A Westerner’s guide to hot springs

Photo from: Japan-guide.com

A Japanese Onsen. Photo from: Japan-guide.com

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a town called Beppu on the volcanic island of Kyushu in the South-Western part of Japan. Due to its active volcanoes Beppu is known for its onsens (i.e. hot springs), whose mineral-rich water with its supposedly rejuvenating and healing effects are popular with the Japanese, foreigners and monkeys alike.

Below are some photos that illustrate the volcanic nature of Beppu. The onsens in the photos are not for bathing – unless you want to know what an egg feels like when you drop it in boiling water.

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Some areas of Beppu are so volcanic that steam sprays out of drains and any other outlet of underground pressure.

IMG_1218The locals have harnessed this power and use it, for instance, to steam their food (see photo below).

IMG_1301I had planned to go and visit one of the famous public onsens (not the one for eggs, but one for people) in Beppu, but the season’s first strong typhoon decided to hit Osaka the morning when I was supposed to fly out, and so, due to a delayed flight and a tight conference schedule for the weekend, I didn’t have a chance to experience the famous onsen.

I have to say I am amazed I made it to Beppu at all. The typhoon had been battering Japan for 24 hours and all around Osaka was still marked as a red ‘warning’-area when my flight was scheduled, but to my delight the flight wasn’t cancelled. I was especially delighted to see on the departure information board that my plane was a ‘Bombardier’. To my mind this signified a sturdy plane. However, when I saw the plane my delight turned to horror.  I think my 7-year old son has a radio-controlled plane that is bigger.

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I got to Beppu in one piece. Instead of the famous onsens, I enjoyed my hotel room with a private onsen. Sitting in the hot water of the tub while listening to spa-like meditation music and admiring the post-typhoon clouds was pretty amazing.

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Given that my room was on the first floor of the building, next to a beach and a seaside boulevard, it may not have been quite as private as I stupidly assumed while stepping into the onsen in my birthday suit, in particular in the evening when it was dark outside and light in my room. God help Beppu (or so my husband told me!).

I’m hoping that the rehydrating mask on my face may have distracted their eyes away from my body, after all rather than a Nordic mermaid I looked more like Jason from Friday the 13th.

IMG_1124When I checked in, the concierge who escorted me to my room explained the purpose of bits and bobs in the room, one of which was the function of an outfit folded nicely on my bed. She said there was communal onsen on the roof terrace of the hotel, which I was welcome to use, but I would have to wear the outfit to go there.

I didn’t really want to go to the communal onsen, partly because I had my private onsen but largely because the purpose of the outfit was not completely clear to me. Do you just pull the outfit off at the side of the onsen and jump in? What do you do with your underwear – should I not wear underwear? Well, I decided to be brave and go and take a look at the roof terrace onsen. I decided to hedge my bets and wore my knickers but not a bra.

IMG_1095There also a pair of socks on the bed and I assumed I was meant to wear them with the onsen outfit and sandals. Unbeknownst to me this was a complete faux-pas and when I showed pictures to my work colleagues they thought it was hilarious. My husbands says they made me look like a mountain goat (or Jeremy Corbyn).

IMG_1097On the roof terrace, I found a changing room with wicker baskets into which you were to leave your clothes. There were two Japanese women getting dressed while I was undressing myself. Having underwear seemed to be the correct choice. I then headed to the door leading to the roof terrace with my hotel room key. One of the women ran after me and said that I should leave my room key in the wicker basket on the shelf. I was confused, what’s the point in locking my room if I then leave the key in a basket in a public place? But, feeling like a child, I did as instructed.

I then walked into the roof terrace, to find that there was only one onsen pool and that there was only one other woman there, sitting on a stool next to the showers and vigorously scrubbing herself with soap and pouring ladle-loads of water on herself. I also had a wash and stepped into the pool. I sat there naked in the 39 degree water in the surprising fresh post-typhoon air. A couple of minutes later the lady comes and joins me in the pool. The two of us sat there in silence for 10 minutes. Then she stands up, looks at me, says something in Japanese and walks out. I’m guessing it was something like ‘Thanks for the company’ or ‘Enjoy the onsen’. But of course it could have been ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’.

