Trying a Japanese Hot Spring (Onsen)
Many people know about famous hot springs in Japan - the active volcano, Mt. Fuji, and its volcanic activity has produced plenty of natural springs all over the country in valleys and mountains, as well as there being many man-made, indoor springs available to visit in the bigger cities. A common passtime for the Japanese people is to visit one of these springs for some detoxifying stress relief, either alone or socially with others. This article is about my experience with my homestay family visiting an outdoor public hot spring in winter, and what to expect if you plan to visit one yourself.
Man Made VS Natural Hot Springs
For people who live in big cities such as Tokyo, its cheaper and far more convenient to visit a man made hot spring, where showers, lockers, hairdryers and changing rooms are readily available, along with a relaxing restaurant to wind down in afterwards. However, this includes a fee. Some people choose to seek out a natural hot spring in the countryside - although many of these are 'owned' as well, and cost to get in. The natural experience is very different to a public bath - for one, you could end up bathing with Japanese macaque, or "snow monkeys". I would recommend going to a public bath first, to get a feel of the experience, and then seeking out a natural bath if you feel brave enough.
Many Japanese hotels, such as ryokan, have hot springs, usually outside, for visitors to bathe in. It's a very traditional way for the Japanese to relax and do some spiritual healing, and dates back hundreds and even thousands of years, when warriors, royalty and peasants alike would bathe in the onsen, relaxing mind as well as body.
We went to an outdoor natural hot spring in a freezing January evening in the Gunma prefecture - it had a restaurant where we could nibble on snacks and have a drink before we went for a soak. The atmosphere was relaxed and sleepy, as if everyone had left their stress and tension at home, and were meeting to bathe their worries away.
What you need
Some preparation is involved when going to a hot spring. Firstly, you will of course need a towel or two to dry yourself. Some hot spring facilities provide hairdryers, but take your own if you're not sure. Alternatively, it's a good idea to tie your hair up in a bun or a ponytail and avoid getting your hair wet altogether, and save time whilst drying. The water in a hot spring is extremely hot, and for relaxing, not swimming. Keeping your hair dry might be the best idea.
Keep in mind that you have to be completely naked when going into a hot spring, so you don't need to pack a bathing costume. Another suggestion would be to get hydrated before you go in - with the hot water and the steam, it's like sitting in a sauna, and you can stay in there for up to an hour or two. Make sure you don't get a headache or feel nauseated by drinking plenty of water before you go in.
Being a 'gaijin', or foreigner, the Japanese tend to stare a bit anyway. I won't lie - getting naked in front of a load of other women made me more embarrassed than I expected. Even my mother who was there with me didn't care about being starkers in front of a load of strangers. In this case, you may take a smaller towel with you to cover up whilst you're walking round, if you like.
Tattoos are strictly associated with the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, and are frowned upon, even amongst foreigners. If you have any tattoos, make sure these are well covered with a waterproof bandage before attending a hot spring, or you might not be allowed inside.
The spring was outside the building, and in the freezing cold winter, it seemed as if it'd be impossible to walk around outside with no clothes on. But the hot water and the steam ensured that it was lovely and warm to walk around in before sliding into the water. The hot spring relaxed your entire body, and you could chat with the people around you whilst enjoying feeling the tension completely leave your body. If you're stressed, nervous, or a tense person in general, visiting a hot spring is sure to relax you.
Afterwards, we went to the restaurant, which sold some delicious food, ranging from traditional Japanese food like udon noodles, to western food like french fries and chicken. After the hot bath I was so relaxed I could barely move my arms, but hungry and thirsty enough where I ate an embarrasingly huge amount of food and drink. It was a really fun and chilled out evening, and I slept like a log that night.
Whilst in Japan, visiting a hot spring, or onsen, is definitely worth a try to get immersed in some Japanese culture, and relax after a tiring day of travelling, exploring or hiking. For a list of hot springs in the Tokyo area, click here.