Last year I spent some time exploring (read – getting lost) in Japan. Among the top things I did, like gorging on fresh sushi and getting drunk with locals at my new favourite bar, one of my fondest memories is my Japanese onsen experience.
What is an onsen and why do people use them?
Onsen is the Japanese word for hot spring. Enriched with natural minerals and peaceful surroundings, they are a great foray into relaxation and traditional Japanese culture. Oh yeah, and you bathe completely naked. In addition to promoting relaxation, many enjoy onsens as a way to socialise with friends and rid the body of any impurities.
What you should know before you go
So you’ve psyched yourself up and now you’re ready to go experience a Japanese onsen and soak up all those minerals and good vibes?
Here are some things you should know first:
- Traditional onsens don’t allow anyone with visible tattoos to bathe in the springs, as they are a symbol associated with Japanese gangs. This means if you turn up with tattoos on display you will likely be turned away. If you have a small tattoo that can be covered with a plaster make sure to do this before you enter to avoid any disappointment.
- Clothes are not optional so be prepared to strip off – trust me it’s not as scary as you might think!
- Though it is a nude experience for both men and woman, pools are separated by gender with neither being able to view the other. It’s a safe space.
- Make sure to clean and rinse any soap from your body before you enter the baths/springs. I’m sure it goes without saying but the baths are there to relax in, not to clean your body in so yeah, don’t be weird.
- Don’t put any towels (including modesty towel) in the water.
- Most onsens don’t have instructions in English so make sure to research onsen etiquette before you go!
My Japanese onsen experience
As a solo traveller, you’re often afforded these chances to experience something that perhaps as a group people would be more reluctant to do. i.e – getting naked and spending the day with a bunch of complete strangers. So armed with increasing curiosity and a flyer from my hostel I set off on my adventure.
For my first foray into the world of naked spas I decided to go to Spa World, a so-called “spa theme park”, situated in what I’m told is one of the dodgier areas of Osaka. Was I largely tempted by the name, catchy tagline and five-minute proximity to my hostel?
Arriving at Spa World I was a bit apprehensive as most of the instructions were written in Japanese but as I’d learned from my past week in Japan, when in doubt copy the locals.
As everyone seemed to be queuing at a vending machine I unquestioningly followed and purchased a ticket for 1,500 yen (£10).
The ticket lasts for TWELVE hours and during that time you are free to use any of the facilities. These include multiple hot springs, a gym, a large pool with waterslides (this is in the communal area so swimsuits are needed), a room with comfy chairs for napping and then also paid facilities like massages and restaurants. You then walk through a gate where you’re given a bracelet, which your card is connected to should you want to buy anything.
Before going upstairs, you’ll be prompted to lock your shoes away as with many areas in Japanese culture, bringing shoes into sacred spaces is seen as dirty and frowned upon. Leaving my worldly belongings behind I headed to the Asia level to get changed/nakey. As I mentioned before all hot spring areas are separated by gender and in Spa World they take this a step further by separating their floors by gender. When I visited the Asia themed floor was for women, while the male floor was Europe themed. Each month they rotate so if you’re an avid onsen groupie you can experience each theme, score.
From a brief scan of the locker room I could see that most women were already naked, but no judgement was being passed. There were no lingering stares, just women going about their lives. It was far too late to turn back now so I took a deep breath, dumped my stuff in the locker and proceeded to join the unclothed masses*.
I say unclothed but we were all given small towels (more flannel sized), which most of the women wore on their heads. I’m told the flannel is to provide a small, and I mean smaaaaalll, amount of modesty if needed.
After walking through a communal shower I had finally made it to Spa World’s Asia.
Spa World Osaka
I was pretty lucky I went in the afternoon on a weekday so it really wasn’t that busy. There was a very relaxing vibe and loads of different spas to choose from. In addition to several indoor and outdoor hot springs, there were also steam rooms, a salt sauna, two dry heat saunas at different temperatures, a mud room and a cafe. Without a phone to turn to you’re forced to be in the present moment and you spend the day in this delicious meditative state #dreamy.
As I sat in the cafe sipping my rum and coke, with towel/flannel in tow I laughed about how different the situation was. I truly couldn’t imagine something similar in Scotland. It’s kind of sad because our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of yet the older we grow the more self conscious we become. Remember as kid and you’d have baths with your friends or your siblings? Why as an adult shouldn’t you experience the same joy – minus rubber ducks and mermaid foam?
In total I spent around four-five hours in Spa World, bouncing between springs and trying to understand Japanese sitcoms. Before heading out into the real world you’re given these super cute – if not a little 1984esque – pyjamas and nighties to walk around the communal complex in. So yes, I indulged and had an incredible (maybe slightly tipsy) foot massage and some ice cream dots. At that moment I was truly living my best life.
Would I visit a Japanese onsen again?
You know sometimes you have those experiences and afterwards, you’re like “this was incredible, but I have no need to do it again”? This wasn’t one of the times. I feel I could never get bored of it. When I go back to Japan it’s definitely something I’d like to try again in a more traditional setting.
If the idea of experiencing a Japanese onsen makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable then it sounds like you may be exactly the kind of woman who needs to go the most. Once you’ve been in there five minutes you begin to forget what it was like to experience the world with clothes in the first place. Black, white, Asian, skinny, fat, short, tall – you’re surrounded by body shapes of all sizes and no one gives a fuck. I think it’s one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever had.
One thing I love about travelling is it gives you permission to be who you want to be. Especially as a solo traveller, I feel like you step into this highly self-assured version of yourself. She knows how to deal with things when they go wrong. She embraces change and covered in sweat and mud she is smiling because today she experienced LIFE. And the truth is she was always there, she was just waiting for permission to come out.
But I’ll let you in on a secret. If you spend your life waiting for permission, you’ll never get much done and before you know it the opportunity will be gone. So whoever that higher version of you is – make the decision today to just let yourself be her.
Now, watch as the magic happens.
What about you guys? Would you like to experience an onsen in Japan? Have you already?
Let me know in the comments!
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