I have so many Japan posts to write up when we get home (and which I will undoubtedly bore you to death with soon enough!), but in the meantime, here’s a post on how to Survive your First Japanese Onsen. I wrote it on the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo yesterday, it was a three-hour journey and the train had lulled everyone else to sleep!…
Make no bones about it, you have to be naked to experience a real Japanese Onsen (perhaps the most famous spa experience of them all, practised for thousands of years in Japan). You might have seen from previous posts, that I am 100% English when it comes to nakedness en mass, but I also can’t bear the thought of missing out on something that’s a huge part of life in Japan while we are here. So, during our stay in Izu (more on that later!), I decided to take the plunge(!!) There are lots of rules and regulations as soon as you step through that Onsen door, so I thought I would talk you through a few pointers on what to do and (and what definitely not to do) on your first authentic (and what should be uber relaxing) Onsen experience.
- As with quite a few Japanese buildings, outdoor shoes must be left outside, leave them at the door, or in the little cubby holes provided.
- There’s usually a section to leave your towels, and yukata (cotton dressing gown traditionally worn in the spas here) and then there’s nothing for it – it’s time to take a deep breath and de-robe. For those of you having a panic attack at the thought, it’s not all bad – you do get provided with a small hand sized towel to take in with you. I will tell you what that’s for in a minute!
- Do try to ignore the old lady in the corner drying her hair, who finds it slightly amusing that this is your first visit… Locate the Onsen door and half pray there’s nobody else in there (most are separated into male and female spas too by the way). In my case I could breathe a sigh of relief as it was completely empty!…
- Head to the row of little plastic stools with bowls propped on them, Sit on one, and get scrubbing, making use of all the posh products available (at this particular one anyway!). Those of us with smallish children at home should at this point luxuriate in the knowledge that even though you are in a kind of bathroom environment, there is absolutely no fear of someone bashing on the door and screaming at you to hurry up because they need the toilet. There are obviously no toilets in this bit anyway….
- Once you have used the washing up bowl or shower head to completely de-bubble (this is another important law of the Onsen – on your own head be it should you enter with the tiniest of suds about your person), you are now free to enter the beautifully warm thermal waters.
- Feeling brave, you might find yourself tempted by the outdoor spa (hoping that on the distant opposite sea there are no fishermen with binoculars) but as it’s night-time the chances are you will soon become prey for a cloud of mosquitoes. Try not to look nakedly inelegant (even though (as it occurred to me afterwards) there was nobody else about!) whilst keeping a firm suck on that stomach as you make a quick exit, opting for the safety of the inside Onsen instead.
- It’s now time to completely relax in the health giving waters until you turn completely red and can hear your heart pounding in your head. And that little hand towel I mentioned earlier? It has a variety of different purposes, it can serve as a wash cloth, a modesty protector and by the looks of things a hat. Just make sure you don’t pick up anyone else’s by accident at the side of the spa – this is a big faux pas. Another couple of things:- even if you are backpacking and haven’t seen a launderette for weeks, do not let the thought even cross your mind that this might be a good place to get a bit of washing done, these waters are almost sacred and you will probably be banned from every Onsen for life. Make sure you don’t accidentally splash anyone either!
And that’s it. You have survived your first real Onsen Experience. It’s time to have a quick shower and head for the safety of that big fluffy towel!
And, do you know towards the end, a whole host of other ladies came in and not one of them paid the slightest bit of attention to me or anyone else, so you shouldn’t worry about that either. It still felt good putting that Yukata back on though (by the way do make sure that you do it up with the left hand side on top, the other way is traditionally used for dressing the dead!) and when I got back to the room I realised I could hardly breathe I had tied the obi knot so tightly, but I did feel relaxed and quite healthy afterwards! So should you find yourself in Japan, be brave and give the Onsen a try!
Demonstrating the Yukata whilst waiting to go out!