Steam rises, obscuring the snowy mountain scene outside the window. Serene pools ripple gently. You let the heat soak into your skin, through your muscles, down to the bone. It ensconces you, slowly coaxing all of the tightness in your shoulders and back into release. You sigh, giving in to the calm of the onsen.
But then you open your eyes. An old Japanese woman (or man) gets out of the pool, water dripping from her (or his) naked body. For some of us foreigners, this is slightly horrifying. For others, perhaps, it is the simple fact of being naked in front of strangers (or friends) that makes us feel a little nauseated.
Whether it is an elaborate 露天風呂 (roten-buro, or outdoor) spa – complete with saunas, cool pools, Jacuzzi tubs, and massage waterfalls, or merely a simple 野天風呂
(nonten-buro, or indoor) bath in a small pool house, the onsen is a relaxing public bath – that may not be for everyone. It can be hard for a person from the West to reconcile their ingrained sense of decency with the more loose (but only in certain settings) Japanese perception of privacy. But it truly is deeply based in social constructs.
Thousands of onsens dot the volcanic landscape of Japan. Public baths have had a long history with the Japanese. Communal baths had a long history here as well, before visitors from the West changed them during the Meiji period. Before that, men and women, families and neighbors bathed together, unashamed. A few “mixed baths” still exist today in certain locations (very hard to find, in fact), though for the most part onsens are separated by gender. Was this an intrusion that unfairly forced a people to change their culture to please outsiders? Was it an idea that benefited a growing nation, whose cities got further away from the familiarity and communal atmosphere that onsens provided smaller populations? As an outsider myself, that is impossible to say. I do, however, feel grateful that onsens still exist, and remain a popular and important fixture in Japanese culture.
Onsens are said to have healing properties. And after leaving one, it certainly feels that way. They heal aches and pains, and many visit to treat illnesses. The onsens in our own Kinosaki in Hyogo have a rich variety of baths that are said to have many different properties – from healing sickness to making a person more fertile, even to granting a wish. In any case, an onsen is good at least for relaxation and clearing of the mind.
The rules for taking a bath in an onsen are simple: wash yourself thoroughly. Do not enter the water dirty or with any soap on you. Do not drag your towel into the water – put it aside or fold it and wear it on your head as the Japanese do. Don’t mind too much if people stare – as a foreigner you are an oddity – get used to it. These are all things that those of us who have been around a while already know very well. Although a special note for those with tattoos: yes, it sucks that you might be judged as being a gangster because of a personal decision. As a person with a medium-sized tattoo, I sometimes feel guilty for making old ladies feel uncomfortable. Yes, sometimes you will be asked to leave because of your body art. While this may feel very unfair, please try to leave as politely as possible. It is their culture and their home, and the very best you can do is try to change their minds by being respectful, and not enforcing a stereotype by being belligerent and crass.
If it’s your thing, enjoy an onsen or two this winter. Let yourself open up to a beautiful and delicate facet of another culture. Some of us have yet to decide whether or not to renew our contracts for another year. Why not go to an onsen on a snowy day (or night) and think it over? Be free enough to bare all and open your mind to the possibilities of the future at the same time. After all, where else would you get to do it but Japan?