Stationed in Japan? Here’s how to enjoy an onsen

(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Steam rose around me as I sank into the hot mineral waters. I was alone with my thoughts, free to let my mind wander and totally zen out. Hands down, this was the most relaxing bath I had ever taken. Who would have thought that it would be in a totally public place?

Onsens, or hot springs public baths, are hugely popular in Japan. There are thousands of public and private communal bathing facilities scattered throughout the island nation. It’s part of life here that hearkens back to a time when homes didn’t have indoor plumbing and shared bathing in natural springs was the only option.

Since moving overseas, I had been hearing about the life-changing wonders of onsen-style bathing, but I always put it off. Getting naked with a bunch of strangers? No thanks!

Until I booked a hotel in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan. Our hotel, Onyado Nono, is a ryokan. Essentially, this is a hotel with an onsen included. It was now or never. Since trying an onsen also offered the added bonus of a little kid-free time, I practically jumped at the chance.

If you have the opportunity to check out an onsen or sento (public baths not fed by natural mineral water), there are a few things you should know.

First, you will be as naked as the day you were born. And nobody cares. Baths are segregated by gender. Part of the general etiquette–at least on the female side-is to avert your eyes and keep to yourself as much as possible. No staring, no comments. Even if someone had commented on my post-baby mom-bod, I wouldn’t have understood them anyway! Luckily, I didn’t run into this situation because I was mostly alone in the onsen. If you feel especially modest, you can use a washcloth to cover up while walking around. However, taking a towel into the bath itself is not allowed.

Before you bath, you wash. Yes, it does seem counterintuitive to Western-style bathing, but it makes a lot of sense. You are sharing a bath with other people and don’t want all their sweat and grime in there, too. Inside the bathing area are little partitioned off showers. Take a seat on the stool and use the provided soap. Lather up and then rinse off. Make sure to be very thorough! For women and men with longer hair, pull it up in a bun or ponytail.

When you sit in the hot baths, it is encouraged to use a small container to gently splash water over your shoulders, back, and chest. However, keep your hair and face above the water line. Vigorous or disruptive splashing or horseplay is frowned upon.

At Onyado Nono and other onsens, there are several sections that bathers can use. You can switch between indoor and outdoor baths, as well as hot, lukewarm, and very cold baths. For dry relaxation, step into the sauna.

After my cleansing shower, I sank into the piping hot waters and did nothing. I stared out the window at the stones around the outside bath for a while. I admired the small waterfall that refilled my tub. A small handled bucket was next to me, ready to gently pour water over any exposed skin.

After about 30 minutes of staring at the outdoor tub, I worked up the gumption to step outside into the chilly December air. Stepping into the outdoor bath was impossibly refreshing. I could almost feel my pores opening on my face. The contrast between the winter temperatures and my steamy tub was delightful.

I let my mind wander to nothingness. As I relaxed against the stones, nothing else mattered but the immediate now. I allowed myself to feel the heat of the water and the cold of the air. I thought about places I had already visited and adventures still to come. The experiences of the last year-and-a-half, living OCONUS in a totally different culture, washed over me.

Here I was, sitting stark naked in a public bath in Japan. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever envision this possibility. And yet, it was reality.

After soaking for a while longer, I took my post-bath shower. Yes, you shower again to wash off the minerals. This time I took advantage of the Shiseido shampoo and conditioner, a luxury I would never buy for myself. While towels aren’t allowed in the water, make sure to bring one with you to wrap up post-shower. My fluffy towel was the perfect end to the cleansing experience.

In the locker room area, there were dressing tables laid out with all the post-bath essentials. At home, I never take the time to blowdry my hair. At the onsen, I definitely used the fancy hair dryer. From lotion to Q-tips, this onsen had everything. Based on my very brief walk through a sento in Tokyo, including complimentary essentials like Q-tips, lotion, cotton balls, hairbrushes, and combs seems fairly common.

Once my hair was fully dry and my legs totally moisturized, I slipped back into my hotel-provided yukata, or pajamas, that everyone wears around the hotel. Even after my longest, hottest bath at home, I have never felt so refreshed and relaxed. Every inch of me was scrubbed, steamed, and moisturized. I had taken time to truly pamper myself, without the hefty spa price tag.

Onsens aren’t for everyone. If you have concerns about absolute nudity around total strangers, this might not be for you. Folks with tattoos are also generally forbidden at most onsens and sentos.

But if you have the chance, and think you can handle a few naked (same-gendered) people, get to an onsen stat. Sink into the rejuvenating waters, let your mind wander, and be amazed at your amazing life journey to that moment. There is no better way to start 2018 than incredibly refreshed and cleansed of worry.

By Meg Flanagan