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 often built above the very fault lines themselves.
The Japanese have a special term for that blissful state of total immersion—yudedako (literally, "boiled octopus")—and Japanese people of all ages will journey for miles to attain it. Soaking in hot springs 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-floored 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.
At smaller onsen you can book the rotenburo, an exquisitely crafted pool with stepping-stones, 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 of a mountainside, white with cherry blossoms in spring; a lakefront doused in the red and gold of maples in autumn; or a winter panorama, with the snow piled high on the pines and hedges that frame the landscape. Whatever the season, you’ll need to make reservations well in advance for all onsen accommodations. Japan has more than 3,000 registered spas; collectively they draw nearly 140 million visitors a year, and hotel space is in high demand.
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: Japanese communal bathing is done in the buff—but that shouldn’t deter you from the experience. The bath is a great equalizer: in a sense the bath is Japan, in its unalloyed egalitarianism. Each bather offers the other an equal degree of respect and regard; people generally do not behave in a way that might spoil the enjoyment of any other bather; nor is anyone embarrassed.
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 common fear.
But the pitfalls are not so bad. 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. Even foreign tourists, who are clearly not involved in Japanese organized crime, can be turned away for their tattoos. If your tattoo is small enough, put a bandage over it. Another option is to only bathe in kashikiri-buro, or private baths, which are available at larger onsen and many ryokan. This may also be an appealing option for those who’d rather not bare all in front of multiple strangers.
3. The first room you come to inside is the dressing room. It’s often 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.
Bring 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. (Using this towel to preserve your modesty 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, taps, a mirror, showerhead, stool, and 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. Leave no trace of soap.
You can take the towel with you to the bath, but don't put it in the water. Most people leave theirs poolside or set them folded on top of their heads. (Another item of protocol: spas don’t insist on bathing caps, but they do want you to keep your head above water.)
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. 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, 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.
When you’ve soaked to your heart’s content, dry yourself off with your smaller towel and head back to the dressing room. Grab your larger towel from the basket, wrap it around yourself, and rest a bit until your body temperature drops back to normal. Get dressed and head out to the post-bath rest area to have a cold glass of water and lounge on the tatami mats before heading back out into the world.
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