To the Western mind, there are many curious and fascinating things about Japan. All the Japanese people that I've ever met are super-polite, and on average I think they're much more polite than the people from any other country that I've visited. They're also often a bit shy and reserved. That makes the culture associated with bathing in an onsen all the more unexpected, because getting completely naked with strangers in a bath isn't the kind of thing that you usually associate with shy or reserved people.
An onsen is a large steamy bath that uses the hot spring water that naturally bubbles to the surface in volcanically active countries like Japan. In areas where hot spring water occurs, there'll be public onsen where people can go to bathe, in much the same way that there are public swimming baths in countries like the UK where people can go and swim. Additionally some hotels, and especially the traditional Japanese inns called ryokan, provide onsens for the use of their guests. In areas where there isn't any naturally occurring hot spring water, ryokans will still generally provide communal bathing areas which just use ordinary heated water and which work in exactly the same way as the genuine onsens.
Given the reserved nature of Japanese people, I originally assumed that onsens would be like swimming pools in the UK, in the sense that one would wear something like a swimming costume when bathing in the hot spring water. But they're not like that at all. They're segregated by gender, and once inside everyone is completely naked. I've seen quite a few explanations about how to behave when visiting an onsen, and I always think that it's amusing if that is not stated very clearly. And as one might expect given their reserved culture, it's the explanations written by Japanese people that tend to gloss over that fact!
So, here's GB's guide on how to behave when visiting an onsen. It's based on my own experiences, together with my observations of the way that Japanese men behave when bathing:
- Before entering the onsen there may be an area for people to leave their shoes or slippers, and if so, use it.
- Once inside, the first area will be where you leave all your clothes. This area may also contain things like towels, hairdryers, disposable razors, disposable toothbrushes, sinks and toilets etc. In any case, take off all your clothes straight away and leave them here in the baskets or lockers provided.
- Having removed all your clothes, go into the next area and sit on a stool in front of the taps and shower heads, (see adjacent picture). Wash yourself thoroughly before getting into the large steamy bath.
- I've seen two sorts of towels being used in onsens. Big bath towels are used for drying oneself in the area where you leave your clothes. On the other hand, much smaller towels are used in the area where you wash and bathe. I've seen the smaller towels used like a flannel for washing yourself, and also being worn as a kind of hat or headband while in the communal bath. However, I've also seen a notice saying that wetting or rinsing these small towels in the communal bath is bad etiquette.
- Another key thing to avoid is getting into the communal bath while there is still soap on your body, so make sure that all shampoo or soap has been washed off before getting in.
Bathing in hot spring water is very relaxing, and my best guess is that the rituals associated with onsens relate to the fact that in most areas the hot water bubbles to the surface quite slowly. So one can't quickly change the water in an onsen, and similarly if there's not much genuine hot spring water to go round then everyone needs to share. Hence people need to be clean before they get in, because no one wants to share the water with dirty people or with people who haven't washed themselves properly and still have soap on their bodies.
Lastly, there's an obvious advantage to being gay when using an onsen. If a guy has a girlfriend, then they have to bathe separately, however when a guy has a boyfriend then they can both bathe together :-).