So, now that I have you all interested, let’s get the ball rolling. This article has to do with getting naked in Japan…
In a group…
With both friends and strangers…
You’re damn right it does!
Now that the weather’s cooling down, it’s ONSEN SEASON! This is perhaps my favourite season. It lasts longer than winter, it can be warmer than summer, and looks prettier than spring (most of the time).
For the uninitiated I will quickly explain what an onsen is. An onsen is a bath house that draws its water from hot springs. They can have indoor and outdoor baths. Many have both. Some of the pricier ones even have a sauna where you can sit and sweat away your sins. You must not, however, confuse onsens with sento. Onsens use water drawn from hot springs whereas sento are public baths that do not.
Onsens usually have some kind of natural mineral in the water that, I’m told, is good for your skin. This usually means that the water will be a funny colour, or smell a bit off (sometimes more than just a bit). The only onsen that I’ve been to where this is very noticeable is Takayu onsen near Fukushima-shi. The water here has sulphur in it. I’ll warn you now, sulphur onsens smell really bad. Like really, really bad. Think of those football socks you wore at Nagano. You wore them for a couple of days of football, threw them in the bottom of your back and forgot about them for a month. These socks will smell bad. Sulphur onsens smell worse. It’s well worth sucking it up though. Despite it’s unique “aroma,” Takayu is one of the nicest onsens I’ve ever been to.
Sento, on the other hand, offer a wider option of baths and services. They can usually be found in town centres rather than on the edges of them or on mountainsides. Many are becoming more than just public baths, they are evolving into spa like houses. Sento typically offer jacuzzis, saunas, steam baths, and some may offer massage services. There’s nothing seedy about this though. For a small fee you can have a wonderful massage to finish off your bathing experience. Of course, there are still plenty of traditional public baths without these extra trimmings that simply offer you a bath, however the sento are slowly upgrading their services to cater for the modern Japanese person. Many houses have baths in them, thus the need for public baths is lessening which is what is leading the sento to offer extra services.
I personally prefer onsens, as you can sit on a mountainside and enjoy nature while soaking in a hot bath. There is almost nothing more relaxing than sitting in a bath on a mountain, with nothing around you, looking at the stars while the snow is coming down around you. It’s an incredible experience.
If, like many others, you are going to snowboard or ski this winter then the onsen will become your friend. A dear friend that you will hold close to your heart and look forward to seeing. You wake up early, hit the mountain all day, and come off exhausted. After this you should grab a bite to eat, head to the nearest onsen and strip off for some good old relaxing in the buff. It gives your muscles an opportunity to relax, let’s you talk over the day with friends whom you may not have seen as you destroyed the slopes, and really helps you sleep afterwards.
You can probably tell from what’s been written above that I do enjoy a good onsen. My recommendation is for you to go out and experiment. Don’t be afraid of jumping in that bath that has an odd colour, is bubbling, or smells really bad. More likely than not, it’s probably going to be good for your skin. If you do feel uncomfortable with how you feel afterwards you can quite easily shower after the onsen. My advice – go in, get naked, and relax.
The next article will deal with what to do in onsens, etiquette, what to take with you and tattoo’s. Stay tuned!