What is a Japanese Onsen? An onsen is equivalent to the hot springs we have in Canada except for some very important differences. The water used both in Canada and Japan come from springs in the ground, but the setup is different. In Canada, the hot springs that I’ve frequented are a glorified large hot tub. They’re fairly shallow and tiled like a swimming pool. The onsens in Japan are different. For instance, you can rent a private onsen which is, from what I gather, a large tub. Some hotels have private onsens in their rooms. (With both of these options, I hope that they change the water and clean the tub between guests.) These hotels are expensive and I’ve never been. The public onsens are made to look like natural rock pools that you might see naturally occurring in the mountains. They have two separate pool areas, one for each sex. Children can go in with either parent. Why are there separate pools? Because you go in naked. When I was first telling my brother about the onsen, he was shocked that I would go into a pool with naked men. I had to clarify that there were separate pools for each sex.
The first onsen we visited was in Ikeda about 7km away from where we were living. As we couldn’t take a train to Ikeda, we biked there instead and arrived dusty and sweaty. I was uneasy about going to the onsen. I know foreigners who have lived in Japan for years who have never gone because they aren’t comfortable with being naked in a tub with other people. My husband and I chose to take the plunge and go, my husband hoping that he wouldn’t see any of his junior high students while in his birthday suit.
We pay, then, go into our separate change rooms and I look around to make sure that what I read was true- everyone does go in naked. (Wouldn’t that be embarrassing if it was all a myth and you end up being the only naked person?) I follow suit and put my belongings in a locker. Then, I go to the showering section. I read that Japanese people wash very well before going into the baths. They had big bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash available for everyone’s use. I sat on a little stool that had its own bucket and a shower head. I took a peak around again to make sure I was following the correct washing etiquette. (My husband shared later that the men didn’t wash carefully at all… yuck.) Finally, I was ready to go into the onsen. The women’s was quite nice with an indoor pool and several outdoor pools. I was surprised at how small the pools were especially compared to the Canadian hot springs. There was one main pool that was fairly shallow but nicely designed with rocks to sit on, a cooler pool for walking in, a shallow bath that two people can lie in, and a place to sit while two streams of water come down on your shoulders like a massage. They also had small rocks embedded in concrete that you could walk across, maybe this was supposed to work as a foot massage, but it mostly just hurt. For not liking hot tubs, I quite enjoyed the experience. I tried everything out as I wanted the full cultural experience. I think it helped that I didn’t know anyone and most of the women were old. Later, one of my Japanese friends would suggest going to an onsen with me. I politely refused, trying to explain to her the awkwardness I would feel. Some of the old women in the onsen were chatting together like it was over tea. One lady tried talking to me, but I just said that I don’t speak Japanese. I didn’t want to try having a conversation in Japanese while being naked. Coming out of the onsen, I showered off again and again when I got home. Something about everyone being naked made it seem less sanitary.
On our second onsen adventure in Gero, we saw a French couple going in ahead of us. The French woman noticed that I was a little hesitant about the whole process and gave me a small tip in English. I thanked her.
Usually, I am very timid about speaking French, but this day something came over me. I decided that I needed to gain confidence speaking French. I decided that I needed to improve my French. I decided that when the opportunity presents itself to speak French, I needed to go for it. That’s what I did. The women’s bath was pretty much empty except for the French woman and me. I got into one of the pools beside her and struck up a conversation. Luckily, she wasn’t uncomfortable speaking to me while being naked and we had a lovely conversation. How’s that for gaining confidence in my French? Nothing like practicing my second language with a complete stranger while hanging out in my birthday suit.