BRAVE NUDE WORLD
A guide to getting your gear off in a Japanese onsen
Travelling is about embracing new experiences. In Japan that can mean leaving your clothes, along with your comfort zone, in a neat pile far behind. Japanese onsens, or communal hot springs, adhere to ancient traditions which include bathing naked. While some visitors find it challenging, the enticements are hard to resist. Hot springs are an enormously pleasurable way to relax – especially after a big day of skiing. They also offer health benefits and an insight into Japanese culture.
Japan is said to have more hot springs than any country on earth. Most are found in volcanic areas such as Kyushu and the Tohoku and Chubu regions, but they burble to the surface at many other spots, including downtown Tokyo. While travellers are welcome at most onsens, there is a strict etiquette to be observed. Failure to comply may cut short your visit or see you banned altogether.
My onsen initiation was a little awkward. Touring Honsu with a ski group, I was slowly getting to know my new companions when it came time to hit the local onsen. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I would soon be naked with men I had only ever seen in their ski gear. Additionally, there would be other naked men: Japanese naked men who had the home court advantage. I felt a stranger in a strange naked land, but there was no turning back. I squashed my insecurities, dropped my tiny towel and strode gamely from the change room. The walk to the awaiting hot spring seemed to elongate time, but once the scalding water enveloped my inhibitions, I was fine.
Nudity is mandatory at most onsens so get used to the idea. Some allow you to use a small modesty towel while walking to and from the hot spring but many forbid even this. There is little to be worried about. The onsen is a quiet, respectful, meditative place, and the sooner you shed any inhibitions, the better. Traditionally, Japanese men and women bathed together without clothes, but this is now rare. Mostly, there are male and female onsens or separate times for each to use the same facility. Children are often allowed in the men’s and women’s onsens. Some “onsens” do allow bathers to be worn but generally they are part of water parks and aren’t the real thing. Private onsens can be found in some hotels.
Rules vary but the following are often banned: shoes, cameras, phones, tattoos, horsing around, talking loudly and drinking. Tattoos are banned because they are associated with Japan’s criminal underworld, but this rule is increasingly overlooked in tourist areas. On arrival, you are expected to wash thoroughly before entering an onsen. Most bathing stations provide shampoos and toiletries or they are available in a vending machine. If you do take a modesty towel into the onsen, it’s considered rude to dip it in the water. Most bathers plonk it on their head to cool down. The idea is to keep the water as pure as possible. Be aware that, for many Japanese, the onsen is a healing sanctuary.
The health benefits of onsens date back hundreds of years to when Samurai warriors used them to recover from battles. The treatment of illness with baths – known as balneotherapy – has been studied by scientists and is widely accepted in Japan. The mineral-rich water is said to help people recover from surgeries and is used to control rheumatism, neuralgia, hypertension and skin diseases among many other ailments. Different hot springs have different mineral compositions and locals will travel to get the benefit they require. I can attest to the relaxing properties and glowing skin – and headaches avoided by not going bar-hopping.
JAPAN’S BEST ONSENS
Japan has more than 3000 onsens, so finding a good one is rarely difficult. There are onsens overlooking the ocean or steaming away beside icy rivers; trendy inner-city onsens or ancient mountain onsens nestled in ski villages. Traditional outdoor versions (rotenburos) have better views but are less convenient to reach when it’s minus 20 outside. The oldest is thought to be at Dogo, on the island of Shikoku and is believed to have been first used more than a thousand years ago. Even more popular is the Snow Monkey Park near Shibu in the Nagano prefecture. Here, pink-faced Japanese macaques soak away the winter in their very own hot spring. No modesty towels here. You can even take your camera.
I SQUASHED MY INSECURITIES, DROPPED MY TINY TOWEL AND STRODE GAMELY FROM THE CHANGE ROOM
Even pink-faced Japanese macaques appreciate the health benefits of soaking in an outdoor hot spring at Snow Monkey Park.