As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, most people know Japan because of its infectious pop culture, infamous inner-city nightlife, its delectable eating habits, and a sense of unity to the land and its people. There is a wonderful sense of community in most places in Japan, especially in those locations where you don’t get lost in the hustle and bustle of never-ending traffic and fast food. Yes, the sense of togetherness in Japan can truly be a sight to behold. So much so, that one of the most popular activities in Japan is for people to get together, strip their clothes down to the absolutely bare nothing, and get into a hot spring. If that doesn’t scream community and togetherness, I don’t know what does.
All jokes aside, bathing in the numerous hot springs that litter Japan’s volcanic landscape is quite common. It has been since back around the Heian Period of Japan’s history, between the 9th and 12th centuries. While out looking for game, hunters would notice deer and other wildlife taking a dip in the waters. Eventually, they did the same and found the waters to be soothing and, in some cases due to the natural mineral deposits, believed to have some healing properties. Eventually, wherever there was a hot spring, there arose a resort or inn next to it, advocating the water’s medicinal abilities and drawing crowds to come in and relax for a while.
At this point, the おんせん baths are so popular that they exist in almost every part of the country and are a major feature of Japanese tourism. There are some within the country to have said that getting naked and bathing with complete strangers is one of the quintessential things to do of the Japanese people. Traditionally, both men and women bathed together at the おんせん. Since the modern age of Japan, however, single-sex baths became the norm, although there are おんせん throughout the country who still practice mixed bathing.
Like most things within Japanese culture, there are rules that go along with bathing at the おんせん and not adhering to these rules is socially unacceptable. First off, you absolutely never bathe at an おんせん without having actually taken a bath first. Cleanliness is of the utmost importance when bathing with others, and almost every おんせん resort in Japan comes with separate washing stations equipped with soaps and shampoos. Secondly, most places require full nudity in the bath – no swimsuits whatsoever. It is understood that some (if not most) people will be a little modest about their nudity, so it is acceptable to have a small “humility” towel to cover up while walking between the bath and the washroom. That brings us to the next rule – no towels or jewelry in the bath. At most おんせん, this is considered unclean and the minerals in the water could ruin the jewelry. Lastly, under no circumstances will anyone ever, never, NEVER wash their clothes in the おんせん. Anywhere. (I shudder to think about who or how many people did this for it to become socially unaccepted behaviour and a general rule known throughout the entire country.)
Finally, there is a method to how one would enjoy their time at the おんせん to the fullest.
Step #1: After removing your clothes and jewelry and putting them away in the provided lockers, go to the wash area to clean up, making sure all soap suds are rinsed away.
Step #2: Enter the bath and soak for a while, always remembering that the water can be very hot (up to 44°C / 111°F.) If needed, ease in slowly and move as little as possible.
Step #3: After soaking for a while, get out and go wash with soap and water once more. Again, make sure that no suds remain.
Step #4: Re-enter the おんせん to soak for a while longer (but not too long as your body can overheat).
Step #5: After soaking, do not rinse or wash in order for the minerals from the water to have their full effect on your body.
And there you have it, folks. Your crash course into one of the most enjoyable, relaxing (and mentally deprecating) times of your life. As with most things, Japan has many different versions of the おんせん, some going as far as having different themes. Whatever you choose, whether the most traditional Japanese theme or the out-of-this-world-psychedelic-neon-lights-and-trance-music-waterpark variety, make sure you enjoy yourself. Bathing at the おんせん is, after all, one of the quintessential Japanese things to do.