Before You Soak
A trip to Japan would not be complete without a visit to a traditional Japanese onsen (hot spring). In old movies you may have seen people sinking down into tubs of steaming hot water with a satisfying “Ahhh...”.
Is the experience really all that? From firsthand experience I can say a resounding, “Yes!”
During the three years I spent in Japan I had the opportunity to visit several Japanese hot springs. It was an experience I would highly recommend to any person who visits Japan.
First, the heavy stuff....
What Do I Wear?
If you are faint of heart, you might want to sit down. When you go into the main entrance, you'll be able to wear whatever you want. When you go into the change room, you can wear whatever you want. When you go into the actual hot spring area, you'll only be able to wear the clothes you were born in. Yup, your birthday suit.
If being unclothed in front of strangers really freaks you out, let me tell you what got me through this: “I will probably never see these people again.” If you are just visiting Japan, then the likelihood you will see these people again is even lower!
So, is the experience of soaking in a real Japanese hot spring worth a few moments of feeling uncomfortable when you first walk out into the general area in your birthday suit? The only answer I will give you is, “Yes!”
Will I Stand Out (aka Will They Stare at Me)?
If, like me, you are not of East Asian descent (and/or you obviously don't look Japanese!), then you'll stand out. I won't sugarcoat this fact.
Once you walk out into the general area, expect everyone to turn and look at you. Just steel yourself for it. It may seem like the moment lasts for ten hours, but really it is only a few seconds. By the time you get to your third breath almost everyone will have looked away.
As you walk around, people will discreetly, or not, look at you. In my case, I went to a very popular hot spring on a national holiday. What I noticed was that most people were respectful and didn't stare at me outright.
However, there was this group of little boys who decided to sit directly in front of my friend and I and stare at me for almost ten minutes. I simply pulled my legs up in front of me to cover my chest, crossed and held my ankles to cover up my 'nether regions', and stared pointedly at my friend and ignored the little boys.
Now, this phenomenon might have simply been due to the fact that I have blond hair and blue eyes. (Once I caused a traffic jam in the local Costco store. A little boy stopped in front of my cart and proceeded to stand and stare at me for almost 15 minutes until his mom finally came and got him. The students I taught were often the same way in the first class.) So, the little boys in the hot spring may have been more fascinated by the colour of my eyes and hair than by the fact that I was a foreigner without clothes.
Just be aware that children do not have the same inhibitions as adults and you might find a small crowd of them gather to stare at you at some point. Usually the novelty will wear off pretty quickly and you can soak in peace.
Are the Hot Springs Segregated by Sex?
Some hot springs have women only and men only areas. However, there are also hot springs that have both sexes. For your own comfort level, I would suggest checking beforehand (ask your hotel to call or recommend a hot spring that suits your preferences).
Now that we have gotten past the really uncomfortable stuff, let's go into much lighter stuff.
Are the Hot Springs Real?
Some hot springs are built where natural geysers have pushed up through the earth's crust, and some aren't. I was lucky enough to have been to both. To my untrained eye, there wasn't much difference between them. Unless the Japanese friend I went with told me if the particular tub we were in was real or false, I couldn't tell the difference.
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What to Do Before You Get Into the Hot Springs
Other than take off your clothes and get through those first potentially uncomfortable moments of entering the general area, there is another very, very important thing you need to do before jumping in the tubs (and I mean that figuratively, no one jumps into the tub like it is a swimming pool.)
You need to take a shower.
But I just showered this morning! You might protest.
Doesn't matter. You need to lather up and rinse off there so everyone else knows that you showered too. It is a custom in Japan to shower before having a bath. The thinking goes something like this, “Why would you get into a bath dirty and then soak in the dirty water?” Do you remember the movie Mr. Baseball featuring Tom Selleck? Well, if you want to see what people's faces will look like if you get into the hot spring tub without showering first, you'll see it there.
You don't need to bring your own soap, even! Every hot spring I've gone too has big bottles of shampoo and soap (with convenient pump-style tops). If you are not sure which bottle is which, because the label will be in Japanese, catch the eye of the person next to you, pretend to wash your hair and then point to the bottles. After an amused smile, the person should point to the bottle you need and, if you are lucky, they will even tell you in English.
