Travel Diaries #13 - Onsen

About how I developed a love for the great Japanese tradition of visiting steaming hot public baths, often under a blanket of falling snow.

Originally published at

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There are no pixels at the onsen. Japanese law notoriously protects its citizens’ morals with 8-bit mosaics covering up genitals in the porno magazines conveniently located on the middle shelf of the 7/11, beside the comic books. But at the onsen, the public baths and natural hot springs which have been a treasured part of Japanese life and culture for hundreds of years, there is no censorship by togs or towels. Go naked or go home. Everyone is free and there is no embarrassment, and even red-faced and rosy-cheeked foreigners must leave their shorts and inhibitions at the door.

Onsen ( 湯, meaning ‘hot water’) are officially designated as natural hot springs containing one of 19 minerals, such as sulphur, sodium chloride and iron. As such they’ve traditionally been used for hundreds of years not just as hang-out spots and meeting places, but local spas in which to relax, heal and revive. Many are public baths located in hotels, although some villages, towns and regions are known for still having natural hot springs and rivers, accessible in the beauty of the Japanese countryside (I haven’t had the pleasure of using one of these yet, but it’s on the ‘to do’ list). Most of the ones I’ve visited have both outdoor and indoor pools, with the water being piped in from the surrounding earth.

The mineral content of the water is supposed to imbue health benefits, with different onsen having different chemical makeups and therefore used to treat particular ailments. In addition to this, the traditional uses of bathing in the hot water include pain relief, boosting of blood circulation, alleviation of skin problems, and the reduction of stress and promotion of sleep. The famous snow monkeys of Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park in Nagano Prefecture even know the beauty of a good onsen, their pink faces looking surprisingly human as they relax in the baths, arms fanned out on the rocks, a lazy puss on their face, looking like Tony Soprano getting an extra-marital massage. And according to local zoologists, they use the onsen not for cleaning or play, but for the same reason as their more evolved compatriots – to relax and de-stress.

But although they are social places of relaxation, this is Japan and therefore there are rules. Men and women are separated, although some, more traditional, rural onsen have both sexes bathe together (no togs rule still applies). Leave your shoes at the door, and of course your camera-phone. The postcard-worthy images of steamy rock pools surrounded by snowy mountains (and naked Japanese guys) will have to remain in your soon-to-be-soothed head. Bathers must shower before entering, with soaps, shampoos and buckets provided beside the traditional tiny squat stools at each station. You’re also allowed to take a small towel in, which some people use to preserve their modesty, or to cool their heads while they zone out in the hot waters. You shouldn’t dunk your head under the water either, though that would be self-evident to most with some standards of hygiene. Tattoos are also frowned upon, due to their association with organised crime in Japan, though onsen in touristy areas like ski towns seem to leniently overlook this rule for the masses of Aussies with Balinese tramp-stamps to come in and enjoy the refreshing waters. Probably because there’s little fear that they’ve ever actually become accepted Yakuza members at some point in their lifetime. Not with that moustache, mate.

Once you dispense with your notions and get used to the idea of bathing naked with a load of lads, it starts to make sense. As my mother would always say when we protested with teenage self-consciousness at the indignity of being made to wear a coat in wet weather,

“Sure who’d be looking at ya?!”

Everyone is vulnerable and therefore respectful. The full nudity adds to the mindfulness of the ritual. When you’re naked in public and surrounded by other naked people, you become more conscious of your body. But in a good way. You focus on the present and the now. You’re aware of your limbs and the drops of water on your skin and how you walk. Every step becomes important. How you wash yourself. You take your time doing things. There’s no rush. Then the hot water causes you to focus even more. You immerse your feet into the bath one inch at a time, and then your legs before gently lowering your body. You don’t want to slip so you take extra care. The heat makes you more aware of your body. The cold and the falling snow remind you of the elements of the outside world. The best pool is the one that’s outside. You’re naked and outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, immersed in a bath that’s a little too warm for pure comfort. There’s no shouting, no rowdiness. No-one is looking at you. You’re not looking at anyone else. And you relax.

Your body temperature rises until you submerge into a pink-flushed and meditative state. Your heart pounds and you may need to slide out of the water to sit on the edge to cool off for a period before sliding back in. Be careful not to rush when you first get out as it has the effect of making you feel light-headed and slightly dizzy. I’ve practiced the cold shower after soaking for just-long-enough in the tub, and it’s an invigorating part of the routine I look forward to now.

It’s all about the routine. From bowing to the cashier as you pay at the desk, to slowly and methodically getting dressed after you’ve dried down at your own pace, taking the time to shave, moisturise, whatever’s part of your ritual – it’s all about the ritual at the onsen. Taking time out of your day or your week to go somewhere to relax, hang out with your friends, even just spending an hour or so bathing and washing and practicing a bit of self-care; it’s become a part of my ski-town routine I enjoy as much as the snowboarding.

I love the culture of it. There’s something so dignified about the way it slows your day down, taking the time to properly cleanse yourself, relax yourself, groom yourself, think things through. People come in alone or with friends, small groups or young families or gangs of lads. It fulfils the same social role as the local pub, ‘oul lads coming in to shoot the shit or nurse a metaphorical pint alone. It gets you out of the house. Dads take their kids in and they sometimes zip about playfully but never too annoyingly. They don’t seem to know or care that anyone is naked. It teaches them good lessons about body image, and also respect. They’re not going to muck about and risk getting a bollocking from an angry naked oul’ fella, especially when they’ve no clothing to protect themselves. Being naked keeps everyone in line. It’s quite good at training your eye-to-eye-contact too, actually. It’s the little details.

The landscaped outdoor rock pool of a hilltop hotel overlooking Hakuba town and the Happo One ski resort was one of my favourite places to be in those days. Pick out miniscule skiers as they follow the pistes that carve lines through the forests like expert strokes of a barber’s razor, or a painter’s brush. It’s all abstract in its distance, snowboarding is tomorrow’s fun. Right now you’re relaxed and bleary-eyed and au natural, as they say somewhere else. Powdery snow dumps softly around you onto the steaming surface of the pool in a slow-motion blur.

Everything is slowed-down; you exit the water slowly, amble into the changing rooms slowly after a long cold shower. Take your time drying off mindfully and deliberately. Clean your ears with the thoughtfully provided cotton buds. Shave if you need to. Weigh yourself. Breathe. Feck it, have a look at yourself in the mirror. You look good. Mind yourself.

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