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Japanese Onsen

January 11th, 2010 No comments

This will be a non-sake post; rather, a cultural tidbit for those of you lucky enough to go to Japan and experience this part of ancient and modern Japanese culture firsthand.

I have had the pleasure to accompany friends to an onsen. An onsen is a public bath that is sometimes a product of a naturally occurring hot-spring.

Unfortunately, this post won’t include pictures for obvious reasons, but I will describe the G-rated version.

For many people living in Japan, a typical retreat is to head off to a local onsen for a much needed wash, scrub, and dip into very warm water before retiring for the night. It is after one crosses the threshold into the bath that they allow the worries and troubles from work, home, and life to fade away. Hot steam envelopes the body as rules require you to bathe and cleanse the body with soap and water before entering the tubs or pools. Old-style methods of washing in Japan require one to be seated on a stool, use a low-profile bucket and the occasional shower-wand (the kind with the hose attached). Most modern onsens have “stations” where people park themselves to clean. Each station has its own supply of soap, shampoo, and conditioner to be used. After cleansing, the now clean body can be permitted to enter the hot tubs of water for relaxation.

The tubs range in size from small swimming pools to large jacuzzies.  And at their deepest, a full grown adult could sit and their head would still be above water. The hot pools can either be situated outside or inside and they can be constructed out of natural materials or look like modern swimming pools. The indoor versions can sometimes be rather steamy – an almost sweatlodge. The outdoor variety are really special during the wintery months when it’s snowing. During my last trip to Japan I sat in an outdoor pool, alone, in the darkness of night with snow drifting down upon my upper torso. It was a special night for being just in a hot tube in the nude.

Most people who use an onsen are used to the practice and have no problem bathing in a semi-public space surrounded by nude members of the same gender.  Others, maybe not so much. To compare, bathing at an onsen is similar to using a shower facility at a local gym or swimming pool.

Almost all onsens have a fee to enter and use the facilities. These costs go to maintaining the facility and ensuring sanitary conditions for all patrons. Before entering the bathing stations, lockers are provided to store clothes and other articles.  Some, onsens will provide a wash towel free of charge, others will ask you pay a modest fee for a small towel you can keep after your visit as a souvenir (I think you can call it that).

After bathing, soaking, and redressing, some onsens have a room with tatami mats to allow patrons to relax and recover after spending time in the hot pool. Some people will actually take short naps here (it was hard not too when I last went).

One final note (and I suppose sake related), some onsens permit alcohol in the actual pool/tub areas. The last one I traveled to in Hakone did not. You could, however, purchase and enjoy a can of beer afterward, but no alcohol was permitted in the tubs themselves. A word of warning, however… because of the hot water, it is easy to get dizzy from sitting and “relaxing” too long. Drinking alcohol will only exacerbate the symptoms. So, if you do venture into a hot bath and decide to enjoy the onsen with sake, do so with caution.

To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience becoming clean and relaxing in the cold air coupled with the hot water of the tub. I will definitely return to another onsen upon my next return to Japan in the future. I only wish something similar existed in Western culture. A shower or bath at home just does not cut it.

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