Last weekend I had the special treat of visiting a traditional onsen with my host family. Onsen is the term used for hot springs in the Japanese language, but it can also refer to public bathing facilities. I went to the latter. There are countless onsens throughout Japan, and using free time for a family outing to the onsen is not uncommon. My family said they like to go together whenever everyone is available at the same time, which is somewhat rare. But, last Saturday after dinner, such a time occured and we headed for the onsen around 9:30 pm.
I had heard a lot about onsen and seen them in animes, so I was very excited to go! I was also nervous because I wasn’t educated in all the proper etiquette of bathing at the onsen. My host mom (okaasan) told us that many of her past host students had been a little nervous to go to an onsen because they were shy about being naked in front of other people. But I decided being a little uncomfortable was worth the unique experience, and after some time of being in the onsen, you hardly notice that you’re naked! Luckily for my house mate and I, our family took care of buying our ticket to the onsen and giving us towels. After putting our shoes in some lockers at the entrance, we entered and walked through many hallways and stairs to get to the bathing area. To my surpise, there were many other features of the public bath house that I never would have thought would be there. There was even a restaurant! The whole place had a very pleasant, relaxed, and elegant atmosphere. We headed straight for the baths, since that was what we came for.
Our host father (Otoosan) went to the men’s section, and Okaasan took me, my housemate, and our host sisters to the women’s side. We entered another locker/changing room, and put all of our clothes in lockers. You have to keep your key on a little bracelet around your wrist while you bathe. Then we grabbed our towels and headed to the shower area. The shower area is very different from any showers you might see in America. I was already kind of used to them because we have a similar set up at our homestay house. Basically, there are many little stools in front of detachable shower heads, and you just sit down and bathe yourself. There are no walls between stations, and each one comes with a bowl for rinsing, and has soap and shampoo nearby. You have to make sure to clean yourself really well and not leave any traces of soap on your body. If you enter the baths without being fully clean, it is socially unacceptable.
After bathing, you have a lot of options to choose from to customize your onsen experience. There are several different large baths outdoors, as well as a wet sauna, a dry sauna, and indoor baths with jets. There is also a freezing cold bath that you can jump into after being in the sauna and it makes you all tingly. Outdoors, there are rockbeds with warm water that you can sleep on, and it is theraputic for your back. Onsens are said to have healing powers because of the minerals in the water. I spent most of my time in an outdoor bath and it was the most relaxing experience I’ve had in Japan! Afterwards, I felt super clean, and my skin felt really healthy, too. If you visit Japan, I think an onsen is a MUST DO! And don’t worry about being nude in front of other people. It is quite normal.