There is one custom that should not be missed from your agenda while you’re in Japan and that is to experience an Onsen; a traditional spa where you leave your modesty at the door to broil your naked self in the ‘Ow! Ow! Ow! It’s-so-hot-it-hurts-water’ for a long, indulgent soak.
It has been practised for thousands of years… The discovery of some of these magical hot springs were stumbled upon by ancient hunters, and in time became popular when Buddhism arrived in 552 AD. It was believed that by immersing one’s body in to the ‘divine’ bubbling waters, the bather would be purified of all sins.
Spirituality aside, the health benefits of bathing in an Onsen stemmed from 1709 when a doctor (Goto Konzan) discovered the medical effectiveness of curing chronic diseases such as rheumatism and hypertension, as well as treatment for external injuries, post-operative recovery and rehabilitation.
My research of Onsens didn’t stretch very far prior to visiting Japan. The mad deadline at work rendered my Lonely Planet book untouched and therefore useless. Thus my western ignorance assumed that an Onsen was the Japanese word for a jacuzzi; a big tub of bubbly happiness…
My studio apartment in Singapore lacked the luxury of a bath so the thought of soaking in a tub while watching the sunset over Mount Fuji was an added bonus.
‘You realise you have to be naked!’ my sister prompted as she watched me put on my swimmers.
I laughed dismissively at her statement. Come on, surely not! The thought of lying completely stark naked in a tub full of perfect strangers seemed like a shocking idea! The image of seeing saggy tits and women’s bits made me want to retch… and no-one needed to see me in the buff either.
I didn’t want to relinquish another Onsen experience however. Having experienced our own private Onsen (in our bathers) on Day One at the Mount Fuji View Hotel in Fuji-San, I was hooked. I already imagined these magical minerals renewing the thousands of ageing cells in my 41 year old body. I was living my own real life ‘Cocoon’ movie.
‘No-one is going to see you ever again!’ my sister reminded me.
This was true. And even if they did, they wouldn’t recognise me in my ‘Yeti’ winter attire. It was Boxing Day in Mount Fuji and ‘someone’ had turned down the temperature.
This was more nerve wracking than travelling Vietnam on my own tot!
I wandered in and out of the lift and back in to our room on several occasions until I cursed myself for being a chicken. Besides, it was gone 10pm… hopefully I would have the bath to myself.
Once I was sure I had entered the ‘Female Only’ spa, there were clear instructions printed in large text at the dressing area – which included words to the effect of ‘Get rid of your inhibitions and prepare to bare ALL!’
Well, what the heck… What happens in Japan, stays in Japan.
I stripped off, placed my Yukata robe (cotton kimono) and swimsuit in to a basket on a shelf, and covered my modesty with my incy-wincy wash cloth before racing towards the glass door of the wet area.
Unfortunately I was not alone. A stark naked woman was cleansing herself on a
low plastic stool; she was so absorbed in scrubbing herself that she didn’t even glance up as I scarpered to the stall furthest away from her. To make matters worse, two elevations were clad in mirror so you had the extra embarrassment of seeing yourself nude on your squats.
The area was essentially a big, open shower room with floor to ceiling white tiles, brightly lit to aid you in to washing every nook and cranny thoroughly. Each shower hose was fixed at low level next to a mirror, a low plastic stool placed in front to demarcate each individual washing zone. In one corner was a large 5m x 5m steaming hot pool and on the other was a glass door which led to the large landscaped hot spring outside.
Two more women entered the space and sat two stools away from me. They chatted away to each other like they were on a mid morning coffee meet-up, hosing themselves down at the space between their legs the whole time.
Unfamiliar with the rituals, I half watched them out of the corner of my eye and half looked away fearing I might look like a pervert.
Was I washing myself thoroughly enough? Did I have to shampoo my hair too? Should I tie my hair up? Had I rinsed off enough? And what was the purpose of the plastic bowl? Grrrr! So many etiquettes! I felt like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady… Ooh Professor Higgins!
My fingertips were getting wrinkly. It was time to brave it…
The indoor pool was already occupied by the first lady and not quite ready to share my nakedness, I placed the small towel over my parts and ventured to the unoccupied pool outside.
As soon as I pushed the door open, the gush of icy cold air plunged me in to momentary shock.
Holy ____ ! The thermometer confirmed it was -10 degrees celsius outside. I almost dived head first in to the steaming hot pool that was looking so welcoming right now…
1. to hide my bits and
2. to avoid freezing my naked arse off!
But realising I was under the watchful eye of my female counterparts, I did as instructed and glided in to the pool as slowly and demurely as I possibly could.
The experience was unforgettable. Here I was at Mount Fuji, a destination I’ve always dreamed of visiting, lying in a natural spring under a never ending spread of twinkling stars. My modesty was no longer an issue. I was an Onsen addict and bathed to my hearts (naked) content every day during my 3 day stay at Fuji-San.
Are you planning to use an Onsen for the first time? Read my tips below to know how –
- The majority of public Onsen do not allow you to enter if you have a tattoo, or a visible piercing. If your tattoo isn’t too big, cover it up with a plaster… Remove any piercings.
- This may seem obvious but the water temperature is generally plus 39 degrees celsius so it’s not advisable if you’re pregnant.
- You should bring a large towel with you for drying yourself with afterwards as well as a small cloth to wash yourself with. The latter also helps to cover your bits and bobs!
- Public onsen have a separate male and female sections. Make sure you enter the correct section!
- Remove your shoes or slippers before entering the spa.
- Strip off in the dressing area and leave your things in the locker (if available) or basket.
- Most Onsen require you to get in to your birthday suit. If you’re modest, just remember that no-one is going to be looking at your bits. In fact you’ll probably get stared at unfavourably if you enter the bath in your bathers.
- The shower area will have a low stool, small bowl and detachable shower. Shampoo, conditioner and body soap is usually provided.
- Washing yourself is a necessary and critical step that should not be missed. The thing to remember is that the bath is not to cleanse yourself in. Think of it this way… Would you want to get in to dirty, used bath water? No. Wash thoroughly, shampoo your hair if you’re letting it loose and rinse off well.
- Once you’re clean you’re ready to use the pool. There are usually indoor and outdoor pools but from what I gathered the etiquette is the same. Don’t splash, jump or dive like it is a pool! An Onsen is for relaxation, not for play!
- Once you’ve used your wash cloth to cleanse yourself, don’t let it enter the bath. It is considered unhygienic and deemed to ‘contaminate’ the water. The custom is to place this on your head instead.
- In order to warm your body to the core, it is more effective to enter the bath three times with breaks in between rather than bathing once for a long period of time. In general, bathing periods of 5 minutes, 8 minutes and 3 minutes are recommended.
- Once you’ve been sufficiently broiled, rinse yourself off at the showers and pat yourself down with your small wash cloth. You don’t have to be completely dry but just don’t be dripping wet when you head back to the dressing area.
- The dressing area is usually very well equipped with hair-dryers, combs, lotions and cotton wool pads etc. so there is no need to bring these with you.
- Put on your clean clothes or Yukata, take your belongings, remember your shoes and that’s it! You’re on your way to regenerating!