A little about Japan’s Onsen Culture

About a week ago a reader had a question about Japanese onsen etiquette.

There are two types of spas in Japan-onsen and sento. Onsen, literally hot spring, are governed by the onsen law of 1948. To obtain an official onsen certificate  a spa:

must have a natural spring that contains a defined amount of natural chemical components and is over a temperature of 25 degrees at its point of release.
There are a number of different onsen categories, according to chemical composition and temperature.

Japan Association of Official Hot Spring Inns

Japan’s onsen history goes back about 3,000 years. Basically onsen are geothermal pools. There are over 3,000 onsen throughout Japan mostly in the Kyushu and Tohoku areas. Japan is 75% mountainous with many  active volcanoes and geothermal underground rivers and springs. It is interesting because many of the hot springs were discovered by hunters who followed wounded animals to remote onsen pools who, as legend has it, knew that the waters were healing.

Below is a photo I took when we were in Beppu over the New Year holidays. That is steam rising up out of vents. The steam comes from the geothermal streams that criss-cross under the ground.  The entire area is literally sitting on top of boiling streams.

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People visit an onsen for the healing quality of the water. There are various types of onsen. Our favorite type of is one that is located in a ryokan or traditional Japanese inn. I just love these type of places. Decorated in the traditional style most ryokan serve guests in the old style with generous hospitality in stunning surroundings. This is our favorite get-away ryokan.

Most hotels have a spa but not all are official onsen.

Sento are local community bath houses. These have changed over the years but in deep rural Japan you can still find a local village bath house. My husband said in the “old days” many houses didn’t have a bath -hence the village bath house.

In our area there are government built onsen in most towns because we live in a geothermal spring- rich area. The government onsen do not have overnight accommodations but most have a large tatami room with Japanese style tables and a TV where you can go to rest and lounge around before or after your bath. Some also have a restaurant. The one in our local area has a “healthy food” restaurant that we like to dine at on occasions-if we can get a seat. On most days they are really full.

Internet image-if this is your image let me know so I can give you credit.

There is a certain etiquette followed when visiting an onsen that Japanese know by heart however a foreigner visiting an onsen for the first time might not intuitively understand the “rules”. I’ve seen posters for foreigners in several onsen-here are a few that might make you laugh.

Obvious -I would hope.

I’m a bit puzzled by the last one-“Please do not walk around in wet body”. I am not sure how you avoid not walking around wet in a spa. I wonder what they meant by that.

A photo of a typical shower set-up. Notice the small stools and washing bowl. You would wash with soap here first before getting into the tubs.

No towel and hair inside tub. The idea here is that your towel should stay on the edge of the tub while you are inside. Although I always see women wearing their towel exactly like this-on top of their head. You should also refrain from dunking your head under the water.

This is a biggie for many foreigners. It is not okay to use the onsen if you have a tattoo. Why? Because tattoos are associated with the Japanese Yakuza-or Japanese mafia.

On occasion I have seen a Japanese women in the onsen with a small tattoo.No one said anything to them. I noticed that all of them were conscious of trying to keep it covered.

Probably by now you have noticed that onsen are not swimming pools. They are a form of bath house and therefore we do not use bathing suits or any type of “cover-up”-unless you opt for a mixed gender onsen. Yes-men and women bathing together. In this situation then it is proper for women to use a big bath-towel and wrap it around themselves and keep it on the entire time while using the tubs. Even in the water. We do not go to mixed gender onsen. I’m quite comfortable with nude bathing in an onsen where men and women are segregated-but I would not be in a mixed gender situation. No thanks.

I will say that we do use small towels – the size of hand towels- to cover up our private parts while walking around. You kind of hold the towel with one hand on your belly and let it drape down to cover yourself while you are walking from one pool to the other or just walking around inside the bath area.

You figure out the ladies side from the men’s side by the color of the door curtain-ladies is always red. It’s standard as far as I have seen. Many times they switch sides every morning so you can have a chance to experience each spa-most times they are each decorated differently.

Usually there are indoor and outdoor pools. The outdoor pool is called a rotenburo and most are set within a Japanese style garden often with a mountain or river view. Always stunning and deeply relaxing.

We have an older Japanese home with an old-style bathtub. It is kind of our private-mini onsen.  I LOVE it. I can say with certainty that pretty-much every house and apartment in Japan has a soaking tub. The tubs are deep, when you sit in them the water comes up to your neck. In newer homes (some not all) and apartments the tub room is small. Really small-it’s like a one piece molded plastic unit. My mother-in-law has one in her home and it is a one person deal. Actually even for one person it is a bit of a squeeze.

Toilets are never inside the tub-room, they are in their own little “toilet room”. Except perhaps in a hotel room.

