Soaking in a balmy onsen in Japan is the quintessential Japanese experience. With Japan being a hotbed of volcanic activity, there are over 25,000 naturally occurring hot springs that make onsen dipping a favourite weekend activity today, but these hot springs have been an integral part of Japanese culture right from the days the Samurai healed their wounds in the mineral-rich waters and relaxed in the onsen after battle.
It’s also a bonding experience, where bathing together forges platonic friendships. This concept of forming honest and open relationships after you have cast away your masks along with your clothes, is called hadaka no tsukiai. The onsen also lends a meditative quality to your cleansing, becoming a means of relieving the stress and pressures of life.
As with every other custom, rules of etiquette dictate a few dos and don’ts that need to be carefully followed. So leave your notions behind, unlearn your idea of bathing, and get ready to indulge in what could be an adventure in itself!
First, know that this is a community experience where everybody using the onsen will be asked not to wear any clothes. Sure, raise your eyebrows, but if you’re uncomfortable about revealing your body in public, you should probably enjoy one privately. However, if this isn’t a deal breaker for you, then you can go on to a surreal experience in the warm, healing waters. But there’s this—no one cares how you look. So get over it, and indulge!
Begin by taking off your shoes and leaving them in a dedicated place. So remember, no clomping in your boots on the tatami mats or even heading up to the water’s edge. Go on to the changing rooms—red for women, and blue for men, and don’t get those colours mixed up, because embarrassment apart, this could get you arrested! ‘Changing rooms’ might be a slight misnomer, considering you won’t be changing into anything, simply undressing. The only thing you can carry with you into the onsen in Japan is a small washcloth.
Here’s the thing about soaking in an onsen. You have to be completely clean before you enter its waters. So claim a stool in front of a tap or bucket of water, and wash yourself from head to toe, then clean the area and only then proceed to the awaiting onsen. There will be soap and shampoo provided, but you could bring yours too.
Also, pay attention to your hair. Since hair’s not allowed to touch the onsen water, you’ll have to pin it up.
Now for the best part—the onsen! Step into the water gently. Don’t run into it, dive into it or swim, once you’re in it. And since the washcloth you’re carrying shouldn’t touch the water, leave it on the side of the bath, or balance it on your head like a pro! Just make sure you don’t slop your washcloth in the water or worse, wring it out into it. That’s a complete no-no. Also, no tattoos, no taking pictures, no boisterous behaviour or talking loudly, and certainly no alcohol.
Now that you’re acquainted with rules of onsen etiquette, go on, pick one that captures your interest, and make that dip memorable!
If you are planning a trip to visit the onsen in Japan, do not hesitate to contact your luxury travel designer Mr Isao Numano