The man wades over to me, sits down in the water so close that he is but mere inches away, grins and says in heavily Japanese-accented but understandable English “first time Onsen?” I nod, smile and confirm that I am indeed an Onsen virgin. He laughs, and for ten minutes we sit in the near boiling water talking about Japan, skiing, his passion for Keiko drumming and home. Despite my efforts to suppress it, occasionally the thought does force itself to the surface; I am alone and completely naked with another man in a Japanese hot spring bath.
What Is Japanese Onsen?
The Japanese hot springs bath or Onsen is one of the great staples of Japanese culture. Gifted with more than 4000 natural hot springs created by volcanic activity, Japan is the hot spring enthusiast dream destination. The natural hot spring water is rich in sulphur and sodium chloride, and it is thought to heal aches and pains, as well as help with conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
While visiting an Onsen is an essential part of any visit to Japan, the Japanese have their own ways of doing things. Few countries have so many unwritten and sometimes unspoken rules of etiquette as Japan. On the surface modern day Japan may not seem much different from most western countries, but here good manners are important, and there are rules about everything from how to drink tea to how to use your chopsticks. And visiting an Onsen is certainly no exception!
For instance are tattoos strictly forbidden in Onsen. The reason is that in Japan tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. If you have a small one, you may be able to cover it up, but with a large tattoo you will not be allowed into any Onsen in Japan!
I don’t have any tattoos, but I was still a little nervous as I readied myself to step into the Onsen, not knowing quite what to expect. I had done my research, and I had memorised a step by step plan. I was ready to step through the curtain, and if all went well, nobody would ever know I wasn’t an Onsen veteran.
How To Take a Japanese Bath – The 10 Step Plan
As you enter the changing area, there will be a basket or locker for your belongings.
YES, there it is. My plan works!
Put all your belongings and clothes in the basket or locker. Strip down naked, except for the small handkerchief that you can use to cover your private parts.
Hmm, well yes I am now naked, but where is the darn handkerchief? It turns out I should have brought the handkerchief from our room! Ah well, a quick change and a sprint to the room fixed that problem. If you take a public Onsen, remember to bring or buy a handkerchief at reception!
Now you can enter the bathing area. Along the wall, there will be plastic stools, shower hoses and wash basins.
Check! Yes, this is proceeding exactly according to the master plan.
Wash and scrub yourself down thoroughly while sitting on the stool. Make sure to rinse off ALL the soap before entering the hot spring.
The hot spring water can be scalding, so take it slow getting in. Do NOT bring your handkerchief with you into the water. Put it on the side of the bath, and make sure it never touches the bath water. Or go the traditional route, and put it on your head while in the water.
Feeling self-conscious enough in my naked state, I decide that putting the handkerchief on my head probably won’t help, so I opted for placing it by the side of the bath.
Do NOT pee in the bath! Japanese Onsen use chemicals that colour the water purple when it comes in contact with urine!
Yikes! I’m not in the habit of peeing in public bath water, but knowing this made me very motivated not to leak as much as a single drop.
Soak and relax in the hot spring waters healing properties.
Ahh, this is nice! I’m finally relaxing; the hot water is loosening all my tense muscles… Hang on, isn‘t that naked Japanese guy coming awfully close?
When you get out of the water, do not shower. To preserve the healing properties of the Onsen you should just dry yourself gently off.
Oh crap, now you tell me! I forgot this the first time, and had to go into the water for a second dip!
Dry yourself off with your handkerchief before leaving the bathing area and entering the changing room.
What, I am supposed to get dry using this stamp sized towel! Apparently, you can have a second larger towel in the changing room, but I was only given the handkerchief.
Go into the changing room, find your basket and get dressed.
Yes, I had done it. Following my now proven clearly absolute genius plan, I had survived my first Onsen, without embarrassing myself completely. I had even had what the Japanese call a “hadaka no tsukiai” (naked communion), a term that describes that certain level of communication that can only be experienced when it’s all hanging out.
That night at dinner I meet my Japanese Onsen buddy again. He hands me his business card, and I enter my phone number and address into his phone. With great enthusiasm, he looks up my address on Google maps, and we both stare at a pin point on the map about a billion miles away.
If he ever comes to experience the northern lights, he says he will look me up. I say he is welcome anytime, and I mean it. I guess we are friends now, after all, we have been naked together.
Where to stay in Takayama
We stayed one night at Yamakuy Ryokan, and loved it! It is such a nice old Japanese guest house and compared with almost all other Ryokans in Japan actually pretty reasonably priced. We paid approximately 150 USD for two people, this included a very nice traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast. This Ryokan also has its own private onsen which we could use for free.
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Read our post about Yamakuy Ryokan: https://nerdnomads.com/staying-in-ryokan
We spent two nights at K's House - one of the best guesthouses we have ever stayed at! It is nice, clean and cozy, with excellent service and hospitality from the staff. We had a private room with private bathroom and paid 75 USD per night for two people. They also have 4-bed dorm rooms for about 25 USD.
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We used the Lonely Planet`s Japan travel guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below:
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How you ever been to a Japanese bath house/ Onsen? Would you have a problem bathing naked with strangers? 😉 Please leave a comment in the comment area below! If you liked this article and found it useful, please share on social media. Thank you! 🙂