We have a lovely old-style tub room. The room itself measures 180 cm x 180 cm which is a little over 5×5 feet. Pretty big for a tub-room. It fits two people easily.

Below are a few images from this past December-right before New Year. We had our traditional (cultural) yuzu bath. Yuzu are a citrus fruit that are in season in the winter. There are many different varieties. My friend has a tree and she never fails to bring us a bag of yuzu right before yuzu bath day.The tub is filled with fresh hot water and then the yuzu are tossed into the tub filling the room with a soothing and aromatic natural citrus scent. The natural oils are released into the hot water leaving your skin soft and smelling like citrus. December 22 is yuzu bath day-winter solstice day. Japanese tradition says that taking a bath on the night of the winter solstice keeps you from catching a cold the rest of the year.  I just like it because it’s so relaxing and wonderful smelling.

You can see that our tub is quite deep. Half of the tub is sunk into the floor or it would be too high to safely climb into.

It is a lovely thing to take a bath with my husband on a warm spring or autumn evening. The idea of bathing together in Japan is not lewd. Culturally-nudity is viewed differently. I’m not saying it is a free-for-all and everyone walks around naked in front of each other-not at all. I’m talking strictly about the onsen culture and family bathing. It is not at all unusual for families with small children to bathe together at home.

Mothers bring little boys -about preschool age into the ladies side of the onsen all the time. I have even been in baths where older boys (they must have been about 6 or 7 years old) were with their grandmother. I know that must sound horrifying to some but I don’t even blink an eye anymore. No one here thinks of it in any way but natural.

If you want to see some beautiful pics of Japanese onsen you can check out google.

 

9 thoughts on “A little about Japan’s Onsen Culture

  1. This was a highlight from my stay in japan. I’m coming back in spring of 2018.
    There are public saunas in Portland dating back a hundred years from our scandanavian heritage.
    I might have to try a citrus soak in my jacuzzi.

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  2. Thank you, I found this very interesting! Tattoos are so common here now, it’s a shame. I see beautiful young women who are covered in them, even their faces! Someday they will regret this ,I’m sure. I love the idea of the lemon bath! I don’t usually take baths ( I shower), it seems too time consuming, but now it seems like a good idea! Thank you. Anita

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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    1. Tattoos are more and more common here too. My sister in law surprised me when I saw a small tattoo on her shoulder! Bathing in Japan is not just a way to get clean- but it is how we relax. We don’t take baths in the summer simply because for my husband and I – having lived most of our lives on a tropical island- it’s too hot! Although it is cultural to take a bath even in the summer. But believe me- as SOON as the temps drop– we fill the tub! We even make a special little celebration out of the ” first bath of the season”. Just a personal little thing my husband and I do for fun. It’s not cultural.

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  3. Might I add a bit about washing. I was taught that one washes first before entering the bath by sitting on the stools, soaping up and then rising off. NO soap in the tub ever. Only then one enters the tub. However I also have seen men just come into the room and rinse off with the tub water using a bucket and then just jump into the tub. I did not appreciate this manner of use. My first sentos were in 1959 and proper bath etiquette was observed. However in Tokyo as recently as 2006 I did witnessed numerous times men just jumping into the tub. Not very appealing. Bath etiquette is extremely important. As a tourist one should get introduced to proper bathing as the sense of cleanliness (real or imaged) is extremely import. Be aware of proper bathing!

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    1. Hi KP- I have also seen this same practice. As a matter of fact I see it all the time when we go to Onsen. A certain family member of ours does the constantly- and I’ve noticed that it is mostly the ” old folks” who do this. Sometimes Japan can be downright puzzling! On the one hand we read about or are taught about ” being proper” in so many ways- especially those of us that are married into the culture! Believe me when I say I get lessons on how to do everything the ” proper way”. But then- we go to Onsen with the elderly members of the family and I witness outright breaking of some of the most important etiquette ! I ALWAYS follow the rules. Always. Because the ones who are chastised for not following them are usually – me.

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  4. You’re doing a very good job informing your readers about Japanese culture. And the photos are great.

    What is “your” favorite thing about the Onsens? Is it medicinal, spiritual, a physical cleansing, a mental cleansing, a sense of community, or just because it feels good? 😊

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    1. My favorite part about Onsen is everything you listed- plus the sensory enjoyment- the sound of the water bubbling, falling from bamboo pipes, soft splashing. Sitting in the rotenburo viewing the moon or the snow as it falls softly. Watching the ancient cedar trees sway on the mountainside through steam rising off the pool. In the autumn it’s the sound blends… Crickets, soft bubbling, splashing of the pool…wind. It’s just a lovely experience.

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