I stood bare and exposed before everyone in the room.
My heart beat fast and I could do nothing to hide my gaikokujin body from the curious eyes that ran over me. I simply had to embrace my nakedness.
This was no analogy running through my head — I did not have a terrible secret or weakness being exposed and leaving me feeling momentarily vulnerable.
No, I was actually stark naked and about to experience my first Japanese onsen.
Gabriel and I had heard about the public baths, but only in passing. I knew they were natural hot springs converted into bathhouses and were wildly popular among Japanese people (particularly, where we were living in Hokkaido).
But I had no idea if they were separated by gender, or what was considered proper etiquette once inside. All I knew was that one moment, we were camping. Then, in one blink of an eye, I was standing (as described), bare and exposed before 20 Japanese and two South Africans. Read the full story
It was an experience I’ll never forget, and one I likely would not have had the courage to do on my own. That’s why, when our brothers and parents visited us in Sapporo, we didn’t give them a heads up they were about to experience their first onsen, either. We knew they were likely to balk at the idea, and that an element of surprise was necessary to get them into the bathhouses. We also knew once they were inside, they would love it.
Of course, we were with them every step of the way and guided them through the appropriate onsen courtesies. And, just as predicted, they did love it.
But what do you do if you don’t have someone to guide you through a Japanese bath? Here are some easy steps to follow to ensure you are not only respectful of onsen etiquette, but also get the most out of your experience.
1. GET NAKED
The majority of onsen are separated by gender. Even those that allow both men and women in the same baths have separate changing rooms to ready in. Find a locker or cubby to store your clothes inside and strip down. There are no swimsuits allowed, so don’t worry if you forgot to pack one in your suitcase.
Traditionally, tattoos are not allowed at the onsen because they are associated with yakuza. While it is unlikely a foreigner will be mistaken for a member of the Japanese crime syndicate, the rule stands at most establishments and it is best to call beforehand to see if tattoos are allowed. Otherwise, you might be asked to leave.
Once you have entered the baths, you’ll notice showering stations set apart from the pools. It is important to properly wash your body before entering the baths. Sit down on one of the stools and wash thoroughly. Most Japanese bathhouses provide shampoo and soap, but you are also welcome to bring your own.
After showering, it is time to do kakeyu, or to rinse. The purpose of kakeyu is to warm your body with hot water so that it is not shocked when you enter the steaming baths. Start by pouring hot water over your feet and hands before proceeding towards the center of your body — next your legs and arms, then your head. Once you feel adjusted to the hot water, you may enter the baths.
At most onsen, modesty towels are available as part of the entry fee or for separate purchase, but don’t let the name fool you. Small in size, you will not be able to wrap the towel around your body. Instead, hold it to your frontside as a cover when entering or exiting the pools. Take care your towel does not go into the water! Instead, place it on your head to prevent dizziness as you soak.
Bath temperatures typically range from 77º fahrenheit (25º centigrade) to 111º fahrenheit (44º centigrade) and up, and the steam can be intense at times. Larger onsen offer multiple baths at varying temperatures. If one bath is too hot, try another until you find one that is most comfortable for you.
It is also important that women with long hair use a clip or hair tie, to prevent their tresses from touching the water when soaking.
To avoid becoming over heated or fatigued, leave the baths when you have sweat on your forehead. Step out of the bath slowly and avoid splashing or disturbing your neighbors. You may dry yourself before re-entering the changing rooms, but do not go back to the showers. Doing so will remove the minerals you were exposed to in the baths and will prevent you from receiving their healthy benefits.
It is also important to avoid drinking alcohol beforehand. Although it might be tempting to enjoy a glass of wine before the relaxing baths, it can lead to dehydration. Instead, be sure to drink plenty of water before and after bathing.
Although Gabriel and I frequently visited onsen while camping or traveling for the sole purpose of getting clean, a proper onsen experience is not to be rushed. Often, girlfriends will head to the Japanese baths together on a girls-day-out — similar to how they might visit the salon or spa in the States. Or, whole families will go together and enjoy a few hours at the baths. Admittance fees, which are on average between ¥400 to ¥1,000 per person and up, are for the day. That means you’re welcome to enjoy the baths, break for a snack or meal, and re-enter.
Don’t want prune-like fingers and toes? Some establishments also offer massage services once you’ve had your fill of soaking. Inquire about reservations before heading into the baths to make the most of your time.
Are you a gaikokujin like us? While the idea of being naked in front of strangers might make you uncomfortable, it’s important as a foreigner to remember that going to the onsen is completely natural for a Japanese person. They might look at you, but it’s out of curiosity — they’re wondering why are you in Japan? Are you enjoying the onsen? Is it your first time? Sometimes, you might encounter someone confident enough to come up to you in the baths and ask these questions. But most often, they will not disturb you, as they want you to relax and understand why the onsen is a wonderful, one-of-a-kind experience.