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Onsen

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/13 Traditional Culture ,

Japan is one of the countries located along the “Pacific Ring of Fire”.  Countries along the “Pacific Ring of Fire” have high seismic and volcanic activity.  This explains why earthquakes are common in the “Land of the Rising Sun”.  There are many  volcanoes in Japan.  In fact, approximately ten percent of the world’s active volcanoes can be found there.  Along with these volcanoes are the hot springs which sprung like mushrooms all over Japan.  In this article, I’m going to talk about these hot springs which is known as “onsen” in the Japanese language.

History of Onsen

The Japanese culture of bathing in an onsen stretches back to thousands of years ago.  It was traditionally used as a public bathing place (sento), but with natural hot spring water.  The main difference between an onsen and a sento is the water.  Onsen uses water from hot spring, whereas sento uses heated ordinary water.  Japanese people prefers to bath in an onsen because it is believed to have healing powers.  During the time of the samurai, they used onsen to heal their battle wounds.

Onsen comes in different types.  Different therapeutic effects can be expected from different kinds of onsen, depending on the minerals that it contains.  Onsen waters also come in different  color.  This also depends on the chemical contents in the water.

Onsen monkeys

Even monkeys love onsen in Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano Prefecture.(Photo by iris on Flickr)

Rules and Etiquette

Since bathing at an onsen has become a cultural part of Japan, there are some rules and etiquette that one needs to follow.  These are the things to keep in mind before you go to an onsen:

  • Remove shoes – Since most onsen have traditional Japanese floor (tatami) in their changing room, it is necessary to remove your shoes and wear slippers be found at the entrance (genkan).
  • Remove clothing – Changing rooms for male and female are different, so pay close attention to the sign on the curtain to avoid embarrassment.  Male changing rooms have the kanji “” (otoko) while the female changing room have the kanji “” (onna).  In the changing room, remove all your clothing.  Underwear included.  Place them on the basket or lockers provided.  You can bring with you a little towel.  That’s it, only little towel to hide what it is that you need to hide.
  • Remove dirt – Before entering the onsen, you must first thouroughly clean yourself.  Entering the onsen without showering yourself is a big no-no.  Japanese people are so particular with hygiene.
  • Do not soak the little towel in the onsen water  – Once you enter the onsen, don’t soak your towel.  You can place it on the side of the bath or you can place on top of your head.  And when you accidentally dropped your towel into the water, wring it outside of the bath, not on the inside.
  • Dry your self before going back to the change room  – be sure to dry yourself up before you go back to the changing room and put on your clothes back.  This is to prevent other people from slipping.

My Onsen Experience

I could never forget the very first time I bathed in an onsen.  It was one Sunday morning of 2007 when I was invited by a Japanese to go to a gym and exercise.  Since I have nothing to do on that day, I went.  We were lifting weights, running on the treadmill and do stuffs people usually do on the gym.  After the gym, I was so tired that my muscles were aching.  The person who invited me noticed, and so he told me to try onsen.  Having no idea what an onsen is, I asked him what it is and what are we gonna do.  He told me that basically it is just like bathing in a hot water to relax and ease my muscle pains.  Thinking that we would only be bathing in hot water, I gave it a try.

Then, Let’s Get Naked Then

In the dressing room, I was so shocked to see him casually undress like there was no one else in the room.  Everything.  Even underwear.  And not only him, even other guests did the same.  I was so embarrassed because this would be the first time that I would be undressing with some other people around. Let alone strangers, of the same gender.  Never in my wildest imagination did I ever thought of being in a room full of naked strangers,  going around like they were the only people in the room.  So as not to show my embarrassment, I followed what he did.  Calmly.  Slowly.  Luckily, there was this little towel which they use to cover those dangling thingy for modesty.  After getting undressed (physically and emotionally), we went to the shower area to wash away dirt.  In the shower area, we were sitting side by side as we go along with our business of cleaning ourselves.  No room, no divider.  After washing ourselves, we were ready to soak in the onsen.  I thought the shameful part was over.  I was wrong.  While we’re on the  way to soak in the onsen, there were already people in the onsen.  They were so quiet and staring blankly unto something.  At first I thought it was me that they were staring at.  But as I was getting close to the onsen, I noticed that they were not looking at me.  Fearing that the little towel I used to cover my dignity would fall, I hold on to it tightly and I slowly walked down the stairs into the hot water.  As the hot water level reaches my hips, I removed the little towel,placed it on top of my head and swiftly lower my body.  The hot water was so relaxing.  After a few minutes soaked in the hot water, I felt an easing sensation on my muscle pains.  And so we get out of the onsen, dried ourselves and put on our clothes.  We were offered tea to re-hydrate ourselves and we went home.

Undoubtedly a Memorable Experience

Having experienced onsen was one of the most unforgettable experience I have during my stay in Japan.  It may be embarrassing at first, but as you get used to it, the therapeutic benefits of it and the experience far outweighs the embarrassment.

By the way, the person who first invited me to try onsen was no less than the president of our company.  Can you imagine how embarrassing that was? =D

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