(Here's a little hint: If there's no one around and you need to figure this out, squirt some out and rub it on your arm. If it lathers, it's probably soap or shampoo. If it doesn't lather then, then it's probably conditioner. If you're not sure if it's soap or shampoo, well, does it really matter if you soap your body with shampoo or shampoo your hair with soap just once? I didn't think so.)
What Do I Do With the Little Towel?
When you are the front desk of the hot spring, they may give you a little towel, about the size of a facecloth. If not, you should get one at some point between leaving the front desk and entering the hot spring area.
You might be tempted to use this little cloth to cover up your 'privates' when you are walking from pool to pool. This little cloth has a few uses like that, but it has one main and very important function.
The most important function of the little cloth is to lay it on the edge of the tub (or anywhere else except in the water itself) that you are going to sit your bare bottom. It's a courtesy to everyone to lay down your little towel before you sit. You'll see everyone else doing it too.
Your little towel is also very useful to dip into the water and drip water onto your head if you get too hot.
Another use I found was to dip the towel into the water and plaster it onto my chest. Sometimes I got too hot to stay immersed in the water, so instead, I would squat to keep my lower half in the water and use the towel to keep my chest warm. At the outdoor hot springs (open ceiling concept, there were walls!) you can imagine how cold my upper half would get. Using the cloth as a heating pad worked wonders to counteract any chill.
Can I Wear My Eyeglasses?
It is very important that you do not take your eyeglasses into the hot springs. My friend explained it is because your eyeglasses can melt. I can't see very well without my glasses, but I didn't have any problem at all. People will see you squinting to see things and will help.
(I'm not sure about the safety of contact lenses. My guess is the same: don't wear them. Remember, your internal core temperature is going to heat up.)
Leave your glasses or contacts in safety in your locker.
The Cold Bath
If you are lucky, the hot spring you attend will have a bath that has cold water. This room may be closed off with a door, or just tucked away into a corner. In case you are not familiar with this, let me explain the joy of the cold bath.
Although you can get in it right away, I would recommend dunking yourself in the cold bath after you've had a good long soak in the hot springs or sat in the sauna. It might seem contradictory to go from the hot to the cold, but boy oh boy, it is so refreshing!
You don't need to spend a lot of time in the cold bath. Just wade in and immerse yourself right away. If you stand there hesitating then you'll start to feel the cold! The idea is to refresh yourself. Then jump out and go back to the hot springs.
My Japanese friend hemmed and hawed over getting in the cold bath at first. Once she did though, she loved it!
Japanese Hot Springs and Tattoos
Tattoos in Japan are directly linked to the yakuza, or Japanese gangsters. This means that although you may have never done anything more than get a speeding ticket in your life, you will not be allowed into most hot springs if you have one or more tattoos. However....
There are some hot springs that don't care if you have a tattoo. Some of these are frequented by the yakuza themselves (if you see anyone with tattoos covering their bodies, be very very polite!). Other hot springs cater to the foreigner crowd, such as Spa World in Osaka.
If you have small tattoos that you can cover with a band-aid, try that. Otherwise, there are a couple of techniques I used. I have a tattoo on the inside of my wrist. I put the elastic band for my locker key over it and had no problem keeping it covered. I also have a small tattoo on the outside of my calf. When I walked around, I held my little cloth down by my side to cover the tattoo. Perhaps my being a foreigner let me get away with this, or perhaps no one noticed the tattoo. Either way, these two strategies worked for me.
Where Can I Find Hot Springs in Japan?
As far as I know, hot springs are virtually everywhere in Japan-or accessible from virtually everywhere.
If you are in the Kobe area (near Osaka or Kyoto), then I recommend going to check out Arima onsen. There are hotels and several different hot spring places in this lovely little town.
Your travel agent might be able to get you information. Your hotel will most definitely be able to help you out, though, since they are locals themselves! If you are lucky, they'll offer to take you right there.
In the Final Soak
The Japanese onsen, or hot spring, is a cultural joy of Japan not to be missed. At whatever point you visit a hot spring, you'll find a relaxing experience that you'll miss sorely upon return to your own country.