As a foreigner in Japan, one thing you will constantly be asked by Japanese people is if you’ve ever been to an onsen. An onsen, for those who don’t now, is a kind of mixture between a spa and a Turkish bath. Unfortunately, if you don’t speak any Japanese, it is a difficult place to just show up and hope you can figure it out like you may be able to do at a bar or a temple. Lucky for me, I have spent enough time at a bar located in my apartment building, where my landlord is the bartender, to befriend him.
Because he is an onsen enthusiast and I had never been, he offered to bring me to the onsen to show me what all the hype was about. Aware that going to a place filled with naked people with my landlord who I barely knew would be awkward and uncomfortable, I still agreed, unable to pass up on an interesting opportunity to engage in something traditionally Japanese.
Onsen’s (in English: ‘hot springs’) have existed for thousands of years in Japan, owing largely to the massive seismic activity present in Japan’s earth. In the days of European exploration, when Europeans believed bathing routinely was dangerous and unhealthy, the Japanese bathed daily in the water of hot springs. In present day, onsens have changed somewhat, now mostly having separate areas for men and women and often incorporating healing chemicals into some of the baths.
On the day I was meant to go, my friend (and landlord) regrettably informed me that he could not make it, but that two of his friends (both of whom I’d never met) would pick me up and take me. I briefly considered backing out, but instead decided not to squander the opportunity just because of a little awkwardness.
The onsen I went to was in Toki, Gifu Prefecture. When we drove up, I was shocked at the size of the place, having expected it to be a small, intimate experience. It was anything but. The parking lot was packed with hundreds of cars and the inside was equally crowded with people. After removing our shoes and entering, we went to the second floor, entered the area for males, and removed our clothes, placing them in lockers.
Next, we entered the area for bathing, encountering a parade of nudity. In a lifetime of playing sports and being in locker rooms, I’ve never encountered that many naked men at once. It is customary to bathe oneself before entering the water in an onsen for hygienic purposes. The bathing area was, essentially, dozens of open cubbies with handheld shower heads, as well as soap, shampoo, and other cleaning materials I am unsure of because I can’t read Japanese. Up to this point, I had little idea what I was doing, as the people I had come with could not speak English and we were relying on hand gestures to communicate.
This particular onsen contained an indoor and outdoor area, complete with several different tubs of varying sizes, temperatures, and ingredients. Inside, there were tubs with water jets, much like a larger version of a hot tub you might see in America. Then there were a couple other tubs without water jets, and a sauna where a large group of men were watching ping pong on television.
Outside there were several more tubs of varying temperatures and ingredients. Overall, the tubs ranged from 38°-43°C (or 100.4°-109.4°F) (or 311.5-316.5 Kelvin). Personally, I much preferred the outdoor area. The juxtaposition between the cool air on the head and the hot water of the rest of your body was extremely pleasant. Most of the tubs have chemicals in them, but there was at least one tub that contained water straight from the hot spring, and while I couldn’t tell the difference, I still found it pretty cool.
My favorite aspect of the onsen was found right near the edge of the outdoor area. There they had what looked like giant teacups filled with hot water. Though you had to contort yourself a bit to fit your body inside, with your legs spilling out of the top of the other end, you could lie down in the teacup and, if you looked up, see the stars, and if you looked out, you could see the lights from the city below. Or, if you choose, you can pretend to be the Mad Hatter from ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
The mixture of stars, hot water, and cool air made me immediately understand why Japanese people were so passionate about onsens. The feeling of lying there, unencumbered by anything in the world, was miraculous. I finally understand those Viagra commercials where the couple sits in adjacent bathtubs outside.
I must have stayed there for an hour and, to be honest, I may have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, I was poked on the shoulder and told it was time to go, cutting short what may have been the most relaxing snooze of my life.
On the way out, I felt rejuvenated and relaxed. As I was putting my clothes back on, I saw two men waiting in line for the water fountain. Have you ever been drinking from a water fountain and the person behind you is standing just a little too close for comfort? Well, imagine that, but both people are naked. With that, I was brought back to reality.
I grabbed a pamphlet on my way out, noticing there were many other things available at this onsen, such as massages, hot rocks, and even a restaurant. Unfortunately, it was time to go, so these attractions would have to wait until a later visit.
As a whole, I would give my first onsen experience a great review. Despite what I had thought, it was a much less uncomfortable experience than I had thought it would be. The water feels great and you will leave relaxed as ever. So if you have the opportunity (there are over 2300 recognized hot springs in Japan), and you are comfortable will a little (ok, a lot) of nudity, I would highly recommend visiting an onsen for a traditional Japanese experience.