Onsen; Japanese Hot Spring Bathhouse
I knew very well that when I went to a public Onsen in Japan I was going to have to get naked. But it still wasn’t any easier. I was with my sister and her friend, and I hadn’t seen my sister naked for about 15 years. Not only that but each one of us has at least one tattoo and after already having experienced being refused entry into places for having a tattoo we weren’t looking forward to being exposed in all our glory in front of a group of judgmental, skinny Japanese women. To add further to the impending doom my friend had gone to Japan two years earlier and said that every time she got into an Onsen all the Japanese women would promptly get out and leave. This could have been due to how they see westerners as “dirty”.
Despite all the horror stories we were determined to “immerse” ourselves in the culture and do the traditional public Onsen anyway. We walked in, paid the price, were asked at the front counter if we wanted to buy soap and shampoo which we refused, took our shoes off and went in. We arrived late at night (about 9pm) hoping that most of the people would have gone home to bed by then. But it seems it was peak hour. There were at least 10 other women in the small public Onsen who all in unison looked up as we walked in.
We began to tentatively undress, acutely aware of the stares. We had tried to mentally prepare for this by walking around our dorm room with no tops on and talking about what we are going to look like naked. But now we were in the situation and everyone else was naked we just had to do it. I stood uncomfortably exposed as the other girls took too long to get undressed, then we went down the steps into the bath area. As we looked around the room a horror occurred to us, we didn’t buy the soap at reception and everyone else was scrubbing themselves with soap! They think we’re dirty already, what are they going to think when we don’t use soap?! Oh shit, oh shit.
There are strict rules for entering an Onsen. You have to wash yourself with the Onsen water using a small tub, then enter the Onsen only after you’re clean. Then you get out again, shampoo and condition your hair, wash again, and enter again to soak before leaving. Despite the lack of soap and shampoo we found that nobody got out of the water when we got in. Such a huge relief! At one point a young boy smiled at us which then caused his mum to smile as well, which made us feel a little more relaxed. Every time I looked up at one lady in particular, she was staring at us scrubbing herself vigorously. I was a little worried for her as she was scrubbing so hard that I thought she might take her skin off!
We get out unharmed and with only a little bit of dignity stolen from us. We giggle as we leave feeling refreshed by the naturally healing water. At least we did it!
NOTE: The internal Onsen photos are from other Onsen; we aren’t able to take photos of our first public Onsen experience because there were too many naked ladies there.
Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY)
$1 USD = ¥97.78 JPY
I was there: May 2013 – Late Spring