When I first moved to Japan, I did not know anyone. I feared I would not be able to make friends, especially at my age. Thankfully, I was very wrong with my misconception. Two weeks into my new life in Osaka, I heard about one of my housemate (whom became one of my closest friends in Osaka)'s onsen (Japanese hot spring) visit and experience at one of the local baths near our dormitory.
Being a clueless foreigner towards Japanese culture (something I was not especially proud of) at that time, I was very intrigued with this "onsen culture" here in Japan. I had to try it- of course, not on my own! I could already imagine how embarrassing it would be for a non-Japanese speaking foreigner like myself, visiting a local bath with not a single clue on how onsens worked.
Henceforth, I set out on my very first onsen visit- a night truly to remember. Needless to say, it was not the last.
Before we dive right in, here are a few things to take note when visiting a local bath house in Japan:
- Bring along your own towels as towels are a separate charge along with entrance fee.
- Some onsens provide shampoo and toiletries but there are also the smaller bath houses that do not.
- Showers are provided at the local bath house and are also optional.
- As mentioned, an entrance fee is usually charged prior to entry.
- Onsens are usually gender segregated, however, there are quite a number of mixed onsens in Japan such as the Nyuto Onsen Village in Akita prefecture, Japan.
- Carry along a respectful attitude when visiting a local bath house.
There is no absolute right way of enjoying a Japanese hot spring bath at a public bath house.
First step after registering and entering a bath house is - placing your items and belongings in an assigned locker. Handphones are not allowed once in the changing rooms. Always take a shower prior to entering the hot springs. Those with long hair are to tie up their hair prior to entering the local baths.
For first timers, I recommend testing the temperature of the hot springs prior to diving right into them. There are pails around the hot spring baths- in which you will take to draw out water from the baths to test your level of tolerance towards to heat from the hot spring water. Then, slowly immerse your feet in, bit by bit, soaking half of your body into the water before completely immersing your body into the onsen.
In Japan, there is an unspoken rule when visiting a local bath house. Respect is key, no one stares at one another that could create intimidation and invasion of privacy. As it is a shared bath with other strangers of the same gender, respect is crucial in times of such.
When I first heard of the onsen culture in Japan, I did not think of how shy and embarrassing it would be as I knew Japanese are incredibly respectful to one another. The same holds true for "If you show respect to me, I will return the favour in kind".
I could still remember it well: It was a chilly night in September when the three of us set foot towards the public bath house which was approximately 25 minute walk away from our dormitory. I remembered the walk like it was just yesterday. Those fun and crazy moments during these long walks. It made the walk feel so much more shorter and memorable.
I remembered our first visit and how intrigued we were with the layout of the bath house. The outdoor onsen was our first choice (d-uh!). It was a chilly night but the outdoor onsen made the night so much more memorable. The outdoor onsen was especially special to me.
It was a tiring week as I tried to settle into a completely different environment. Visiting the onsen was a great choice as I was able to soak away all of my worries. My joints also loosened up easily that night. I was completely relaxed after spending an hour and a half at the bath house. It was great to share this experience with friends. Soaking in the milky water whilst staring blankly into the stars, just simply wondering how life was so sweet at that moment.
No judgements, no glares, no expectations, nothing. Just plain blissfulness.
At that moment, nothing mattered. Everything's going to be alright.
I could still remember my last onsen in Osaka with my friends. I still hold back tears as I recall that night. I sat alone in the outdoor onsen and wondered how beautiful the sky was, how amazing the sight of trees covering the outdoor hot spring pool was. I knew I would miss these onsen nights so very much, and our lives would be so different from then on, when will we be able to gather together again and visit this onsen one more time as friends?
I knew these onsen nights have been such a blessing. Whenever we had tension built up in us, these onsen nights would clear our minds and thoughts as we laugh and cast our worries away.
As I had to say goodbye to those nights, I wished I had more time with my friends at the onsen parlour. I still contemplate on those moments. As my joints grow sore and are aching their days away, I wish I could take a pit stop at a local bath house and just simply soak up my worries and responsibilities away. A place where I could stare at the clear night sky, remembering those wonderful onsen nights back in Osaka- reaching my palm in the sky trying to grasp onto the blinking star.
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