There was no question as to whether I was going to visit a traditional Japanese onsen during my trip. Whether it’s downing shots of pickle brine in a Russian banya or getting the dead skin scrubbed from my body at a hammam in Morocco or navigating through a series of water circuits on a 1950s ferryboat on a river in Montreal — count me in! I love me some good ol’ spa time, especially when it includes an unforgettable cultural experience and getting out of my comfort zone by going completely NUDE at a traditional onsen in Japan.
What is an Onsen?
Onsen is a natural hot spring bath, with steaming water — rich with minerals that are said to be beneficial for the body and mind — that originates from volcanoes. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered throughout. The water must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water and at least 25C to officially be considered an onsen.
Are there different types of Japanese onsens?
If you’re worried about parading around in your birthday suit among a bunch of strangers of the opposite sex, have no fear. There are different types of Japanese onsen that you can visit — mixed gender, single sex, private, communal, outdoor (called rotenburo) and indoor (sento, an everyday kind of public bathhouse). There are even onsen “amusement parks” like Hakone Kowakien Yunessun where you can soak in your favourite beverage like red wine or green tea!
What is the history of onsens?
Japanese onsen culture developed to some extent out of necessity. Homes in Japan weren’t big enough or equipped to include bathing facilities so they would go to these public bathhouses the way you and I would just hop into the shower. Now onsen is viewed as a treat like a day at the spa — one part purifying ritual (“Shinto”), one part indulgent relaxation.
What onsen did you go to?
After a lot of research, I chose to experience my first Japanese onsen in a place that is famous for it — Tenzan Onsen in Hakone, a town renown for its abundance of onsens. It had separate onsen areas for each gender and was reasonably priced at ¥1400 (about $18 CAD) but you can use your Hakone Free Pass for a discount.
Tenzan Onsen was easy to get to (bus stop a short way from entrance) and had gorgeous outdoor baths that were immersed in lush foliage and smooth boulders. They had multi-level pools of differing temperatures ranging from painfully hot to shockingly cold, some were in caves and some had milky water that promised skin benefits. They even have a restaurant and a café when you inevitably get peckish.
What do I need to know before going to a Japanese onsen?
+ Towel Situation: You are required to either purchase a small towel or bring your own that is used to wash up in the bath and dry off before going into the dressing room. Lots of people kept the towel on their head as letting it touch the hot spring water is considered unhygienic.
+ Keep it Clean: Speaking of washing up, before entering the baths you are expected to thoroughly cleanse yourself in the shower to keep the hot springs clean. Also rinse any chairs, mats or buckets you may use.
+ Hair Tie: You know how gross it is to find errant strands of hair in the shower, especially when it’s not yours? That’s why when attending an onsen you must tie your hair up. I secured my long tresses in a top bun and wrapped the small towel around like a bandana to keep the flyaways out of my face.
+ Tattoos are Taboo: Depending on the establishment you may be denied entry if you’re sporting visible tattoos as they are still associated with organized crime in Japan. Check the website before going because you may be able to get away with merely covering it up with a bandage.
+ Stay Hydrated: When you’re soaking in bodies of water, it may surprise you that it can lead to dehydration. Hot water causes your body to use systems that take up more water than usual so make sure to have bottle of fresh water handy, maybe even a Pocari Sweat to replenish your electrolytes after.
But what was it really like?
Well, I definitely couldn’t show you for obvious reasons. I couldn’t take any photos inside….without getting arrested. But I’ll give you the next best thing. Here’s what I was thinking while I experienced a traditional Japanese onsen IN THE BUFF for the first time:
