By Marc Pereira, ISA Student Services Advisor
Studying abroad in Japan gives students a wonderful opportunity to experience a new culture filled with unique traditions, holidays, food and activities. Some of these unfamiliar sights might include enjoying a tea ceremony presented in a traditional Japanese viewing garden or attending a local festival bustling with energy and life! However, nothing truly embodies the traditional “Japanese Experience” quite like a visit to the local onsen. Onsen are known in Japan as the ultimate source of relaxation after a long day of work. The natural hot spring baths have a way of washing away every ache in the body and worry in the mind. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy one of these wonders of Japan and experience an enormous part of Japan’s rich culture and tradition.
Onsen are large public baths sourced from local hot springs which date back to the beginning of Japanese history. The history of onsen is shrouded in myth and mystery and legends of great monks and samurai founding the first onsen are still told today, adding to the appeal of these wonderful establishments. With such a rich history comes a long list of traditions and rules, which can be intimidating to foreigners. But don’t worry, ISA is here to help navigate you through your first visit to an onsen so you can bathe like a pro!
Bathing Like a Pro
Take a Break
The first thing to know about onsen is that they are not like pools in North America. People don’t go to splash, swim, and play. Rather, they are an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Japan. They are a sanctuary. People go to enjoy peace of mind in a relaxing atmosphere, so be sure not to disturb other guests.
Before arriving at the onsen you will need to get your supplies: a small hand towel, soap and whatever hair products you prefer. Sometimes the onsen will have these items for sale, but not always, so it’s best to come prepared. When you walk in you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of about ¥450. The changing rooms will be labeled in kanji, so be sure to find the correct one for your gender. 女 is for women, and 男 is for men. This is generally a useful piece of information, so be sure to log those symbols in your memory bank!
No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem!
Now, the next part can be intimidating for foreigners, but once you are inside you are expected to remove all of your clothing. All of it. There are very few exceptions to this rule. Rather than letting this scare you away, take the opportunity to fully appreciate an experience that is entirely Japanese! Commit to the onsen traditions and you’ll enjoy it so much more. And don’t worry, men and women bathe separately.
Before entering the actual hot springs you must wash your body. Near the changing room you will find a row of short showers and small stools. Completely wash your body to make sure you are entirely clean, this includes rinsing off all the soap bubbles. You’re a foreigner, so locals will probably notice if you don’t clean up to their standards. Once that is all done, you’ll be ready to enter the pools.
The Spice of Life: Variety
Onsen generally have a wide variety of pools to choose from. Some are blazing hot, some can be ice cold, others might even have a mild electric current running through them (these are labeled!) find the one that suits you best and step in! Feel free to switch between baths as often as you’d like, after all, the pools are there for you to enjoy.
Most people will stay and soak in the pools for at least an hour, but feel free to cut your time short or extend it as long as you would like. Once you are through, simply dry off and go get changed. The onsen water is full of minerals that are good for your skin, so most people don’t rinse off. Some onsen will have an area to relax outside of the pools where you can wear a Japanese robe, called a yukata, and enjoy a snack or a drink. This gives you the opportunity to visit with friends afterwards.
Slow Down For a Second
The daily pace of life in Japan is known for being very fast, where salary men put in long hours of work, stacked on top of very long commutes. The average employee may not have much time to spend relaxing. This is why onsen are so important in Japanese culture. They provide an escape from the trials and stress of the work day, where people can find peace and relaxation in the quiet warmth of the hot springs. This tradition reaches far into Japan’s history, earning the respect and admiration it deserves.
Onsen can be found all over Japan, so you won’t have a problem finding one, but ISA is happy to offer programs with Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, in Beppu, Japan’s onsen capital! Beppu offers the largest variety of baths that Japan has to offer. Once you enjoyed a traditional onsen, why not try a mud, sand, or steam bath? There’s so much to see in Japan, and Beppu is a great place to start!
I lived in Japan for 3 years (as a participant on the JET Program) and absolutely loved the onsen culture. It’s the one thing that I still miss! https://pastdepartures.wordpress.com