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Japanese Onsens: Strip Down and Hop In!

Updated on June 25, 2020
Outdoor Onsen
Outdoor Onsen

When thinking about Japan, there are many things that come to mind. Sushi, ramen, anime, technology, and giant robots are some of the top few. These are the things we know and constantly see from different media outlets. And while these things are all amazing and are definitely important to Japan and Japanese culture there is one part of Japan that gets widely overlooked: onsens.

The History of Japanese Onsens

Onsens are famous Japanese hot springs that can both be enjoyed both indoors and outdoors regardless of the season. As Japan is volcanically active, there are many hot springs throughout the country that. These onsens are a very important part of Japanese history and culture.

For more than a thousand years, onsens have been used as a way to relax and cleanse oneself in a communal bathing spot. People would often gather and bathe in these natural springs with friends, families, and even strangers. And while most of these onsens were originally located outside, many bathing houses were created around these springs and you can now find many onsens both indoors and outdoors.

Bathing with your Family

In the past it was very common for families to bathe together in these springs, and for that reason the majority of onsens were mixed gender bathing. Today, however, you will have a harder time finding mixed bathing onsens, as most onsens today are gender separated; meaning women will go into one bathing area and men will go into a separate area. For families who still wish to bathe together or for people who wish to bathe alone there are options of private onsens that you can reserve.

*It should also be noted that children under the age of 12 are allowed to go into either bathing rooms as long as they are accompanied by an adult of that gender; so it would not be surprising to see a young girl bathing with her father or a young boy bathing with his mother. Bathing with one’s family is still an important tradition in Japanese households, even if there aren’t as many traditional mixed onsens left.

Indoor Onsen
Indoor Onsen

Healing Properties of Onsens

It is also commonly believed that these hot springs have many different healing properties within them, depending on the different types of minerals found in the water. Below are just a few of the different healing properties within the waters and the effects that they can have on your body:

● Sulphur springs can help ease joint pain and dermatitis

● Salt springs can ease lower back pain and increase blood circulation as well as help heal ulcers

● Aluminum springs can tighten your skin and heal hives

● Green tea infused onsens relax your body and relieve stress*

● Wine infused onsens are a rejuvenating treatment for the body*

*While it is believed by many people that coffee, green tea, and wine have a special healing or rejuvenating property, there isn't enough scientific research to back such claims. Should you still wish to enjoy one of these unique baths, there are offering many Onsens available that offer such bathing experiences.

Rules of Onsens!

  1. More often than not, tattoos are not allowed in an onsen.*
  2. Unless otherwise stated: Swim suits, underwear, or clothes are not allowed in the water.
  3. Take a shower and clean yourself before entering the water.
  4. Do not stand while taking a shower, this is deemed rude and inconsiderate to those around you as you may accidentally splash them
  5. Rinse off all soap and shampoo before going into the bath.
  6. No swimming or jumping in the onsen.
  7. You will be provided a small towel, this is not to cover yourself but to place on your head.
  8. Do not let your hair touch the water. If your have long hair is long, be sure to tie it up.
  9. Be quiet and courteous to the other people using the bath

*While it is true that many onsens today still do not allow people with tattoos; there are more bathing houses that are abolishing this rule so as to prepare for the influx of foreigners during the olympics. If you do have a tattoo, please research the area you are going to, so as to make sure that you will be allowed.

The Cultural Divide

While these hot springs are loved by all the locals, there are very few foreigners that take the plunge to experience the hot waters of Japan: the reason being? Nearly all onsens forbid any type of clothing when entering the water. This fact is the number one reason why western foreigners are unwilling to experience a Japanese onsen.

From young ages, the Japanese people have bathed with their families and enjoyed public onsens together; and while body consciousness is still prevalent in Japanese culture, the human body has not been as sexualized in this culture as it is in the west. On the contrary, in the west we are taught from a young age to hide our bodies from others; that our bodies were treasures we should not share with anyone. Even as adults we still feel anxious and scared when sharing our bodies with others.

Being completely naked should not be as scary as we make it out to be. Being naked should not be as sexual as we make it out to be either; however we are so afraid of others seeing us naked and judging us we miss out on opportunities and experiences that could possibly change our ways of living. While our way of life would not change overnight from stripping down naked and taking a bath with complete strangers, I can assure you it will begin to slowly change; until you become more comfortable with not only nudity, but with yourself as well.

These baths not only heal your body and its ailments, but they also have the ability to heal the way you feel about yourself. Every time you hop into an onsen, you will feel a little less self-conscious then the first time; and as you continue to hop in you will become more and more comfortable in your own skin.

Deciding to Hop in!

After you decide to hop in, there are still a few things that you need to keep in mind. When deciding which onsen you should go to, please keep in mind the differences of not only outdoor and indoor baths, but the minerals within the water. If you are still nervous and hesitant, it may be better to experience a smaller, gender separated onsen before jumping head first into a large mixed onsen.

However, regardless of the type of onsen you choose, please remember to follow the rules of the onsen and most importantly: Relax and enjoy.

© 2020 Kelly Lake


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