In case you are planning to visit Japan and its onsens, don’t worry about minor detail (like the underwear or the sock issue above). As long as you know the basic etiquette you’ll be fine. These are the important points that you should get right:

(1) Generally, tattoos are not allowed in Onsens. This is because in Japan tattoos are associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) (click here to read my previous blog post about the topic). But of course you’ll be able to enjoy a private onsen in your room even if you had a huge carp, a tiger or ‘I love Jimmy Savile’ tattoo on your back.

(2) You go to an onsen naked. No bathing suits are allowed. Men and women are usually segregated so, at least for a Finn (who is used to sharing saunas with other naked people of their own sex, communal or domestic) in the nudity respect, going to an onsen is as mundane as wiping your 4-year-old’s bottom when they’ve used the toilet. However, a non-Finnish Westerner, say a British person, might find walking around and sitting in an onsen naked as uncomfortable as wiping your father-in-law’s bottom when they’ve used the toilet. You see, in an English swimming pool, everyone has their own cubicle in which they get changed. You don’t see anyone naked. This is taken to the lengths that there are signs on the walls instructing swimming pool-goers not to remove their bathing suits even in the showers.

(3) Many people in the onsens have a little ‘modesty’ towel, the size of a rectangular hand towel that you can hold against your body while you walk from the showers to the pool or from one pool to the next. When you get to the pool, you must fold the towel up and either place it on the side of the pool or on your head (folded). It is considered bad manners to soak the towel in the onsen water.

(4) You need to have a wash before you step into an onsen, a bit like you need to have a shower before you go to Sauna in Finland. These are communal places to cleanse your mind and body, so you can at least give the impression that the number of germs in the onsen water/sauna is minimal.

(5) The use of soap, shampoo or conditioner are not allowed in the actual onsen pool. You need to wash yourself in the shower area in close proximity to the pool.

Photo: TripAdvisor

Photo: TripAdvisor

(6) Shaving your underarms, legs, or other body parts (or facial hair) is not allowed in the onsen for the obvious reason. I’ll spell it out in case some of you can’t see the harm in disposing your unwanted stubble in the communal bath water. In short, nobody wants to find that while you’ve managed to get rid of your armpit hair, they (by sharing the onsen with you) leave the bath looking like a gorilla.

(7) No splashing of water or swimming in the onsen. So don’t show up with your 4-year old and inflatable arm-bands for a revitalizing swimming lesson. You are supposed to sit/lay there in a calm, peaceful and importantly considerate manner enjoying the relaxing ambience. Although, the TVs that some onsens have on the walls ruin the relaxing ambience for me. Luckily, the onsen in Beppu didn’t fall for this unnecessary provision for the people addicted to screen time.

(8) For the obvious reason, cameras are not allowed in public onsens. Even though it would be tempting to snap a couple of shots for one’s blog of people sitting in the onsen with towels towering on their heads, you yourself don’t probably want to end up naked in someone else’s blog’s cover photo.

That’s it. Those are the most important rules for onsen visits. The only other thing that might be useful to mention is that Japanese men and women are extremely slim. Unless your body shape is that of a supermodel, be prepared to leave the onsen with some minor symptoms of body dysmorphia. I mean, if you are a normal Western size, you’ll look like a walrus doing a truffle shuffle.

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16 thoughts on “A Westerner’s guide to hot springs

  1. Great idea for a post! I could really use heading to a hot spring today!!!!! I was thinking of holidays for next year and maybe I shall have to choose somewhere with a hot spring 🙂

  2. I love this! Also I love onsens. I really need to get to Beppu one day.
    There are a lot more Japanese people in Okinawa with tattoos that I have noticed than on the mainland. Not sure if that’s just because people are much more chilled out down here…..?

    • Beppu is great. I’m considering taking my husband and children there this autumn.

      Could the more liberal approach to tattoos in Okinawa be related to the US army base being in Naha…? There are not that many foreigners in Osaka and hence tattoos are predominantly associated with the yakuza, while in Okinawa there may not be such strong association…?

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