The Wonderful World of Onsen

Does the thought of being naked in front of dozens of people make you uneasy? How about having your body buried in hot sand or watching fish feed off your skin? Maybe you’d prefer to walk barefoot over hundreds of rocks or perhaps take a bath outside in the dead of winter?

Out of context, none of these sound very appealing, but here in Japan they are precisely the type of activities that people seek out when they’re after some pampering and relaxation. No, they’re not crazy masochists; they are simply enjoying some of the services on offer at thousands of onsen around Japan.

The Oedo-Onsen-Monogatari in Tokyo’s Odaiba area has taken the traditional onsen to a whole new level.  Calling itself an onsen ‘Theme Park’ it not only provides the bath and massage services on offer at other establishments, but it also has a range of shops, restaurants and activities – more than enough to keep you amused for hours.  The main communal area has been set up in a ye-olde-Japanese-street style, complete with fortunetellers, souvenir shops and traditional games. Outside, in a Japanese garden setting, there is a 50-meter footbath – the base of which is lined with pebbles to ‘soothe’ weary feet (mostly they’re just kind of painful to walk on).  The Oedo-Onsen also offers a variety of treatments such as Dr. Fish and sand or rock massages.

If you’re ever in Japan, shed your inhibitions along with your clothes and enjoy this cultural experience.  Regardless of whether you go for an out and out traditional onsen or something more modern like the one mentioned above, here are a few pointers to help you along;

一 Onsen is a Japanese term for ‘hot springs’ (the water source, not the bouncy mattress variety) and is often used to refer to public bath-houses in Japan.

ニ Typically, the water in onsen is drawn from natural hot springs, providing mineral-rich baths considered to have healing properties for anything from arthritis and muscle strain to skin disorders.

Onsen are generally segregated into separate male and female nude bathing areas.  There are often also clothed communal areas in which families, couples and friends can relax together.

四 Most bath-houses contain one or several baths and some may have a sauna room or two.

五 People with ‘visible tattoos’ may be denied entry into the bath-houses (what’s not visible when you’re naked, I’d like to know?) This rule apparently harks back to the days when only Yakuza (Japanese mafia) got around sporting skin art.

六 Upon entering the bath-house, wash yourself before getting into a bath.  It’s considered unhygienic and bad form not to do so – and will most likely result in people getting out of the baths or worse still, they will stare at you… and given the fact that you’re naked, this is something you’d probably want to avoid.

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