a stroll out of doors. Leave them in the basket.
The spa should provide—or you should have with you—two towels: leave the bigger one in the basket, to dry off with, and take the smaller one with you next door, to the pools. (Holding this towel modestly over your nether parts is the accepted way of moving around in the spa.)
4. The pool area will have rows of washing stations along the walls: countertops with supplies of soap and shampoo, a mirror, taps and showerhead, a stool, and a bucket. Here's where you get clean—and that means really clean. Soap up, shower, scrub off every particle of the day's wear and tear. Take your time; use your wash towel. Leave no trace of soap. Then take your towel modestly to the pool.
You can bring the towel with you into the bath, but the onsen really would rather you didn't. Most people leave theirs at poolside, or set them folded on top of their heads. (Another protocol: spas don't insist on bathing caps, but they do want you to keep your head above water.)
And that's all there is to it. Find a pleasant spot; soak in blissful silence, if you prefer (but not too long, if you're not used to it), or feel free to strike up a conversation with a fellow soaker: atsui desu ne—the local equivalent of "Hot enough for you?"—is a good start, and from there, you can go anywhere. The Japanese call their friendliest, most relaxing acquaintances hadaka no o-tsukiai: naked encounters.
Staying at a mega-onsen? Conviviality reigns in the pools of these establishments, with all sorts of amenities to help it along. At some inns, for example, you can order a small floating table for yourself and your fellow boilers, just big enough for a ceramic flask of sake or two, and a suitable number of cups. You get to warm your insides and outsides at the same time: how bad can that be?
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