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Japanese Onsen: A Cultural Experience

Along with visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, spending time at a Japanese onsen (public bath, hot spring) was a popular recommendation when I asked for advice on Twitter and Facebook before my trip.

I quickly discovered through this feedback that the Japanese traditionally do not wear bathing suits when using the onsens.  

Finding this out in advance gave me time to mentally prepare for my first public bathing experience.

Onsen in Kyoto
The entrance to a popular onsen in Kyoto.

While Couchsurfing in Tokyo, I met an Australian who had spent time snowboarding in the northern mountains, and he talked fondly of his visits to the onsens, painting a picture of hanging out in the hot springs as snow gently fell from the sky, and having snowball fights.  

He said you get used to the nudity fast. I chose to believe him.

Onsens are everywhere. However, Tokyo seemed too urban an environment for the experience, and while Nagano had a better feel, my day trip to see the snow monkeys there was so rushed I decided to hold off.

As in the United States, early February is still the middle of winter in Japan, and the temps in Kyoto during my stay were hovering around the freezing mark, if not colder at night.  

I asked for an onsen recommendation at my hostel and was given a map (as usual, because whenever you ask for directions in Japan, you're also given a map).

I picked my second afternoon in Kyoto to take a break from sightseeing and delve into the Japanese tradition of public bathing.

After an exhausting journey across the city, I arrived at the doorstep of the suggested Japanese onsen, which I was told was a popular one.  

Because if I'm going to have this cultural experience, I want it to at least be at a happening place.

Inside the reception area, I removed my shoes and put on the provided sandals.

The woman behind the counter looked at me as if I knew what I was doing, but I didn't, and she eventually guided me toward the entrance of the men's locker room.

I was previously informed by my Couchsurfing hosts that onsens in urban areas are usually segregated by gender.

At the same time, in the countryside, both men and women are more likely to share the same baths.

The locker room featured plenty of lockers (duh!) and a camera crew, to my surprise.  

I felt a bit concerned as I scoped out the two female crew members and the massive video camera.

It appeared they were breaking down the equipment after getting whatever footage they needed.

The women seemed to avoid eye contact with me purposefully, so I decided they were doing their best not to pay attention.

I removed my three layers of shirts, hoody, jeans, socks, and boxers.

I swiftly walked into a small hallway connecting the locker room with the bathing area. There were a few sinks, but I couldn't figure out what you'd do in there.  

I passed through the second door and entered the bathing room.

It was 2 or 3 pm on a weekday afternoon, and there were at least a half dozen men in there, sans clothes. I was too, but I tried not to think about that.

Since I bought a small bar of soap from the receptionist, I sat on one of the little (and I mean it was no more than 12 inches tall) plastic stools positioned under shower heads that were no more than four feet high.

If I felt awkward standing, I felt ridiculous sitting on that little stool, trying to wash under a tiny shower. Nobody warned me about this part.

As I washed, I tried to scope out what the other guys were doing to figure out the protocol.

Some of the Japanese men seemed to spend ten minutes under the shower.

I cut that step short and then moved to one of the pools of water, which was too hot.  

I then tried a larger pool, which was still hot but more bearable; a few older men were hanging out.

Slipping into the water, I read a sign posted on the wall that indicated the water was electrically heated (i.e., not supplied from a natural thermal spring).

It turns out I'm going through the whole routine without the payoff provided by naturally-occurring spring water. Was this all for nothing?

I tried to make the best of the jacuzzi-like environment, but I found it hard to relax.  

After a few minutes in the pool, I got out and showered awkwardly again before making my exit back to the locker room.

The camera crew was long gone, and I quickly dressed as it was cold once you stepped outside the steamy room.

Walking outside, I felt surprisingly refreshed. But I surely would've felt the same way had I taken a private shower at my hostel.

I couldn't help but feel my first Japanese onsen experience was lacking, and with so little time in Japan, I'd be leaving the country before I'd have a second chance.

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Wednesday 13th of July 2016

It baffles me how you went on this "exhaustive journey" just to embarrass yourself, then write a blog entry about it to embarrass yourself some more. Seriously though: It's really hard for me to imagine why you care so much about other people's genitals, outside your sexuality of course. I'm sure no one there was very much interested in yours! As a grown up man you should perhaps consider learning to get conformable with the human body, least of all your own. And if you have children, perhaps you don't even want to start teaching them this kind of fake modesty, because it's really just pathetic and hypocritical. Then, in due time, perhaps they can tell you what it was really like in an onsen - if you can stand to listen, that is. Your children naked, God forbid. BTW, it's the Americans who introduced gender-segregated bathing in Japan's onsens......

Perhaps I'm a little bit too hostile here, and if so, I'm sorry for that. It's just that reading this piece really made me quite angry, because I think that all the insecurities and obsessions people have with their bodies nowadays are poison for our societies. And that's why, in my opinion, this false sense of modesty is really not helpful and, in fact, potentially harmful.

Darryl McGarry

Thursday 14th of July 2016

Each to his own. From what I understand from what you wrote, you have not been to am onsen. Have you been to Japan? It is part of the cultural experience. You have to thow off all your prejudices and Western thinking, at least to trial it, and then in time you start to understand what is special about the experience. Surely you have seen episodes of the Samurai with Shinatro, the ronin? Do you understand those shows? Maybe, Phantom Agents?

Amanda in Hawaii

Sunday 25th of November 2012

You put a folded towel on the little plastic stool for extra sanitation. I sit on my folded towel when I'm doing my legs in the hot tubs too.


Monday 26th of November 2012

One of the romances of Japan that I cannot let go of is with the onsen. The onsen experience with that hot mineral water (of various flavours and colours) is great, enlivening, a geat dsitraction from the nonsense of everyday life in Japan. If you can find a 'co-ed' onsen you are even luckier. More often than not, however, the women who venture to such places are well past retirement.

Amanda in Hawaii

Sunday 25th of November 2012

Part of the experience is just being able to tune out from the world for a few hours. I LOVE the korean spas here in Honolulu and have dipped in a lot of clothing optional places in the USA too. I would love to try an onsen in Japan.

I think you might have missed part of the process. That initial shower is to get clean but also mentally to remove yourself from the outside and allow you to "soak up" the experience. Then you just turn your brain off for the next 2-3 hours.


Friday 24th of August 2012

I miss the onsens. I think it is one of the key attributes of Japan that helps offset a lot of the nonsense the pervades the place. I do wish the onsens were co-ed though. But, I do understand the problems if that were the case.


Friday 24th of August 2012

I heard that the onsens in more rural areas of Japan are co-ed, it's just the ones in the cities that are split by gender.

Frankly, I felt a bit uncomfortable in front of naked men, let alone women too!


Thursday 12th of May 2011

I enjoyed the Japanese baths immensely, you just have to go a couple times to get the sense of it. For a different public bathing experience go to Turkey and visit a Turkish bath. Walk in, shower, then lie on a large, hot stone slab in the center of the room for 20 minutes (or more), sweating everything out. Then, a big Turkish guy comes in and scrubs / massages you with a luffa (a real one, not a plastic imitation), priding himself on how many layers of dead skin he is able to scrape off of you in the process. Then shower off again and you're done. Oh, and you have a little room with a bed to rest in if you want between trips to the hot bath. This in a predominantly Muslim country, because of tradition handed down and evolved over the centuries from the roman baths of the past.


Thursday 12th of May 2011

Good point, I would like to give the whole public bathing experience a fair shot. And when I get to Turkey, I do want to try it there. I remember watching Anthony Bourdain go through it on his show No Reservations. Looked fun/torturous.

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