In my last post I made passing reference to onsen. In case you don’t know what onsen are, or Incase you do know and are wondering why I would be looking forward to them, let me explain myself. Or rather, let me explain onsen.
Onsen (温泉) literally translates as “hot spring” which is a very accurate description of what they are. But it doesn’t come close to conveying how amazing they are.
Imagine you own a hot tub. Except this isn’t just a plastic tub surrounded by wooden decking in your back garden. This is a natural hot spring, made of smooth rock and overlooking a sun-kissed valley filled with prancing deer. It’s beautifully hot water.
In fact you own not just one hot tub, but half a dozen, each set to a different temperature. Some indoors, some outdoors. Some of them have jet streams. Some of them even have gentle electric currents to help you relax. And you have a couple of saunas.
It’s like you own the world’s most amazing bathroom.
And that’s what an onsen is like.
Except they’re open to the public. And so they tend to be filled with naked Japanese men (they are separated into male/female sections).
Now I get that this is where your enthusiasm may have just waned. The idea of being almost fully naked (you do get a small towel) in a room full of strangers is possibly your worst nightmare.
I understand where you’re coming from. I appreciate that our culture is so obsessed with body image that we judge ancient greek statues of Hercules for lacking muscle definition. But the point of onsens is not to compare your body to other people. It’s about being so relaxed that you don’t mind being naked.
Plus if you feel really self-conscious, you can go in the sauna and watch sumo on the TV.
Everything about a visit to an onsen is brilliant. The mini road trip out into the countryside (the best onsens are always out in the countryside), scrubbing yourself until you are painfully clean before you get on, the initial “ah ah ah” as you attempt to jump straight into the hottest bath, boldly claiming you’ll stay in the sauna for 5 minutes and then desperately willing the clock to go faster, spending an age slowly trying to lower yourself into the “weak” electric current bath and then having an 80 year old Japanese dude slump into the “strong” one with a loud, “Ahhh, that feels good!”
Oh, and of course there will be one random Japanese guy who decides to use you to practice his English.
Even the post onsen stuff is fun. You get out, quick shower down, get into clean clothes, buy yourself a bottle of milk, followed by some Mitsuya Cider (it’s actually lemonade but hey) and then you find a tatami mat to lie on whilst you watch whatever ridiculous celebrity panel show is on the TV.
Speaking of which, it because of the general lack of TV that I enjoy onsens so much. I know I mentioned it twice in my description, but for the most part onsens do not involve TVs or any kind of media. At their best, onsens offer simply hot water and some unspoiled nature.
Now I’m not about to start hating on people who watch TV. If that’s how you relax, then that’s fine. I’m aware that compared to my description of onsen an evening watching House of Cards might seem even more appealing to you. Especially if you’ve tried to go into an onsen before and been too freaked out to go through with it.
That’s cool. To each their own. Or, as the Japanese would say, “Ten people, ten colours.”
But I personally prefer to relax by removing myself from the stimulating world of TV, film, Facebook, etc. Even reading, which I love, can get in the way of my relaxing.
Doing absolutely nothing: that is my idea of relaxing. And doing nothing whilst sitting in water that warms me to my very bone marrow… yup that’s pretty much my perfect evening.
So I am very much looking forward to doing some serious chilling out in onsens once I’m in Japan.
OK, sharing time. Have you been to an onsen? Loved it, hated it, or take-it-or-leave-it?