As it gets cooler in Japan, Japanese people start heading to “onsen” or hot springs. Not just a mere soak in the tub, onsens have developed their own onsen culture. Many Japanese will take a weekend vacation to an onsen village and spend their time walking around the town in hotel yukata and testing the different hot springs. And they are HOT! Most onsen waters are 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit). If it’s your first time to an onsen, you may feel it is too hot, as if the water is burning your skin when you get in. Rest assured, the water is not hot enough to burn you, so just ease in slowly. You may feel the same kind of trepidation felt when getting into a swimming pool of cold water slowly. After the initial shock, it feels great.
Onsens use real spring water with minerals, thus are believed to be good for the health. Some onsen waters are said to treat specific maladies (skin problems, arthritis, etc) but most Japanese people believe in the all over benefits of bathing in natural spring water as opposed to any magic qualities the proprietors may claim their onsen has.
A good hot soak in an onsen will keep your body temperature up for at least two hours after you’ve gotten out of the bath. This is sometimes the only way to truly feel warm in the wintertime in Japan as most houses do not have central heating. Thus the onsen culture. Some towns even have Onsen in their name, such as Nozawa Onsen in Nagano which has over 13 public hot springs.
Public bathing: how naked is it?
Most baths are segregated into men’s and women’s but if you search around, you can find a mixed onsen.
First, you change out of your clothes in a central locker room attached to the bath area, and walk out fully naked into the bath area. Head over to the showers and clean your body first before getting into the bath. Shampoo, conditioner, body soap, etc is always provided at an onsen. They will also issue you a small towel the size of a dish towel. Some Japanese people will hold this discreetly over their private parts. Observe and do what others are doing. Use the towel for scrubbing the body during your shower and once you are clean, you can get into the bath. Take your towel with you but do not submerge it in the bath. Women should tie up long hair so it doesn’t hang into the bath water. If you don’t have anything, tie the towel around your head. Many people do this anyway–a bit of onsen fashion. There will be several different pools to get into, ranging from regular pools with hot water, a pool with very cold water, herb-enhanced water pools, those with a weak electric current running through them (!) and outside baths called “rotenburo.”
Where to find Onsen
Onsens can be found all over Japan, often in the basements of big hotels (but also open to the public) Plan on spending at least 1,000 yen to take a bath and leave yourself at least an hour, if not more, to enjoy the ambiance. Many onsen also offer massage chairs and other relaxing side activities.
Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast and teaches Japanese online. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com