Opting for the Onsen - From Japanese Politeness and Modesty to Public Nudity
Japan was a dream! If you've been following me in my previous post, you know that Japan has really been speaking to my soul. Who knew that the country I chose as an easy stop-over to kill time before a Bali vacation would be the highlight of my travels?
What is an Onsen?
An Onsen is a Japanese hot spring. They are located all over Japan and caused by Japan's volcanic activity. They are traditionally in the countryside, but some are located in more urban areas.
In order to meet legal requirements, the water must be an average of 25C or hotter and have at least one of 19 designated mineral elements. Public onsens are often advertised using the following symbol: ♨.
Onsens were traditionally used for public bathing and in more rural areas, they still often are. To enter a public onsen, it's usually free or a small fee of a few dollars.
However, in modern times inns have been built around many onsens and they have become more spa destination vacations, attracting both Japanese and international tourists. The resorts generally have a mixture of public and private onsens.
An onsen is always to be entered naked. This can be uncomfortable for people (like myself) from western or modest cultures where people are not taught to be comfortable with exposing their bodies to people. Many people in North America even find it uncomfortable to get naked in front of their doctor.
Before entering the onsen, you are to use soap and water provided at the shower station to clean yourself before getting into the bath. You need to contribute to making the experience as hygienic as possible for other guests as the pools are not treated with chlorine.
Once you are clean, there will be a bucket beside the bath. This is for you to pour the onsen water slowly over yourself, starting with your feet and working your way up to your shoulders. This is important as depending on what onsen you visit, the water can be very hot. You need to help your body acclimate before you get into the hot water.
If the onsen is a particularly hot one, you may see a traditional onsen cooling station, where the onsen water is routed over branches to help it cool. Or you may see a cold water tap, to cool the water if it gets too hot. However, if you are bathing with the onsen purists, they won't appreciate you adding cool water!
If you feel hot or overwhelmed, alternate time in and out of the water.
When you're ready to get out for good, don't wash off with soap and water. The whole point of the onsen is to take in the minerals from the water! Each onsen will have a different color based on the minerals in the water. It's best not to even towel off. You should let yourself air dry. Your skin will thank you with a silky smooth texture!
Important tip: Tattoos are a big no-no in Japan. For the Japanese, having tattoos often means that you are believed to be a criminal. Tattooed people are not supposed to enter the onsen and you will be likely asked to leave if you have visible tattoos in a public onsen. In this case (like myself) you may want to pay extra for a private onsen at a resort.
Other Uses for Onsens
At some restaurants, onsen steam is used to cook food, such as eggs!
Some onsens are used to make public foot baths or foot steamers and not used for traditional bathing. If you're walking through the city on a cold day, you can stop in to warm your toes for free!
And some onsens are way too hot for bathing. They are often decorated beautifully and are tourist destinations. The one I visited is called Hell, due to it's hotness! You can see pics above!
Where to Visit for a Great Onsen Experience
The area of Beppu, Oita in Japan is known for its Onsens. I was told that the onsen tourism in the region originally started when Japanese folks started to visit, believing that staying for a month or two could help cure illnesses. You can book rooms here at resorts for less than $200 USD per person where you'd have your own personal onsen in your room!
I was lucky enough to be staying with some fabulous local friends who knew the lay of the land and were able to give me a great insight on the culture of the region. For frequent Japanese food and culture Instagram photos from a couple of locals with an international flare, check them out @kiggit and @no_futsal_no_life
Add Japan to your international travel plans, you won't regret it!