Today Jeff and I ran the 5K that is part of the Sakuranbo Higashine Marathon Competition in 25° C (77° F) and 70% humidity, so we were pretty soaked through with sweat by the time we were done. We could have just gone home and showered off and been fine, but in Japan, we have a better option: onsen.
Things I’ll Miss #8: Onsen (Hot Springs)
Onsen (hot springs) and their man-made sentou (public baths) counterparts are easily found throughout Japan, and in Yamagata Prefecture there’s an onsen fed by natural springs in just about every town and city. Onsen are also hugely important to ryokan (traditional Japanese inns); the types and style of baths the inn offers features as prominently as the room type in the advertisements in travel publications. Check out any listing for an inn on Japanese travel websites like Jalan and you’ll see what I mean.
While I enjoy onsen the most during the colder months, they’re great for a nice long soak at any time of year. There’s just something extra you get with an onsen bath that you can’t replicate at home, even though they sell bath salts and powders to make your at-home bath feel and smell like onsen. Truth be told, I’ve only taken a bath in my apartment once in the last three years, mainly because the tub is too small to be that comfortable, but also because onsen have spoiled me to expect a degree of luxury that my apartment’s tiny white box can’t even come close to.
Japanese bath etiquette requires that you wash and rinse off before you get into the bath. The reason for this is the bath is communal, so you need to be clean before you enter so the bath water doesn’t get soiled. When you enter the bath area after derobing in the changing room, you should head to the row of faucets arranged around the periphery of the room to clean off. There will be stools and buckets, and many onsen provide shampoo and body soap.
You’ll see most Japanese people bring their own onsen toiletries though, and Jeff and I always prepare our bags with the following when we go to onsen:
- one large towel for drying off after the bath
- one small, long towel (I use this as a body scrub and then wring it out and wrap it around my hair to keep my hair out of the bathwater)
- conditioner (most onsen only offer shampoo)
- face wash
- change of clothes
If you happen to forget anything, though, most front desks offer basic toiletries for sale and small towels for rent.
Onsen are a great place to be social, so groups of friends or families often go together to relax and enjoy the water. Whenever we decide to go to an onsen for a dip, without fail we call up a few of our other friends to see if they want to come along too. I’ve had awesome conversations with friends, but also with strangers who are curious about the singular white girl in their midst. It’s a little weird at first, considering everyone’s stark nakedness, but in all honesty nudity is not paid much attention to in these bath houses, and any self-consciousness I had during my first foray into an onsen has since completely washed away.
The absolute best thing about onsen, in my opinion, is the rotenburo, or the outside baths. Not every onsen will have a rotenburo, but many of them do. I can stay in these for hours, especially if there’s a light drizzle of rain or even some snowfall to help keep me from overheating, since the waters tend to be quite hot. When we went to Kuroyu Onsen in Akita a few years ago, I stayed in that rotenburo for over two hours because the balance of the hot water and cool misty rain was that perfect.
Onsen are what I’m going to miss the most come my first winter away from Japan.What’s your favorite part about Japanese onsen? Want more? Check out “#7: The Ghibli Effect” here!