A guide to get­ting your gear off in a Ja­panese on­sen

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | JAPAN - KIRK OWERS

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 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.



Even pink-faced Ja­panese macaques ap­pre­ci­ate the health ben­e­fits of soak­ing in an out­door hot spring at Snow Mon­key Park.

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