Post updated: March 2021 – This was written a couple years back, but I don’t think much has changed! You need to experience a Japanese Onsen at least once in your life!
I have changed planes at Narita airport near Tokyo perhaps a dozen times, but somehow, never quite made it out of the airport to actually see Japan – until just a few months ago when I had an opportunity to attend a conference in Kobe. And alas, with that came an opportunity to visit one of the celebrated hot spring public baths that I’ve heard so much about over the years.
I really had no idea what to expect, except for vague recollections of travel pieces I’ve read over the years. Travel banter from a cocktail party someplace? Somehow, I remember somebody describing a dark hall with wooden planks, and old men groaning as they lowered themselves into the scalding water. Sounding quite a bit short of alluring, I went digging on the internet to see what this famously Japanese custom was about, and if it warranted an afternoon of exploration on a cold winter’s day.
Trip Advisor led me to the Kobe suburb of Arima; something akin to an Austrian ski village, but lined with high rise apartment and hotel complexes, it seems that hot water flows out of the mountain here in copious amounts, creating a holiday mecca for those who wish to spend an hour, a day, or weekend soaking in the healing waters.
Turns out this is one of the more well known spots in the Japan to hang out with the boys – or hang out with the girls, but not a place where the boys and the girls will hang out together, at least, not while bathing. As I made my way through various trip reviews, I learned that nearly every hotel in this little valley had their own onsen – or hot springs bath – with the incentive of one stop shopping. “Stay in our lovely hotel, have a hot stone massage, and bathe in the magic water.” I was getting the picture, and so far, it didn’t sound much like my preconceived image of groaning old men in a dark cavern.
To cut to the chase, I chose the Taiko no Yu onsen about a 10 minute walk, up hill, from the local train station, chosen in large part due to a reviewer who took the time to explain the process while providing a valuable tip, “Good place for first-time foreigners” as most of the signage has English subtitles.” That, by itself, was worth the price of admission.
Things I wasn’t prepared for… and keep in mind, I’ve been naked on six continents… are many and substantial in this case. Beginning with the procurement of three lockers! One to hold your shoes, one where you leave your everyday clothing, and finally, one where you bare all (leaving your pajama like robe behind) and find your way to the hot mineral baths that have revitalized SO many souls over the centuries.
The take away of my exploration is that naked is different here than naked in the western world, and would probably be a good bit different yet had it not been for the influence of the western world. Seems that in the days before WWII, during which Japan had been at least moderately successful in isolating themselves from western influences, nudity was essentially a non-issue. “You have boy parts. I have girl parts. Let’s bathe.”
Between the missionaries and the American military generals, we apparently convinced the Japanese to come to their senses and realize that social nudity, left unchecked, will lead to… well I don’t know what it’ll lead to as you can find pretty much anything you want on the internet these days, so what’s the big deal? In any event, today most Japanese onsens are gender separated.
My experience – though very much limited to a one-day visit to a recommended Trip Advisor spa – was anything but sexual. In fact, this was very much a family affair, where the main (sole) objective is soaking in the magical mineral waters, some of which are clear (I personally like that!) and some of which are milk-chocolate brown (How do you know how deep the pool is when you can’t see the bottom?)
Since it was a Sunday afternoon, many were there on family day outings, with children of all ages standing in line with their parents as if they we’re queuing up for admission to Disneyland. Of course, I can only speak to the ambiance of the male side, but once you leave your robe behind in the third locker room, nudity is prevalent and normal, even in congested areas where you can hardly get through the crowd without brushing up against another (naked) body. After the customary seated shower, (That was an experience!) I settled into one of the pools in the main area while observing with quiet awe that three generations of male humans were all enjoying the day of casual nudity and luxurious soaking. Not even in French family naturist resorts does inter-generational nudity seem like such a non issue. Somehow, they had missed the memo that a 10-year-old child seeing his father’s pubic hair or genitalia was an immediate and necessary precursor to psycho-therapy.
I’ve ruminated on this quite a lot since my visit to Japan, and have since found another great article from an author who’s experience was apparently quite similar to my own. The obvious and recurring theme continues to bare out the question: How is it we’ve made the human body so controversial when, in one version or another, our body parts are all pretty much the same. (That’s setting to one side that most cultures agree that the visibility of hands and feet is less far less egregious than the accidental sighting of a penis or breasts.) Seems to me the western world has done irreparable damage to this Japanese idea, as my impression is that fifty years ago, mom and dad would have been able to enjoy the entire day at the onsen together – as a whole family regardless of gender. But for those who worry about being caught climbing out of the shower by your 12-year-old, my brief qualitative survey suggests that children seeing their parents naked apparently does not scar them for lives. On this front, we westerners could learn a thing or two.
Since I first published this post, I’ve been back to Japan where I visited one of the large onsen complexes on the outskirts of Tokyo. (I think I visited this one. There are several listed on Trip Advisor.) The place was crowded with families out for the day, and the venue was set up with a carnival like atmosphere with food and ice cream concessions, game booths, play area, etc. Everyone was wandering around in their spa issued pajamas until it was time to go into the baths, then the family would separate by gender for bathing. It seems that under ten years of age or so, gender didn’t matter when it came to bringing your children into the bathing area. It all seemed remarkably, and refreshingly normal.
And oh! One more thing!! If you have body art, you may want to read the fine print before you show up at an onsen. Most have strict policies prohibiting people with tattoos to enter the baths. I believe it’s an ideology that goes back for generations having to do with body ink in the sacred mineral waters. Best to figure that out before you get to the dressing room.