In Takayama, Japan, I got naked with dozens of strangers and rather liked it. Walking around naked in front of 50 or 60 other ladies took a little bit of getting used to, but I bared my butt with no buts about it.
I’m pretty much a nudist at heart. I really enjoy being naked, although I am definitely not an exhibitionist. I’m just a girl from Michigan who grew up going to overnight summer camp and who learned early on not to be ashamed changing in front of others. And while walking around naked in front of a ton of strangers took a bit of getting used to, it was manageable. Andy went to the men’s side (the two sides are completely separate) and enjoyed his first onsen experience, too.
In Japan, the culture of communal bathing is huge. Many homes don’t have the space for bathtubs, so a big part of Japanese culture is to go to a local communal bath for a dip. People don’t consider this strange at all. It’s something parents do with kids and it’s something Japanese people do with same-sex friends as a way to relax.
Onsens are traditional spring-fed baths in many Japanese locations. Japan has over 2,300 hot springs, each with its own healing properties. Many onsens are located in rural river towns, often high in the mountains and fed by springs or fresh water diverted from rivers and streams, but some are in cities, as well. Some onsens are fancy, others simple, and from what I’ve experienced and read about, the facilities are immaculate, clean and not one iota scuzzy or in disrepair.
We’re going to be visiting several onsens while in Japan because I love me a good bath. In fact, I can’t wait to visit this kitschy place in Osaka called spa world. Take a look at the English translations. It’s the Raging Waters/Disneyland of the spa/bath experience, and I can’t wait to go — though it’s not at all the norm, nor not at all what a true onsen experience is all about.
At our hostel in Takayama, a fellow guest told us about a great onsen a 10-15-minute walk away, so we went to check it out. It was located on the bottom floor of a very fancy hotel called the Green Hotel. It was fun to see so many hotel guests (foreign and Japanese) walking around the hotel in traditional Japanese robes. Several guests were dining in them, and seeing the Western guests and Japanese guests mix in this way was cool. Anyway, at the hotel, for a grand total of $10 per person, non-guests could use their public onsen, and because the weather had been so rainy and cold, we decide to partake.
So how does this communal bathing thing work? Thanks to YouTube, I had an idea. There are tons of videos designed to help foreigners learn proper onsen etiquitte. For example, never take your towel into the onsen with you. Big no-no. And do not go into the onsen without throughly scrubbing one’s self. No jumping into onsen, either. OK, I get it. Thanks, YouTube.
In addition, the Japanese have created helpful posters for dumbfounded tourists.
More onsen deets …
Step 1: Undress at the lockers, then find the area of the personal cleansing stations. Look for the small wooden buckets and the wooden benches.
Step 2: Nestle your butt onto one of the wooden benches and fill up a small wooden bucket. Toss the warm water over your head to get wet. Do this as many times as you want. I’d safely say I used 15 buckets to get wet because it felt so damn good.
Step 3: Soap up. Wash yourself like you have never washed yourself before using the provided bath products, which include soaps and shampoos. Now, let me just say a word about Japanese bath products. They freakin’ rock! Every hotel we have stayed at provides high-quality shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Really high quality. It’s like nothing I’ve experienced at American hotels or European hotels.
(Quick aside: The hotel where we are staying now (in Kanazawa) provides huge bottles of shampoo, body wash and conditioner in the shower AND not one but two sets of small travel sizes to take with you. And they provide free hair brushes, sewing kits, razors, toothbrushes, Q-tips, bubble bath and two sets of slippers, one for the hotel and another set to take with you if you want to.)
But I digress. My main point was that this particular onsen had great products to use for cleaning your body from head to toe. I watched a lot of Japanese women happily scrubbing away with no embarrassment whatsoever, so I did too.
Step 4: Head for the communal baths. This particular onsen had a large indoor communal tub divided into two sides, one with bubbles and one without, each set for about 101 degrees and each easily fitting 25 people. They also had a beautiful outdoor pool carved into a rock garden and surrounded by trees, vegetation and stone artwork; the pool was irregularly shaped to create little alcoves of privacy, and there was also a small waterfall (of course). This large pool was also hot, but not as hot as the nearby “hot tub” — sort of the standard Marin-county variety, made of wood and shaped like a gigantic wine barrel, again surrounded by the rock garden, the waterfall, the trees, etc. Some onsens have indoor tubs only, but many have outdoor tubs, too. Time to submerge, relax, try not to get too hot and enjoy. If you do get too hot, there is a standard shower nearby for a quick, cooling rinse-off.
Step 5: After you’ve had enough of the baths, sit back down on the wooden stool and rinse off. Each station also had a hand-held shower nozzle to help with the job.
Step 6: Walk back to the locker room area and grab your towel and/or robe, and go to fancy “get-ready area.” Use the hairdryer, facial emulsifier, various lotions and sprays, Q-tips, sterilized hairbrushes and other nifty stuff they provide. Remember, this was all for just $10!
Step 6: Go to back to your hotel and fall into a relaxing sleep. (Although in our case we happened upon an amazing, Oakland/Portland-style coffee shop on the way back and settled onto to the couch for a siphon-coffee nightcap.)
In our upcoming travels — we still have about 20 more days in Japan! — we’re going to visit three different but very traditional Japanese inns, which are known as ryokans. I’ll blog about them, too. All of them have onsens on-site, with both private and public tub areas. I can’t wait.