Upon entering Tenzan Onsen
1. What do I do now? Where do I pay? What are those lockers for? So many questions!
2. Oh, there’s a vending machine out front to purchase tickets….in Japanese. Great.
3. I’ve never felt the language barrier more acutely than in this moment.
4. Another tourist! I can ask this chick questions since she speaks English.
5. Perfect, she’s just as lost as me.
6. Oh well, the lost and confused love company as much as misery does.
7. Yes! I can check in with the English-speaking host!
8. These lockers are waayyy too small to fit all my clothes.
9. Oh, they’re just for my shoes. Whew!
10. No way was I getting naked with so many people milling around.
11. Ok, shoes off. Now which way is the change room?
12. One wrong turn and I might end up in the men’s change room.
13. What a scandal that would be — Peeping Thomasina!
14. The conservative Japanese men would be clutching their pearls!
15. How’s THAT for feminism and equality.
16. Probably not the message I want to send for the cause…
Upon finally finding the women’s change room
17. This would be easier if the signs weren’t all in Japanese…
18. No exposed 🍆 yet so it’s safe to say that I’m in the right place.
19. So….am I supposed to undress now?
20. Great, the instructions are in Japanese too.
21. Does it make sense that the signs are Japanese because I’m in Japan? Yes.
22. Is it inconvenient for me? Also yes.
23. It’d be creepy to watch what other people are doing since they’re getting naked.
24. Time to use good ol’ peripheral vision.
25. I feel like a sneaky pervert but I need to know what to do!
26. Ah ha! This IS where I get naked.
27. Well…I guess there’s nothing else to do but….undress.
28. Enter paranoia — What if I’ve completely misunderstood the situation??
29. What if I get naked, go out to the baths and everyone has swimsuits on except me!
30. It’d be like that recurring nightmare I have sometimes.
31. Wait — am I awake? *pinches arm* Yup.
32. Take it easy. Shirt first. Pants. Sock. Other sock…stop stalling!
33. OK, I’m in my birthday suit…why is it called a suit when you’re naked?
34. I WANT TO PUT MY CLOTHES BACK ON!!!!!!!!!!!
35. *lots of wordless internal panicking at subverting western societal norms*
36. I’m ok. It’s fine. This is fine. There is nothing more natural than being naked.
37. …except nature calling. I should use the bathroom.
38. Don’t want to have to pee when I’m sitting in hot springs with other people.
39. Should I put my clothes back on to go pee?
40. That seems inefficient.
41. I shouldn’t have eaten the extra large bowl of ramen just before this…
42. So much jiggly mochi.
Upon entering the shower area to rinse off before entering baths
43. I have to shower before entering baths?
44. Makes sense otherwise we’d all be stewing in each other’s filth.
45. Not pleased about this red, plastic, low stool situation…
46. I’m supposed to sit on that with my exposed hoo-ha???
47. But….other hoo-has have been on that…
48. I wonder how often these are thoroughly cleaned.
49. Good thing they gave me this small towel at the front. I’ll put it on the seat.
50. Oh, there’s the tourist chick I ran into at the front.
51. Almost didn’t recognize her….without her clothes on…
53. She’s asking me how to use the shower and neither of us are clothed.
54. This is significantly more awkward than our earlier conversation.
55. I guess I press this button to turn the shower head on? Bingo!
56. Why did it randomly turn off? *presses button again*
57. What the heck? Turned off again! Seems to only run for 30 seconds at a time.
58. This shower is going to take me a lloooooonnnngggg time.
59. How tedious. No wonder there’s a stool.
Upon entering the onsen hot springs bathing facilities
60. Sugoi! The outdoor baths are so nice, surrounded in foliage and huge boulders.
61. Gives new meaning to the Japanese term “forest bathing”
62. Feels so odd to be naked outside in daylight.
63. But then again, it’s not like I’m ever naked outside at night…
64. Oh yea, I almost forgot that I’m naked.
65. I feel oddly liberated. A little chilly, but liberated.
66. Eve really ruined a life of nudity for us by taking a bite of that apple…
67. Which pool do I go in first? I’ll start with this empty medium-sized one.
68. ACCCKKK!!!! IT’S THE COLD POOL!!!! Just like Morocco….
69. It’s kind of nice once you get in. Ops, someone else is coming in…
70. Well, this is awkward. It’s like we’re taking a couple’s bath together.
71. Should I avert my gaze? Is that rude? Should I make eye contact? Nod???
72. I’m just going to leave and hopefully no body parts will touch when I pass her…
73. OoooOooOOooo this pool is nice and warm! I’m like the Goldilocks of onsen pools.
74. I could take a nap! That is if I wasn’t worried about snoring in my sleep…
75. …and the drooling. Oh, and drowning of course!
76. Why does that one chick bother covering her breasts with a towel?
77. Trying to cover up is more conspicuous than just letting it all hang out.
78. Girl — I can see your undercarriage and you’re worried about your boobs?
79. Wow some people are so comfortable that they’re lying on rocks spread eagle!
80. And that wrinkly, pau pau (grandma) doing lunges in the nude!
81. All self-consciousness must fly out the window when your boobs sink down to your ankles.
82. I guess it’s time to get out. My entire body is wrinkled like a prune!
83. I look like I could be a tambourine-playing member of The California Raisins!
84. Ugh I have to put clothes on now.
85. I don’t even remember a time when I had to wear clothes anymore.
After struggling with that initial impulse to cover up my nakedness, wandering around the onsen completely in the buff felt like the most natural thing in the world! I highly recommend, especially if it scares you. What better reason to do something than to prove to yourself that you can do it? Plus, you’ll have the best sleep of your LIFE that night. Soaking in hot springs will knock you right out.
If you’re going to Japan for the first time, here are some essential tips for you to take note of before going. Here are some more ideas for planning a trip full of authentic Japanese experiences. For a guide to Hakone, infamous for their onsens, check out this post.
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