We always are mentioning onsen around here (in Tokyo and at Oku-Hida) and we have tried our best to explain the concept. But, it is a bit difficult for most foreigners to wrap their heads around it. You simply have to come to Japan sometime and see for yourself, the Japanese really are on to something with the whole onsen idea.
To help you understand a little bit more, we decided to sneak a few pictures when we were on our anniversary get-away. Now, don’t get too excited, there aren’t any people in any of the pictures you are about to see. We took pictures of our private onsen in order to show you how the whole onsen process goes.
First, before entering the showering area you take off your clothes in the changing room. Typically, there are many other people in the area with you and there is no room for being shy.
Once you are down to your birthday suit, you take your modesty towel (about the size of a hand towel, but a bit longer) and proceed to the showering area. You may not bring anything else with you to the bathing area.
Most showering areas look like this. There is a little stool to sit on on the floor, and a small bucket. There are shared soaps and shampoos. Go ahead, sit down right next to the perfect stranger and start lathering up. Don’t skip anything, as a foreigner it is almost certain that you are being watched! And, make sure to rinse well, bringing suds into the onsen is a major faux pas.
Once you are nice and clean you can proceed to the onsen (bath). There are usually several to choose from. They may be different temperatures, some may have massage jets, and there may be some with added minerals or salts (for the health). Just pick one that looks nice and work your way in. Start slowly, they are usually quite hot.
While you are in the tub, you must not let your modesty towel enter the water. It is also considered impolite to put your hair into the tub. Most women with long hair tie it up to avoid this possibility. You are free to soak for as long as you would like. It is not uncommon for bathers to soak for a bit, then sit on the edge with their legs dangling in the water to cool down, only to return to soaking a few minutes later. It is also okay to move on to a different tub, if sampling is your style.
If it starts to rain and you want to continue enjoying the outdoor bath, there are usually some rain hats provided.
And don’t forget to enjoy the view. A lot of the outdoor hot springs have scenery that is quite stunning.
Once you are finished you take your modesty towel and head back to the changing room. Before you go into the changing room, do your best to dry off with your tiny towel. It is considered quite rude to track into the changing room while dripping with water. Not only is it rude, it is also likely to damage the tatami mats that are often present in the rooms.
So, there you have it. Enjoying onsen is just that easy!