Tuesday, 24 July 2012

JAPAN: Onsen etiquette. Or, how not to embarrass yourself while naked in public.

Bathing at an onsen (a natural hot bath) is an integral part of Japanese life, and an enjoyable and culturally interesting activity for a visitor.  However, there are a number of etiquette rules to be observed, which you ignore at peril of embarrassment!  The following is a short explanation of the onsen "rules" I have gleaned over numerous visits to Japan.  I find knowing how to behave helps me to relax and enjoy the ritual of bathing and soaking in the mineral pools, and it is now something I actively look forward to on each trip.   

Even monkeys enjoy onsen bathing.
As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of areas where hot water naturally bubbles to the surface, and in many of these places, bathhouses have been constructed. In other places, the local wildlife get in on the act, and the snow monkeys of Nagano have been perfecting the art of the onsen for ages!  An onsen may be as simple as a small changing and bathing shed next to a natural hot pool, or as elaborate as an entire complex of rooms and specially constructed pools within a hotel or ryokan (traditional inn). The naturally hot geothermal water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content, and I can certainly attest to its reliving power on muscles tired from a day of snowboarding. 

Onsen are synonymous with relaxing and enjoying natural beauty. Onsen are a major domestic tourist attraction, drawing Japanese couples, families or company groups who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to relax. Japanese often talk of the virtues of "naked communion" for breaking down barriers and getting to know people in the relaxed atmosphere of an onsen. The bathhouse is one of the few places that the normal strict social hierarchy of Japan is ignored, and people can relate as equals - the onsen strips away social convention along with clothing.

Traditionally, men and women bathed together at the onsen, but single-sex bathing has become the norm more recently.  Mixed-sex bathing persists at some special onsen (konyoku) in the rural areas of Japan, but it would be very uncommon for a foreigner to encounter one of these, so it's not really something you need to worry about.  However, children of either sex may be seen in both the men's and the women's baths.  People often go to onsen with work colleagues, friends or their families.  Socially, the closest Western equivalent I can think of is a picnic, and people behave in much the same way as they would in this setting, despite being naked!

Onsen are popular in snow areas -
perfect after a long day on the slopes!
The following important etiquette points will help you blend in at the onsen:

1. Remove your shoes. When you first enter the onsen, you will generally see a small step, leading into the main changing area.  This is your cue to remove your shoes, and leave them in a neat line, or in the shelves or lockers provided.  Continue on in your bare feet (or "onsen slippers" which will be laid out if provided). This is part of the pervasive Japanese idea of compartmentalized spaces of increasing cleanliness.  A good example is exchanging your street shoes for "house slippers" when you enter a home, or wearing special "toilet slippers" only in the lavatory. (Of course, this leads to many amusing opportunities for the foreigner to forget and wear the toilet slippers back into public.)

2. Remove all your clothes. Once you enter the main changing area, you will normally see a series of shelves, baskets or lockers.  This is where you leave all your clothes and your large towel. Continue in to the next area completely naked.  Do not wear a swimsuit or your underwear. You may take a small "modesty towel" with you, but this is used only to dry your face or hair, and is generally not large enough to provide any level of modesty in any case. Be brave!  You can also take any toiletries with you that you may need, but basic ones like liquid soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided.  

3. Scrub, scrub and then scrub again. All guests are expected to wash their bodies thoroughly and rinse themselves carefully before entering the hot water pools. On entering the  "wet area" of the onsen, you will see a series of bathing stations, which are generally equipped with tiny, low stools, hand-held shower heads, wooden buckets, and toiletries such as soap and shampoo.  One sits on the stool, and begins to wash.  Most Japanese will meticulously wash their hair twice, and scrub their entire body carefully.  Any activity you would carry out in your own bathroom is acceptable in the washing area, and I have seen shaving, plucking, exfoliation and toenail trimming, amongst others! However, all of these things must be carried out strictly in the washing area, and nowhere near the pools.  The main thing to keep in mind is that the onsen is "clean" and must be kept that way - you must be perfectly clean before entering the pools.

Typical indoor / outdoor onsen.  Note the 
bathing station in the corner of the room.  
4. Don't stare, swim laps or let your modesty towel get in the water. When you are clean enough to enter the pools (I generally make sure I have washed for at least as long as the woman next to me, as I am paranoid about being thought an "unclean foreigner"), get up off your stool, and head to the water.  You should leave your washing station clean and ready for the next person.  Enter the water slowly, as it will be very hot.  Once immersed, sit quietly - an onsen is not a swimming pool, so doing laps is not kosher. Remember, only your well-scrubbed body should enter the pool, so set your towel off to the side, and don't let it touch the water.  Advanced students may like to place their folded towels on top of their heads at a jaunty angle.  People generally enjoy the onsen in tranquility, though it is perfectly acceptable to chat with friends.  Don't openly stare, but take in the display of flesh of all shapes, sizes and ages and inwardly feel better.  Remember, no one is especially looking at you, and the Japanese don't regard nakedness as any big deal.  

5. Have your large tattoos removed. While this may be going just a tad too far (!) many onsen do ban bathers with tattoos, as in Japan they are still somewhat associated with criminality.  Yakuza (Japanese “mafia”) traditionally have large, beautiful, elaborate tattoos. Depending on the onsen, this 'no tattoo' rule may be enforced against all.  Most onsen are now relaxing this requirement as "fashion" tattoos become more popular among young people, and in general, small, non-Japanese-style tattoos are politely ignored. No stranger to ink myself, I have never had an issue, but a friend with a large dragon covering her back has been refused entry at traditional onsen.  

6. Don't get carried away and faint. The water is very hot, so don't stay in too long, take advantage of the cool drinking water and cold plunge pools often available, but do linger in your bathrobe and enjoy the massage chairs, hairdryers and complimentary cosmetics.  Most of all, enjoy the feeling of quiet companionship, the easing of your aches and pains, and the sense you have really begun to understand Japanese culture at a deeper level.

Rush Expeditions runs regular trips to Japan, which include the opportunity to try an onsen for yourself! www.rushexpeditions.com

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