Soaking in the soothing waters of a hot spring (onsen) is a quintessential Japanese experience, highly worthwhile as both a sensory and cultural experience. Being a land of active volcanoes and earthquakes, Japan is riddled with underwater aquifers, and taking advantage of these are thousands of hotels, ryokan and other establishments offering guests the chance to luxuriate in the steaming waters.
Bathing is always naked, and most bathing areas are segregated by gender. Hence a knowledge of the kanji for man and woman, which is always displayed at the entrance of the bathing area, is helpful. The equivalent words in English, or the universally understood male and female symbols, are rarely used. Of course visitors who don’t fancy their 50/50 chance of making a correct guess can watch to see which entrances other guests are using, to make sure they make the right choice.
A quite rigidly adhered to ritual is followed upon entering the bathing area. Many users enter attired in the gown supplied in each room (nemaki) and carrying a small towel oshibori), however there’s no problem in coming in fully clothed. Footwear is taken off upon entry, then all clothes, which are usually placed in basket-like containers on shelves in the change area. As might be expected, the previously outlined domestic bathing procedure, of separating the washing and bathing/soaking functions, applies equally to public bathing.
After undressing movement is to the washing area, which either precedes the actual bathing area or is adjacent to it. Along one or two walls is a row of showers, with also a row of small stools for sitting on while lathering up and washing, plus plastic bowls for filling with water and thoroughly rinsing off the soap. Japanese invariably sit on these low stools while washing themselves, for rinsing either using the bowls or the shower hooked onto a low level wall bracket. Standing for this whole washing process is quite permissible, made possible by a higher wall bracket. In this process, the oshibori is used like a face washer.
Once fully washed and all lather removed, the water can be entered. This is where the hand towel’s other purpose comes into play, to allow some degree of modesty for those so inclined. There are no rules actually requesting this usage of the towel, however it’s fairly common. Caucasians who choose to adopt a less inhibited approach can expect to attract a more than fair share of looks, as for many of the other bathers it may be their first opportunity to make anatomical comparisons between the races.
It has been observed that regular takers of the waters who adopt the modest approach are most adept at moving in and out of the one, two or more pools whilst ambidextrously manipulating the hand towel without ever letting the slightest hint of pubic hair come into view. It can tend to put males in tantalising wonderment as to what kind of hand movements are employed in the female bathing area to achieve a similar semblance of dignity, and with only one towel per person which part of their anatomy women sacrifice to public viewing.
There are still some unsegregated hot springs, a carry-over from the old days before Western values introduced the notion of prudery into everyday Japanese habits of cleanliness, however these are mostly in more remote country areas and not widely known. Stories have been told by male visitors to these venues about beautiful young women being seen, but invariably completely surrounded by cordons of yakuza, ensuring the women’s bathing was entirely incident free and undisturbed by onlookers. Some hotels and ryokan have private onsen facilities, such as a small rotenburo, an enclosed outdoors hot spring, that can be rented on an hourly basis by small groups, such as a family.
For people from countries with no tradition of taking the waters, being surrounded by naked members of one’s sex would be an uncommon experience. Even for Japanese, anecdotal evidence indicates surprises can be in store from time to time. In one instance, upon entering the dining area for breakfast, a young woman was greeted by an attractive, well groomed 40-ish woman. Initially, the younger woman had no idea who the friendly person was, unable to recall having ever met her. During breakfast it suddenly struck her this was the woman with whom she’d been chatting poolside the night before, a quite different person in appearance without makeup, clothes and, most significantly, girdle and uplifting bra.
Natural hot springs can be found at all kinds of locations: in or by the sea, near rivers, on islands, in open, desolate areas near extinct, or relatively inactive volcanoes, sometimes in an unspoiled, open air setting. Many of the pools set up to take advantage of the natural water flows, including the hotels and guest houses built on top of them, are of an interesting design, whether traditional Japanese inn style, or modern.
The positioning of an individual pool or series of pools can also be fascinating. One example is inside a cave, with a tunnel entrance from the hotel above carved out of solid rock. The open side of the cave faces the sea, with waves lapping at the pool’s edge, slightly elevated to afford privacy to the naked souls in the pool. If through a case of bad timing anyone stood up in the pool, or sought refuge from the steaming water on the pool’s edge, they would find themselves in full view of everyone on board if a boat went past. Such would surely be a time of deft maneuvering of the oshibori. Winter television advertisements of snow-surrounded outdoors pools, shrouded in steam, are highly inviting, although the dash from change room to pool indeed needs to be quick.
An overnight stay at an onsen is the most popular form of vacation in Japan, offering not only the pleasures of the hot water, but usually a range of local culinary delights for dinner and breakfast. A common characteristic of a good hot spring venue is price: overnight stays are never cheap, especially Friday and Saturday night.
Whilst better deals can be found on weekdays and Sunday nights, these times are popular with groups of elderly citizens out for a good time, so bookings are advisable. An alternative to a night’s stay, and the accompanying room and two meals cost, is a visit only, day or night, with neither food nor accommodation involved. At less than ¥1000, this can be a very cheap and pleasurable way of indulging in an age-old Japanese pastime. On any visit to an onsen, it can be worthwhile taking a normal bath-size towel for drying purposes, as these aren’t always provided.
Only in recent decades has the use of a public bath (sento) for everyday cleaning largely disappeared, however such places continue to exist in all cities, offering a quick and inexpensive way of bathing and reliving Japanese life of the past. Naturally they act as local meeting places, where neighbours can discuss matters of the moment, including the comings and goings of recently arrived and departed residents. Acceptance by regular attendees at these local baths was essential for new arrivals to smoothly settle into the neighbourhood. Nowadays housewives with spare time and cash might pamper themselves with visits to a sento, perhaps complemented by a sauna and massage.