Since October is the month of spooky scary things, I thought I would take some time and share with you all one of the most horrifying things I can imagine. Namely taking a bath naked with a group of equally naked strangers. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the top 10 anxiety nightmares in the world.
And yet, pretty much every single anime I have ever watched has tried to convince me that this activity is the most fun I could ever have. A living paradise really. It will cure you of what ails you and take all your worries away. Best of all, it’s exclusively frequented by impossibly attractive people of both genders.
As a true Canadian, the horrors of the beautiful naked human body are second only to the thought of being accidently rude to someone. Since I would really like to visit a Japanese onsen before I die, I figured this Halloween month is as good a time as any to face my fears. After several unsuccessful attempts at visiting local public pools naked, I decided to go with plan B and just study up as much as possible. I have scoured all available data (googled and read the 3 first hits) on the subject and put together this handy dandy little guide of what to do if you find yourself with people you don’t know in water. I’m confident that these guidelines are 100% accurate because the internet doesn’t lie, right?
So what exactly even is an onsen?
Onsen 温泉 translates to “hot water spring” and is a natural hot spring bath, normally created by volcanic activity. There are similar hot springs and baths around the world (notably in scandinavian countries) but nowhere are they as prevalent as Japan.
Although there are some man made onsen, in order to be considered as such, they must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water, and be at least 25 C. Rotenburo refers to an outdoors onsen. Not to be confused with Sento, which are indoor public bathhouses supplied by ordinary heated water.
Ready to go visit one?
Don’t ruin it before it even starts
First, figure out which are the male and female baths. Often the color of hanging curtain at the entrance is red for female and blue for male. Onsen have not been co-ed for quite some time and you probably won’t survive the embarrassment of barging into the wrong one…
You should keep in mind that a lot of onsens do not have toilets inside the changing room so you should take care of any business beforehand. Also make sure to be hydrated, don’t underestimate how hot it can get and food and drink are not allowed. So yeah, both take in and get rid of water.
Shoes or slippers are also often not allowed in the change room so be careful to take them off before you get in.
** Glasses can be damaged by the minerals in the water, especially the coating on the lenses. It is best not to dip your them in the bath.***
No shoes, no shirt, if you want service.
Look, I know a lot of us Europeans/Americans have been somehow convinced that human bodies are a disgusting sight to be hidden at all costs, but they’re not. It’s ok. We’re all in this together. There’s no way around the naked thing. You want to have the experience, well birthday suits are a big part of that.
If you really are that embarrassed, and you shouldn’t be because you’re quite attractive, believe me, there are some traditional ryokan inns where the guest rooms have private rotenburo baths attached (these will set you back hundreds in some cases thousands a night). There are also onsen with milky water that isn’t see through.
You can cover yourself with the small modesty towel while walking between the change room and bath for privacy if you like. People are cool with that.
Keep the fun, clean
I know it’s called a bath but it’s not actually a bath, it’s more like a soak or a spa… Basically, if sitting in a pool of your own filth sounds a little gross, how do you think sitting in a pool full of everyone’s filth sounds. That’s what I figured. Shower before you get in. And not in your hotel room before you go, people have to make sure you did it if they are to enjoy their own experience, so shower there.
Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided, and you are expected to sit down on a stool while you shower. I’ll be honest, I hate that, but it’s considered bad manners to stand up while you wash, as you might splash one of the people next to you.
Make sure you hold onto the shower nozzle when turning on the water. That water pressure can get pretty high. Apparently, it’s also considered bad manners to accidentally knock out one of your fellow bathers with an out of control shower hose. Who knew?
And remember to tidy up your washing space after you finish and turn the faucet back to warm if you take a cold shower. I know you would always do that anyways, but you might get super excited and distracted since it’s your first time.
You are probably going to get a small and a large towel. The large towel is for drying yourself and should be left in the changing room (along with your clothes). Don’t wrap it around yourself or bring it with you. It would most likely get soaked anyways so it’s a bad idea.
The small towel can be used for modesty and for scrubbing, you can take it into the bathing area, even directly into the bath with you. Common practice is to keep it on your head for safe keeping. This means fold it and plop it on and make sure it doesn’t fall in the water.
If you have long hair, bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel. It’s really bad form to get any hair in the water at all.
But they make me look cool
Fact is, tattoos are still rather unusual in Japan and heavily associated with Yakuza. This is slowly changing but they are not generally accepted in public and often outright banned in onsens.
If you happen to have a tattoo, you can always try covering it up with plasters or bandages. Makeup is not recommended since you have to shower first anyways and you don’t want to muddy the water with it.
If you have a very large tattoo, there are such things as yakuza bathhouses…Actually, forget I just said that. You’re gonna have to shower alone. It’s the price you pay for being a stud.
Onsen and sento will generally not allow any alcohol. It’s also recommended that you not be completely sloshed. People always say stuff like that. I guess this is somewhat understandable since the temperature of onsens is usually around 40 degrees (40℃) or higher. So, it is not good for your health take a soak while heavily intoxicated. You’ll pass out like a delicate little seme and your meanest friend will make fun of you.
If you happen to have the incredible luck of having your own private rotenburo then by all means feel free to have a little sake and don’t forget to invite me!
One last thing, and I’m sure I don’t have to say this but just in case: onsens aren’t pools. No running, no diving and no swimming no matter how drunk you… aren’t.
Now that we all know what to do, I guess I’ll see you there.
Suggested drink: Josephine’s Bath
- Every time there is a hot springs episode – prepare your drink
- Every time someone tries to sneak a peek at the opposite gender’s side – take a sip
- if it’s a girl – down your drink
- Every time someone compares their body to others – take a sip
- Every time someone stands up in the bath – raise your glass
- Every time girls start groping each other – cross your arms
- Every time someone gets kicked/ has something thrown at them – take a sip
- Every time two characters bond in a bath – take a sip
- Every time someone loses their towel – get some refreshing water
- Every time someone attempts to hide themselves – take a sip