The hidden Japanese art of Onsen

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H μυστική Ιαπωνική τέχνη του Όνσεν

Ελπίζω να καταλάβατε ότι ο τίτλος είναι ειρωνεία και δεν υπάρχει καμία μυστική τέχνη παρά μόνο μια ιαπωνική λέξη: το όνσεν. Τα χρόνια μου στην Ιαπωνία μου έμαθαν ότι μετά από μια κουραστική πεζοπορία, θα βρίσκεται πάντα μια θερμή πηγή στη βάση του βουνού για να πλυθώ και να ξεκουραστώ. Η Ιαπωνία αφθονεί σε ενεργά … More

What my years in Japan have taught me is that after a tiring hike, there is always a hot spring at the foot of the mountain to relax and freshen up. The abundance of volcanoes in the country is related to the numerous natural hot springs all over the country. And the Japanese people make good use of them.

An open-air bath called rotenburo.

Hot springs are called onsen (温泉) in Japanese. You can easily recognize an onsen building by the symbol ゆ (letter ‘yu’), which is represents the sound for the word describing hot water. An example you might have come across is the bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited away’ anime classic. The map symbol of an onsen is also an emoji ♨️. One of the main concerns during the planning of Tokyo 2020 Olympics was how to communicate appropriately the fact that shows a hot pool, not a hot plate of food. Basically, onsens are a type of public bath that many people use at the same time, either for free or for some fee. Until some decades ago, Japanese houses did not have a bath in the house, making public bath houses a prospering investment. Many hotels and inns still provide a large public bath instead of individual baths in the rooms. Bathhouses that use natural spring water are called onsen, while the ones that simple heat normal water are called sento (銭湯). If you come across one in downtown Tokyo, chances are it is a sento, because natural onsens are most commonly located close to mountains in the countryside.

Oyu, an elaborate wooden structure that functions as a free public bath in Nozawa Onsen

Usually, onsen bathhouses are built on top of a natural hot spring, containing various minerals and other beautifying substances. The plain flavor of an onsen contains one or two pools of hot water at 39 to 42 degrees Celsius, depending on the springs’ temperature, and possibly an external open-air pool. Men and women are separated, while small children can choose whose parent to accompany. The two sides are separated by a bamboo or wooden wall, in many cases allowing the conversations happening in the other side to travel through. While public baths have existed in many places worldwide, in Japan the unbroken rule is that you should be naked, not swimsuit or cover is allowed in the pools (a recent exception being special bras for mastectomy). Don’t worry about a possible persistent gaze, no one is going to judge you or your body; no one has ever stared at me in an onsen, regardless of me being an easy target as a foreigner. Any type of body cover includes also tattoos, which many owners and customers associate with wicked members of the mafia. Unfortunately, because of this rigid rule many foreign tourists are not allowed to enter, even though it’s obvious that they are not connected to the local mafia. The tattoo size doesn’t matter and there is no easy way to weasel your way inside. Thankfully, there are some onsens that do allow tattoos, but you have to research that beforehand. Which reminds me a story of a friend who confused his hostel name (called ‘Sakura’) with a neighboring onsen (called さくら, the Japanese writing of sakura) and entered unknowingly. Soon he realized it was no hostel, but decided to take a bath either way. Turns out this specific one was allowing entrance to customers with tattoos. The highlight of the bathing experience was when my friend had to beg for forgiveness to an old guy with full body yakuza tattoos, because he used his shampoo accidentally instead of the common ones. I guess the point of the story is to pay attention to use only the amenities provided by the facility and don’t try your luck with elderly yakuza.

Explanatory image of onsen manners [from Kosugi-yu, in Koenji]

In the beginning, it felt strange to be naked among strangers in such a confined space. But now, I can get enough of the pools, I am completely shameless. Japanese usually take a hot bath in the evening to relax and distress. Morning showers are not so common. On weekends, it is common to visit a public bath to release the stress of the week. In some bath houses, instead of renting a towel set, you can buy a small towel with the name and logo of the onsen for some 300JPY. Grandmas really like the marked towels, so that they can use them later during house chores. As you head to the baths, you can distinguish the female bath from the male bath from their respective colors or symbols on the curtains marking the entrance: red/女 for the female bath and blue/男 for the male bath. After stripping naked, you put your cloths in a straw basket (or a locker) and can enter the bath area. Because onsens are by definition required to provide a relaxing atmosphere, there are certain rules that need to be followed to the letter. Some onsens do not allow entrance to small children, in order to keep everything quiet. Onsen manners include washing yourself thoroughly with soap before entering the pools and keeping your hair up so that it doesn’t enter the pool. Remember to avoid being loud, entering the pool drunk (the hot temperature can make you dizzy) and dipping your towel in the water. You can fold a towel and put it on your head to help you balance your body temperature, since the head should remain outside the pool. After the bath, there are a couple of mirrors, sinks and hairdryers to do your hair and make-up. Of course, this is a prime opportunity for cosmetic companies to promote themselves with cream and lotion samples.

A lot of times, couples or groups of friends spend the holidays at traditional inns, called ryokan, staying in an enjoying the onsen pools for the entire weekend. These larger facilities, as well as some that are called “Super onsen” usually have restaurants that serve traditional Japanese cuisine. You can take a hot bath, relax in the exterior pool, get a massage, sleep on the tatami floor, have a fancy dinner with seafood and basically the whole day is gone. Fancier onsen provide towels and pajamas or yukata (a light robe) to use. In simple onsens near mountains the water itself is enough of an attraction. However, in most case onsen owners take great care to arrange the garden surrounding the pools with rocks, pine trees and other traditional elements, in order to make the landscape more aesthetically pleasing. In my opinion, the most satisfactory onsen experience, is that of a hot outside bath, called rotenburo (露天風呂) while it is snowing. Your body feels scalding hot, and simultaneously you can touch the snow without feeling cold, it is amazing. Afterwards, people like to drink some milk, which explains why you can find vending machines selling mini bottles of milk inside the dressing room. No matter how tempted you are, don’t use your phone inside an onsen, not in the pool area or the dressing room. The people who surround you are, after all, completely naked. You can describe verbally to your friends and family how it was and cherish the memory in your mind in private. You visit an onsen to take care of your body and calm your mind.

The restaurant of Tsurutsuru no yu in Saitama

Since the water is naturally hot, a common delicacy in onsen areas is onsen-tamago, eggs boiled in onsen water. You can easily find them if you visit Hakone, a tourist spot between Tokyo and Mt. Fuji. In the picture below you can see a pool used for cooking, because it’s too hot for humans, in Nozawa Onsen. If you could smell a photo, this one stinks. Depending on the area, hot springs contain different substances and this one has sulfur, causing a smell like rotten egg. But worry not, you can quickly get used to the smell and enjoy the water without thinking about it. For example, hot springs in Saitama have white alkali water, in Kanagawa carbonated black water and in Kobe rusty red water. Apart from humans, animal enjoy water too. In winter, monkeys in Nagano come down from the mountains forests to get warmer in the natural hot springs. Capybaras seem to like them as well, and it is common to put yuzu oranges in their pools so that the small animals can relax with the citric smell.

An open hot spring in Nozawa-Onsen, used mainly for cooking eggs.

Although I haven’t decided on my favorite onsen, here are some that I really enjoyed and offer as suggestions to try yourself.

The private bath of Yamadaya hotel, with a view to Mt. Fuji hovering above lake Shoji.

Have you ever visited an onsen or a similar facility? How do you feel about public baths? Tell me more about it in the comments!

View of Jidokudani Korakukan hot springs in Nagano

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