Relaxing in an overheated environment is a pastime that has been enjoyed by many cultures throughout the ages. Some rely on some form of water vapor and some just prefer to leave it as a liquid and submerse themselves in a flowing or still pool of heat. As technology has developed over the years, people also like to throw in some jet action to give their tense muscles some much needed attention. As you are probably aware, the Japanese have a very old culture of enjoying naturally or artificially heated water, and customs will change from place to place, but there are some basic commonalities that you should know, which will have you sufficiently prepared to successfully give the Japanese onsen experience a try.
First thing that any prospective onsen patron should do in preparation for their first Japanese hot spring, is mentally prepare oneself for the experience. This will be particularly hard for the exceedingly modest out there, as well as those who are particularly squeamish about nudity. This is because almost ALL onsens in Japan require customers to enjoy the experience nude. With few exceptions, onsens are separated by sex, so there shouldn’t really be too much for anyone to fret about out there. It’s not anything you haven’t seen before. For those of you who raised an eyebrow at my mentioning of “few exceptions” there are onsen that aren’t sex-separated. These are called Kon’yoku (混浴 / こんよく), which literally means “blended bathing.” Though they are few and far in between, they can be found throughout the country. Should you go to one expecting an experience beyond a mere calm and relaxing dip, your chances of disappointment are really high. Trust me, there are reasons why there are so few 混浴 in Japan.
Now that you’ve got your head in the right place, it’s time to partake in the experience. The first step after entering the facility or premises, is to lose your clothing. Store it in the designated clothing bin or locker for safekeeping while you bathe, and make your way to the washing area. Be sure you bring your medium-sized washcloth with you! There will be a bunch of bathing spots or stalls along the wall(s) with a stool for sitting and a hand held shower head for rinsing. Some places will provide soaps, shampoo, and other amenities, while others will expect you to provide for yourself. Once you have thoroughly cleaned every nook and cranny and completely rinsed yourself after you’ve finished, you’re ready for the hot spring. Don’t forget your washcloth!
Some places will have various options for what kind of pool to enjoy, and others will have one large single pool to be shared by all patrons. Choose one to your liking, fold up you’re your washcloth, put on the top of your head, and immerse yourself at a comfortable pace. The water won’t be too deep, and temperatures can vary from near scalding to your run of the mill hot tub. It depends on the joint. At this point, all you have to worry about is losing yourself to the hot and near weightless bliss. With regard to manners and customs, basically anything goes as long as you aren’t disturbing anyone else’s experience. ゆっくりどうぞ〜 It should be noted that staring will definitely be disturbing. . . So don’t.
After you feel reasonably cooked and ready to get back to clothed society, head back to the washing area and rinse yourself off real quick. Get yourself dry and back into the clothes you came in wearing, release one last relaxed sigh of satisfaction and step back out into the craziness. Be sure to visit again soon . . . and don’t forget you washcloth!