Posted by: patriciamar | May 26, 2019

All Out Onsen: Bathing Stories

Heads up.

In this story, there is a great deal of nudity– young, old, loud, quiet, all chilling in a natural hot spring somewhere in this volcanic archipelago called Japan.

There are necessary steps for bathers to take before entering a Japanese onsen.  Thankfully, most facilities will have a detailed list of instructions and even a lovely graphic explaining exactly what to do before even a toe touches the natural spring water.  If you’re especially lucky, when you check in to your accommodation, you will get a handout explaining the whole setup and the pre-bathing preparation process.  I urge you to read these instructions and follow them carefully.  If not, you’ll get kicked out.

of the country.

I might be kidding, but they take onsen etiquette seriously, so I wouldn’t risk it if I were you.

For today’s onsen lesson, I’ll start with the basic steps, and then move on to a few special onsidents, a few incidents I have been lucky (*?*) enough to witness over the last eight months.

  1.  An onsen is a quiet and peaceful place.  Please do not distract others with loud voices or conversation.
    1. If you don’t know, American voices are typically loud voices.
  2.  An onsen is not a place for regular clothes.  Wear the yukata and slippers from your room.  The yukata (robe pajamas) closes with the left side over the right.  If you do this incorrectly, and old Japanese woman will be bothered by it and will tell you so.
  3. Onsen are always nude and separated by gender.  The women’s onsen has a red or pink curtain door (I believe these are called noren).  The men’s has a blue noren.  Note: Out of fairness, some traditional ryokan or hotels switch the men’s and the women’s in the morning/evening or every other day.  Don’t assume that you know which one is the men’s and which one is the women’s just because you went there the day before.
  4.  When you enter, find a cubby/cube/locker/basket for your belongings.  Cellphones are not allowed in the locker room or onsen (obviously).  To be honest, I don’t think I have ever seen a cellphone in an onsen changing room.  This is a very strict rule that guests do follow (as they should).
  5.  After you strip down, you go into the bath area.  It will be separated by a glass door of some type and will be steamy and slightly intimidating, perhaps because of the weight of the door, perhaps because you don’t know how many naked people you are about to encounter.
  6.  You should take note of your surroundings immediately upon entering.  Everything has a place. You will see a main bath or two, surrounded by a number of washing stations, each with its own faucet, and usually a handheld shower head.  There might also be a door to an outside pool or a sauna.
    1. You might also see: wooden buckets or plastic tubs for washing, wooden or plastic stools, bath products (shampoo, conditioner, facewash, scrub, etc., all usually amazing products).
  7.  Get a little stool and a bucket for dumping water on your head and find a spot.
  8.  Place your stool, rinse it off, and sit down for a scrub.  You must scrub thoroughly with soap.  I cannot stress this enough.  These pools are still (as in, unmoving) water and do not contain the chemicals that a public pool does.  Clean yourself off first.  Furthermore, even if the other visitors are not looking at you (which they won’t be), I can assure you that when a foreigner walks into a bath, every set of eyes is watching and judging, making sure you do not disturb either the sanctity of this lovely bathing experience, or the cleanliness of the water.
    1. By the way, don’t be too bothered if you walk in and people basically flee– haul ass out of there because you just entered.  I’m not sure why this happens (They are scared of me?  I’m kind of tall?  I’m blonde?).  It happens to me constantly, the moment I step foot in the facility.
  9. You should scrub your body and wash your hair, utilizing the bath products provided or using your own from your personal onsen caddy (preferably a cute one).  Most people use their hands to scrub scrub scrub, while others use their small towel.  While everyone gets a small tub or scooper for dumping water on your head, most facilities now have a hand sprayer at every washing station.  It appears to be customary to take a water scooper, set it by your hand sprayer, use the handheld shower head to do absolutely every part of the washing, and then politely return your water scooper as if you used it.  Tradition is tradition, after all.
    1. Be calm with your shower head.  Don’t accidentally spray it too far, on other people, or in the pool.
  10. When you’re done washing and bathing, be sure to put things back where you got them even if you plan on going back to scrub more.  Your spot is not your spot; there may be a number of people coming and going during the time that you are doing your hot soaking and sauna sitting.
  11. Hot water time!  Sit as long as you like and enjoy.
    1. WAIT!  Sometimes, particularly in the more natural or outdoor onsens, there is a small onsen water spot with a wooden water scooper so that you can take a scoop of onsen water and give yourself one more rinse before getting into the onsen water.  If other people are doing this, you should too.
  12. Ok, now it’s time to relax.  Some water tubs are rock bottom, some are tile, some are cedar tubs, some are super hot, some not so much (105° to 130°?).  You might also switch pools, do a cool water rinse in the standing shower, or sit in a sauna, if available.  By the way, your hair should not touch the water, even if clean.
  13. Sit and soak.
  14. Relax and stare at the beautiful window scene with carefully arranged rocks and shrubs.
  15. Soak and sit, considering the many stresses of your life.
  16. Switch pools or have a refreshing and cool rinse.
  17. Sit and soak, feeling all the stresses of your life melt away.
  18. Is it time to get out?  By now you are either too hot or too relaxed to continue.  Typically, the next step is to get a little stool and a water dumper and do another nice scrub, effectively removing every possible unwanted skin cell from your body.  It is at this point that I typically do my hair conditioning.  I’m not sure if that’s normal, it’s just my practice.
  19. When you leave the bathing area, you will likely find a number of individual vanity areas.  There, you can dry your hair, use Q-tips, apply makeup, lotion, (liquid lotion is common), etc.  You will find that it is not proper to leave the onsen locker room area until you look your best.

