A beginner’s guide to the Japanese onsen
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When coming to Japan, one of the things I look forward to the most is having a nice long soak in an Onsen; and with over 3000 to chose from, I can't go wrong. For Japanese people, going to the local Onsen is an age-old tradition. It's a place for the community to come together to purify & relieve their bodies of any ailments they may have. You will see friends & families at the Onsen, enjoying the purifying water together.
The water from the hot springs is highly regarded for its healing properties. The concentrated amount of minerals & salts in the water are said to cure anything from acne to digestive problems. Despite these positives, it is advised for people with any health concerns, heart conditions & high blood pressure to consult their doctor before going to an Onsen.
When lm looking for an onsen in my area I always look for the little ♨ symbol while walking & on google maps. On your searching you may come across the word "Sento" however, Onsen & Sento are not interchangeable. A sento is a public bath, heated by a hot water system. An Onsen is also a public bath, however, it is water exclusivley from a hot spring from the ground or a nearby volcano. A Sento may have Epsom salts added into the water, but that water has nothing on a real Onsen.
When entering an Onsen you will typically pay a fee, ranging from ¥450 - ¥900, depending on the facilities. Some Onsen's are pretty basic, with unlocked spaces for your shoes & belongings & the bare minimum toiletries. The more modern & upmarket Onsen's have secure lockers for your belonging, shampoo, conditioner, hair dryers, straighteners & weight scales. Some Onsen's even have saunas, massage facilities & in-house restaurants.
Each onsen has its own history, and the minerals, ph level & sulfates in the water are unique to each onsen. Whilst staying in Hakuba I went to two different Onsens, within about 2 km of each other. The first was a basic Onsen, which had murky iron-rich water, whilst the second was a more luxurious facility, with a unique ph balance of 11 that left my skin soft & supple. If you are in the Tokyo area you might be looking for an Onsen to unwind in after a long day of hitting the pavement. If you're not sure where to begin; taking a look at this well-rounded guide to the best onsens in Tokyo will take some of the pressure off finding one to suit your needs as you learn the ropes.
Now that you've found yourself at an Onsen, how do you approach the facility? Well, first you will be asked to take your shoes off. Like most public establishments in Japan, you will be given a pair of Wabaki while you stow your own shoes away in a locker.
After you pay your admission fee (sometimes its done at the end, as you will be given a token bracelet to purchase other items/food/services at the Onsen) you will move into the changing room.
BATHING BEFORE BATHING
Now it might have been a while since you've been in a public changing room, let alone a changing room full of fully nude adults but never fear. The changing rooms/ Onsens are segregated, so you don't need to worry about the opposite sex looking at you while & enjoy your Onsen experience. In saying that, no one is looking anyway. This experience is a deeply embedded part of Japanese culture, & people are more focused in their own minds & on whether they're going to get the perfect spot in the hot spring.
Wearing a swimming suit is not permitted unless you are at some kind of resort or mixed onsen (rare). Tattoos are also not permitted, however, if they are small you may be able to cover them with a bandage of some kind. As tattoos are becoming more mainstream, some Onsen's may be more lenient with patrons. In saying this, it is always a good idea to call ahead or ask at the front desk. If you are in a private onsen you have nothing to worry about.
After you have fully de-clothed you will then move to the shower area. This may seem a bit weird, as you are literally about to soak in the bath like water, but there is a method to the madness. Think about how many hundreds, nay thousands of bodies that may have graced those waters. Now, the water isn't recycled but you will be in the water with strangers; And I don't know about you, but I don't want their days worth of grime, floating atop the water around me.
So this is where you shower. Get nice & soapy, wash all of the day's stresses & dirt away. Now you don't have to wash your hair but you do need to keep it out of the Onsen water. So tie those locks up!
Moving from the showers to the onsen, make sure that all the soap is washed off your body & hair. You can use a small towel (purchasable at the front desk as well as full body towels if you forgot yours!) to cover your private parts if you feel uncomfortable maneuvering around, however, that towel cannot touch the water. As you sit in the water you may see some people with small towels on their heads. Follow suit with yours.
Now its time to relax. Slip into the water & zone out. You will notice your heart rate increasing as your circulation starts to improve. If you feel light-headed, simply sit on the edge out of the water while you cool off. Make sure you drink plenty of water before entering the onsen & especially the sauna!
If you sit on any of the benches/seats surrounding the baths or in the sauna it is common courtesy to wash the area before & after you sit down. There will be buckets/taps handy for you to do so & you can use the water from the spring.
COME BACK TO REALITY
YES! You did it! Now when you leave the onsen, its advised that you wash the water off you body, however, I like to keep it on as it keeps working its magic on my skin. I usually shower after I walk home.