Japan is a volcanic country and natural hot springs are to be found throughout the islands. The Japanese love of bathing in hot springs goes back a long way. Not only are the baths a place to relax and to socialize, but the water is naturally full of minerals, which can treat a wide variety of disorders including skin problems and rheumatism.
Some types of water can be drunk which helps to cure digestive problems and aid the body’s metabolism. Beneficial properties aside, bathing in hot springs (or onsen to use the Japanese term) or outdoor baths (rotemburo) is a sheer joy and a “must-do” for any visitor to Japan.
Baths are not for washing in, as other bathers share the water. You should clean yourself before entering the bath and there is an established routine for doing this whether an onsen, rotemburo or an ofuro (a bath in someone’s home).
Firstly, I recommend learning the Japanese characters for men (Otoko) and women (onna). Not all onsen have English written on the door, and you could save yourself a few blushes. Also bear in mind that some hotels only have one outdoor bath and so this is rotated daily.
Do check that the ladies bath of the night before hasn’t changed to the gentlemen’s in the morning. Bathing is rarely mixed, and when it is, the bathers are usually not a day under 80. Separated bathing is the standard case, although many hotels offer a “family room”.
Once the correct changing room has been established, you should arm yourself with a small towel. This is either provided in the changing room or will have been offered at reception. After spending time in Japan you will find your collection of small towels starts to grow. You MUST remove your shoes at the door and leave them on the shelves or in the lockers provided.
You should then undress, leave your belongings in a locker or basket, and head towards the bathing area, with the small towel carried in such a way that it strategically covers your most private of areas. Once in the bathroom, find yourself a spare stool, water container and tap. Ignore the expected stares at the incredible sight of a naked gaijin (foreigner). Fill your bowl with water and rinse yourself first. There will probably be a shower attachment too, but it’s more usual to fill the bowl and throw the contents over your head. It’s up to you.
Now it is time to not only wash yourself, but to thoroughly scrub yourself too. Use the towel for this, if you don’t you will be considered not to have washed properly. When I first took an onsen, I went together with Japanese companions, and I was quite intrigued by the length of time they spent cleaning themselves. And not wanting to appear the dirty gaijin, I took the same amount of time too, cleaning each limb with slow, deliberate, loving care.
When you are done, rinse yourself. Thoroughly. Then rinse yourself again. Any trace of soap in the bath is a horrible crime. I don’t know what the penalties are, because the Japanese simply don’t do it. Ever. If you have long hair, you should put it up. Japanese ladies somehow manage to wrap their versatile, but miniscule towel around their heads to keep their hair in place elegantly and effectively. I found this quite impossible.
Check the temperature of the water before you gingerly ease yourself in. The water can be unbearably hot, yet the Japanese seem to have no problem. I think it takes quite a few visits to the onsen to become acclimated to temperatures that leave you parboiled.
Slowly slide yourself in (you most probably won’t be able manage anything else!). Once in the water, sit very still. Movement will make you even hotter. You are recommended not to stay in the water longer than a few minutes, but your body will probably tell you to get out even sooner than that.
When you are ready to leave, rinse yourself with water from the spring, instead of using the shower. In this way, the minerals will remain on your skin to perform their miraculous properties instead of being washed off.
A popular and unique way to experience onsen is to stay at a hotel in a resort such as Atami. You can take a bath before dinner and change into a crisp yukata (a light cotton kimono). Then feeling clean and refreshed, enjoy a fabulous Japanese dinner.
Start the following day with a pre-breakfast bath. If you are lucky enough to have the outdoor bath then as I was, you can lie there and enjoy the view of woods and hills. Listen to the birds singing, let the water soothe you, and be at one with nature. It’s a beautiful and calming sensation. The standards in onsen resorts are very high and will make a considerable dent on your finances, but it’s well worth it.
If you decide not to stay overnight, you can visit most hotels for the bath only. Ask your Japanese friends to recommend you a particular area and hotel. The qualities found in the water vary from region to region and have different properties. Sulphur springs are good for drinking and treating many kinds of medical problems. Others cannot be drunk, but are particularly beneficial for circulation problems for example.
Whether you are sitting in a bath on the hillside in the early morning during the spring, watching the snow fall outside the windows as the steam from the water rises up around you in Hokkaido, or feeling the autumnal rain fall softly on your head while soaking in a rotemburo, the experience of taking a Japanese bath is fantastic and unforgettable.
I cannot recommend it highly enough. The act of soaking away stresses and strains, coldness, muscular pains, is a delight shared by all. Even frozen little monkeys come down from the mountainside to benefit from a soak in the hot steaming water when Nagano prefecture is covered in snow.