Japanese onsen — hot springs — have a whole code of etiquette their own that is often hard for foreigners to understand. The Japanese approach onsen as an important ritual, and not just a daily wash-off of sweat and stink. A soak in a hot tub not only cleanses the body, but also the soul. If you are not from Japan, it is hard to know what you are supposed to do in a Japanese onsen, and with the language barrier, it is easy to feel that you are probably, and most likely, doing something wrong.
Luckily for me, I just arrived in Japan at a time when things are still a bit quiet after the earthquake, and people are not venturing far from home. I recently went to an onsen hotel by the seaside with friends, and amazingly we were the only guests in the whole place. So, I took advantage of this extremely rare situation, and took my camera inside the onsen (which is a big no-no) to show you dear readers what is what, and where is where.
First, at the entrance you will typically see this blue curtain, with the character ‘YU’, which stands for ‘water’. This is at the entrance of every single onsen. (Never forget that the Japanese have a strong need for uniformity, so if you see it in one onsen, you will see it in every single onsen).
Once behind this curtain, you will see two curtains — kind of like the pills in The Matrix. Behind the red curtain, ‘Onna’, is the women’s onsen. Behind the blue curtain, ‘Otoko’, is the men’s onsen. The onsen are always segregated by sex, so if you are a woman, be sure to remember that red is close enough to pink, and never go into the blue onsen.
After you get inside, you shed your yukata — summer robe — into your basket, and head towards the shower area. You will see a bunch of small white stools to sit on, and a shower to wash yourself with. It is extremely important to shower before you go into the onsen. In fact it is probably the most important thing to remember. Never ever ever get into the onsen without showering off first. Like I said, the onsen is not for cleansing your filthy hairy stinky sweaty body or scrubbing your yam foot. In the shower area, you can wash your hair, soap up your body, cleanse thoroughly, and shave. Do whatever you want to do in the shower area. But never do these things inside the onsen hot pools themselves.
The water in an onsen is usually well over 40’C which is quite hot. If you are a Trini like me, who is accustomed to jumping into a cold sea in Maracas or an ice-cold waterfall in the North Coast, this kind of hot water is almost scalding. You don’t have to stay in for too long. Usually there is a ledge you can sit on to cool off your body if you can’t take the heat. Bigger onsens have huge rooms with cold water (and sometimes beer), fans, and air con to make sure you don’t overheat and pass out. I can only handle about ten minutes myself, though you are welcome to come and go as you please, and enjoy hours at the onsen.
This onsen where we stayed was quite small, only 8 rooms, but bigger onsen sometimes have massage rooms, restaurants and cafes, and a variety of different onsen tubs with different temperatures, some even with ice cold water! Some have smoking rooms, indoor and outdoor onsens, hair dryers, combs, moisturizers, and a variety of other toiletries. It all really depends on the size and scope of the place. This place I am showing you was comparatively simple.
So, the final question: what’s the protocol once you are IN the onsen itself? Many foreigners are nervous about getting naked in front of strangers, but the Japanese have no problem going to an onsen naked in front of lots of people. However, the sight of a foreign body in a Japanese onsen sometimes makes the local people nervous too. My advice is just be polite and smile and you will be fine. You don’t have to make small talk although a pleasant ‘konnichiwa’ is okay if the onsen is particularly small. Everyone is there to soak away their aches and pains and come out fresh as a newborn baby. So when in Rome, do as the Romans, and when in Japan, do as the Japanese!