(Of course I don’t do this.  I don my yukata and walk to my room with wet hair, basically terrorizing the other hotel guests as I do so.  I consider blow drying my hair to be a waste of life.  But do as you like; it’s your onsen experience.)

You see how I was very proper, strict, and rule-following until the very last moment?  That happens.  As such, here are a few stories from my many, many onsen and sento experiences.  I love them.  They are one of the best parts of Japanese life and travel.

 

The cheat

You are cold and naked.  All you want to do is go right into that onsen!  NO.

However, you could take a water dumper, kneel down next to the bath and scoop steaming hot herbal water from the hot bath and pour it over your head again and again loudly and happily, wetting yourself thoroughly and getting all warm before going over to do your pre-soak shower and full scrub.

 

Little kids

Why, yes.  An onsen is the best place for bath time.  All above rules apply, except for the one about being quiet.  No limit on the number of kids per mother.

 

The Bumblebees

Well, that can’t be good.

 

Snow!

The outdoor pool is possibly the best part of the onsen experience.  In Minnesota the hot tubs are kept at a balmy 95° to 105°, so although I have somewhat adapted to CA hottub temperatures, these baths are hot!  The cool air of an outdoor bath and the view of Japanese maples swaying in the breeze is about as good as it gets.  On a snowy day, I hear that you can put some snow on your head just like the monkeys do.  Unfortunately, I am yet to experience an onsen with snow access.

 

When you know you’re done

At a certain point in the soaking process, you realize that you are fully warm, completely relaxed and overall soothed by the cycling in and out between hot bath and cold rinse/cold air.  Of course, you do what any average Japanese woman would do.

Well, maybe not average.  I learned this particular tip from an older Japanese woman far down in Kyushu last December.

When you are done shampooing, soaping, sudsing, shaving, rinsing, combing out your hair, brushing your teeth, and then soaking, you lean over and bang loudly on the beautiful Japanese cedar wall.  You scream your husband’s name, and ask him if he is ready.  As is Japanese custom, everyone pretends this is not happening.  Nothing strange is going on.  One does not embarrass another.  

He yells back.  He needs five more minutes.

But you’re done!  You want to get out.

Yell back.

He relents.  He was enjoying that peace and the hot soak, but he must admit that very recently much of the peaceful nature of the process was lost.

You get out and leave.

You’ll meet outside by the vending machines.

Don’t forget your towel.

 

Oh, how I wish I understood enough Japanese to hear exactly what she yelled and what he yelled back.   He must have been ready too, because she was soon up and out, and into the drying room to get dressed soon after.

Enjoy your soak.

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photo by M.J. Oeding

 

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Responses

  1. I LOVED this topic and the wonderful way you brought the experience to life! I’ve never felt as clean as after a public bath (neighborhood onset as opposed to mountain/vacation one). One gentleman recently told me he always goes to an insensitive after a long trip to avoid jet lag. Sounds about right! Thanks so much for sharing another of your fabulous experiences!

    Have you decided if you’ll stay for another year? I’m sure you have mixed feelings about staying and leaving.

    Liked by 1 person


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