Things I Love About Japan: Onsens

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.

Japanese Macaque relaxing in a volcanic spring in Nagano prefecture, Japan

“Onsen Monkey.” Used with permission (Asteiner on Creative Commons).

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 youEspecially 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?

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9 thoughts on “Things I Love About Japan: Onsens

  1. Sando

    Do I really need to comment on this one, Levi? ^^

    So…

    As you may remember, it took about two weeks of what-I-call brainwashing from you guys to convince me to go. Even when we got there, I only went in because Karin told me I could always change my mind at the last minute if I freaked out. Personally, I don’t understand why they don’t allow swimsuits. Maybe it’s a bigger issue for girls with the whole body image thing and Jpn girls being all super skinny and all. For me it was more of a modesty issue and though people tell you that “nobody looks at each other”, it’s hard to actually (culturally) get beyond that. I was allowed a little handtowel but well, that didn’t do much. I would’ve felt much more relaxed with a swimsuit.

    But that doesn’t mean I regret trying it! I do feel a little uncomfortable everytime a Japanese friend asks me: “Did you enjoy onsen?”, because all I can think of is the usual, awkward “Errr… it was *interesting* ” I mean it was, interesting, that is; the hot water, watching the sunset in that room upstairs, the meal afterwards and stuff, and it all helped me relax but I can’t help remembering it as tiny teeny stressful experience.

    Maybe our onsen wasn’t as beautiful as the one you described (I don’t recall seeing any deer!) and I should go back to Japan and try another one! Who knows. =)

    I was terrified but it didn’t kill me in the end, and as that famous Renaissance poet I love to quote used to say: what doesn’t kill you…

    So, do it. Just do it. It’s just a bit of skin and hot water after all, really.

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    1. levibooth Post author

      I presume you’re referring to our gentle encouragement (^ -)

      The swimsuit point is a good one I think. I’m not sure why those aren’t allowed. I never thought to question it.

      You’re probably right about the girl/boy thing. Culture seems to allow more space for men to not look like a model and be happy with that in a way that girls maybe can’t.

      But I am glad our “brainwashing” didn’t lead to your demise!

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  2. FujikoToyohashi

    I loved Onsen and I will definitely make time for it when I am back in Japan.
    Falling in love with the traditional japanese bathtub was just the first step. Being immersed in hot water up to your chin after a long day on your feet is bliss.
    Being able to do this a whole weekend seemed like the best idea ever.
    I visited a small coastal town near Kyoto with my husband and parents in law and it was great. In March it still wasn’t that warm in the evening but spending time in the Onsen of our Ryokan, then dress in Yukata and walk down the streets to another beautiful Onsen just to dip yourself in the hot water again was more relaxing than anything I have done before or since.

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  3. Matthew Weston

    I remember hearing about snowball fights between men and women (over a dividing wall) that took place during the early Aomori spring before the snow had melted…

    My personal introduction to the onsen was supposed to be a surprise, but unbeknownst to everyone I’d already looked them up on Wikipedia so I knew what to expect. I’m with you, Levi – a trip to the onsen was a real treat.

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  4. Pingback: Do I Love Japan? Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling. | Reversed Thunder

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