My First Experience of Onsen

Following on from my last entry, we got home from Hiroshima quite late, sipping our Pokemon and DragonballZ sodas. (They tasted average, but looked awesome. Ahh the vending machines here, they’re bleeding me dry.) Our apartment is a three minute walk from SpaWorld, a collection of baths from around the world. If you didn’t already know, Japan is big on public bath houses known as onsen, and SpaWorld was a mighty collection of them. There are two sections, the Eastern (Japanese-style) and Western baths, and they alternate between men-only and women-only by the month. Their entry fee was down to 1000¥, and so Beth, Craig and I had previously been keen to try out the bathing-suit swimming pool area. Unfortunately this unisex, clothed area closed at 7pm so we weren’t able to experience it. Nevertheless, after a hard day of walking several dozen kilometers I was keen for a soak in the baths. Neither Beth nor Craig shared my enthusiasm so I went by myself to try the Western-style baths (the flavour of the month for men).

Indulge me for a moment while I describe the process in a little more detail in the hopes that this blog alleviates some of the anticipatory anxiety of others who are wondering what an onsen might involve. In this particular establishment, I bought the ticket from a vending machine and used it to enter the hotel’s reception area where I received a waterproof bracelet with an ID number. This would allow me to get massages, food and drink and pay for them on the way out. I took my shoes off on the carpeted area and stored them in a nearby locker for a refundable 100¥. I went up the lifts to the floor with the Western baths, and entered a half-curtained area that said “Men Only”. There I found a mass of lockers, people walking around in uniform blue shirts and shorts, and a few people who were walking around naked or clutching a small orange towel. I approached a staff member for help, but he only spoke a little English so I just looked around and tried to follow (birthday) suit.

I stripped off and put my gear in a locker for another refundable 100¥, leaving the keys with my wristband. Trying not to be self-conscious, I grabbed one of the modesty towels to wrap around my waist, but skinny as my butt is, it wouldn’t quite get all the way around. Giving up, I just strolled around acting normal, and as far as I can tell I seemed to fit right in. I walked through the changeroom, the bathroom (with shampoos and lotions and hairdryers) and entered the bathhouse proper, getting sprayed on the way (to get clean before the baths).

There were perhaps ten rooms in all, and I was absolutely astonished by the beauty of the first one. It was a Roman Bath set at a scalding 43 degrees Celsius, and it was utterly desolate. I looked around nervously, wondering if I was supposed to get in, when two young men got in and just relaxed there. I left my towel on a rock nearby and climbed in gingerly, trying not to look out of place or letting the burning show on my face. Once I got over the heat, it was utterly peaceful. The two young men got up and left pretty quickly after that, and after spending a little longer there by myself I started to get unnerved. I quickly learned that it seemed to be the custom to only spend a few minutes in each bath before moving onto the next.

I made my way from room to room, passing by the sauna and the cold bath without much hesitation. I sat in the Spanish room with my feet in a Germanian footbath (strangely, it seemed it was perfectly acceptable to order drinks and enjoy them while sitting around naked). The atmosphere was distinctly European, and I found it quite enjoyable. There was a pool six inches deep where you could lie back and watch tropical fish in a tank. There was a room designed like a cave where you could enjoy a warm salt bath – or just sleep on the rocks nude, like the guy who was in there when I entered. My favourite room had a pretty powerful waterfall that threw up an abundance of steam while airjets in the floor shot out streams of bubbles. But in the end, I went back to the Roman bath and thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of submerging in the scalding water.

In terms of the men there, there were surprisingly more young men (in their 20’s) than older men (40+). There were no foreigners dedicated enough to go at 11pm like me, and people were either there solo, in pairs or as part of a group of students, occasionally exchanging a quiet word or saying nothing at all. Everyone more or less kept to themselves, and it was not at all weird that we were all naked. No one stared, there was no yelling or laughing, and we all just gave each other a respectful buffer of distance and enjoyed the experience of some very fancy baths.

I towelled off, got changed and headed back downstairs before 12am to avoid the late-night fee. To leave, I had to check out by dropping my ID bracelet in an ATM-like device in exchange for a receipt. Scanning this receipt at the turnstile allowed me to exit.

All in all, a great time was had, and I find myself wishing I could go back again. Beth and Craig were somewhat swayed, but did not end up going before we left Osaka. I’m looking forward to my next onsen experience! Until next time.