Hot spring… spa… bath house… I call it “onsen” because there is nothing like them in North America. Bathing is a big part of Japanese culture. Most bathe nightly. A big difference is that Japanese bathe for relaxation. In fact, they wash before bathing. I think they have it right; bathing is relaxing. Going to the onsen is the most relaxing time of my hectic life.
For gaijin, being nude in front of the same sex is embarrassing, especially for men. We fear that another guy will check out our family jewels. With this, I think gaijin miss an important and fantastic part of Japanese culture. It took me two years in living in Japan for a second time before I would even consider going to the onsen. After I tried it, I regret not going sooner. I quickly realized that people don’t look at me and most are covering up with their little towel.
My first time came when we went on a bus trip to Kyoto. We spent a night at a shrine. Their onsen closed at 12 midnight, so I decided to wait until 11:30 p.m. and go, hoping no one would be there. I was right, no one was there…except for six monks. When I saw them, I wanted to run but I was already there. I felt embarrassed but I enjoyed the bath.
They basically have two types of onsen, hotel onsens and public onsens. For me, I enjoy public onsens the most. Public onsens usually cost anywhere from 500-2,000 yen. They usually have a big common room or an izakaya style restaurant. They also have massage services or/and massage chairs. Most also have sleeping rooms where you can take a nap. The baths are separated male and female.
Most public onsens have several different styles of baths plus saunas. The following is a list of common styles at the onsens I go to.
Salt bath: Imported from a natural salt water hot spring. This is very good for the skin and you can float. Let me warn you that it stings especially if you have any cuts.
Electric bath: This has two sections for the level of electricity. It has electric pulses going through the water. It is excellent for stiff muscles. It does have a strange sensation. The high level side is too strong for me.
Jet bath: it’s very similar to a jacuzzi except they are for one. They are shallow and you lay rather than sit.
Rock bath: This one is in the picture shown. It is a hot bath outside and surrounded in rocks. Usually, the temperature is between 40-43 C and has two sections -- regular depth which comes up to my mid-section and a deep one that is around my mid chest (I’m 6′3″). The deep one is my favorite.
Pot bath: These are like a big tea cup without the handle. I find the water to be lukewarm. The onsens I go to have plain water, Chinese tea or English tea styles.
Shape-up bath: This is a standing bath with really strong jets. It has two rows and is meant for one person per row. The idea is you hold the rails and let the jets massage you. All the shaking is supposed to shape up your body.
Cold water bath: I think the temperature at this one is about 14-17 C. Usually used after you come out of the sauna to cool you off.
Doze hot bath: This is basically a stone bed with a head rest. It is slightly slanted with about a centimeter of hot water running down. You can take a nap here.
Gokurakuyu, which is the one I usually go to, has a specialty bath that changes often. For example, they’ve had wine bath, rubber ducky bath and many more.
My wife and I go to the onsen at least once a month and enjoy ourselves. We have dinner at the restaurant. We then hit the baths for 40 minutes. After that, we sit side by side on the massage chairs for 20 minutes. This is our date night and a night we extremely enjoy.
If you live here or are coming here for a vacation, you need to try the onsen experience. This is one part of Japanese culture that you can’t miss. You need to put your fears aside and just do it. You won’t regret it. By the way, if you have tattoos, most won’t allow you to enter.© Japan Today