“That is just the way it was, nothing could be better and nothing ever was. Oh, they say you can see your future, inside a glass of water, the riddles and the rhymes.” –Coldplay, ‘Glass of Water’
Most Americans I have talked with about the subject flinch at the mention of an onsen. A typical conversation for me goes something like this:
Me: “I’m planning to go to an onsen with my friends next weekend. I’m so excited!”
American: “Oh, really? That’s great…what’s an onsen?”
Me: “A hot spring, a Japanese public bath.”
American: “Wait, like where you take a bath with strangers?”
Me: “Um, yes, that would be the definition of a public bath…”
American: “…You’re allowed to wear a swimsuit, right?”
For all the modesty that I have encountered while living here (leggings with shorts, scarcity of open-toed shoes, no low-cut shirts, etc), the vast majority of Japanese people love to take vacations at onsen, public baths usually filled by means of a natural hot spring. Yes, it is taking a bath with strangers, and no, one may not wear a bathing suit. So naturally, being intrigued by this very Japanese phenomenon which I had yet to be a part of, I made reservations last March at an 800-year-old hot spring in Arima, a small town in the mountains of Kobe, for myself and two of my friends.
After taking a highway bus through the mountains and literally walking through a typhoon to get to our hotel, we checked in and got settled in our room. Many onsen are attached to a hotel with traditional Japanese rooms, and you can purchase a package deal, like we did, that includes dinner, breakfast, and the room. Seeing as the purpose of the trip was to use the bath itself, we didn’t delay after the woman from the front desk finished her explanation about the room.
Gathering our hotel-provided yukata (a type of informal kimono), we made our way to the top floor of the hotel and to the women’s bathing area, which housed an indoor and an outdoor bath, the latter of which was naturally infused with copper and had been in use for 800 years. There were baskets supplied for us to put our old clothes in, and small hand towels.
Once we had taken off our clothes we made our way to the bathing area, where there were individual “washing stations” along the walls with plastic stools to sit on (you don’t stand while taking a shower), shampoo, soap, and a removable nozzle and basin to rinse yourself with. As anyone familiar with Japanese culture knows, it is imperative that you wash yourself thoroughly before entering the bath.
After using the “shower”, we got into the large bath at the center of the room with everyone else, which was really just a couple of older women, since it was a weekday and wasn’t too crowded. Bringing your hand towel into the bath is acceptable as long as it does not touch the water (a mistake I made once even though I knew not to do it). I think this is partially for sanitary reasons, but also because the minerals in the water tend to stain the towels (this certainly happened with the copper and later iron baths). The bath was VERY hot, and I was grateful that I am used to taking hot showers, because the temperature of the water was about 42-44 degrees Celsius, which is about 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit. So we couldn’t stay in the bath itself for more than 30 minutes or so. It’s actually not recommended to use it more than 3 times a day due to risks such as dehydration and high blood pressure.
After trying both the indoor and outdoor baths, we went back to our room and waited for dinner to be served. At around 7, hotel staff came into our room and serves us a full traditional Japanese meal, complete with Kobe beef shabu-shabu (a variant of hot pot). There were several courses and overall it was outstanding, save the occasional raw something or other with a face. After dinner the staff cleaned up the table and laid out our futons.
We went to the baths again at night and repeated the process, this time the air a bit cooler since it was dark, and in the morning before breakfast I went again. And after checking out of our hotel and taking a walk around to a few different local sights, we went to another very popular onsen in town before heading home. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clean in my life.
It was a great feeling, wearing a yukata, eating and sleeping on the ground, still warm from the hot spring. It’s unfortunate that many are too shy or nervous to experience an onsen, since it is something so unique, not to mention a lot of fun. Was I uncomfortable getting undressed in front of my friends and strangers? It was different, to be sure, but uncomfortable? Not really. We did receive some stares, being foreigners, but mostly people kept to themselves. A few years ago I probably wouldn’t have stepped foot in one, but I realize that I had the opportunity to do what most people can’t or are unwilling to do. Would I go again? In a heartbeat, and I suggest it to anyone who comes to Japan (as long as you read up on the rules first!).
Because, as my friend put so eloquently as we were sitting in the outdoor bath looking up at the stars, “Nothing says friendship like group nudity.”