Hot baths of volcanic water sit just under the surface of every island of Japan.
My recent trip to Kyushu Island in Southern Japan afforded me my first experience with these onsens, though not in the traditional way.
Onsens are lauded in Japan as being good for everything to good skin to joint issues. Volcanic waters can be infused with minerals like iron, Sulphur and sodium chloride, among others, depending on location. One of the ones I experienced had hydrogen carbonate pumped into it, which is said to be good for neuralgia, muscular pain and the skin. Indeed, millions of Japanese take onsens regularly in Japan.
But, like most cultural practices, there is some etiquette to be followed, including the fact that you must be naked – no towels or cover-ups allowed. They are pretty serious about cleanliness, so you can’t enter an onsen if you are menstruating, and you have to shower and rinse before stepping into the bath. You’re also not supposed to let your hair or head into the water.
The big issue for many Westerners is that tattoos are historically banned in onsen because they were a symbol of gang activity, the dreaded Yakuza. However, a Japan tourism board report in 2015 stated that more than 30 percent of onsen operators will not turn tattooed folks away and another 13 percent said they allow them in certain, uh, conditions (see more on that below).
Now, in my case, I am covered with tattoos. And, not the small, little symbolic ones. When I raised the point with my guides, they directed me to the tattoo cover-up stickers (shown here) at the local Don Quijote store, known for its discount prices, late retailing hours (3 p.m. to 5 a.m.) and jam-packed shelves.
Unfortunately, those stickers are too small to cover my Tibetan flowers, Chinese bats and North American tribal birds and vines. What that meant was that I had to have a private onsen, rather than the traditional public one. And, that in itself made for an interesting, albeit lonely, dynamic.
Onsen, Party of One
On my first night, the hotel staff in Nichinan in Miyazaki Prefecture arranged for me to use the private onsen. I was pretty psyched about it and not even too deterred when it turned out to look more like a handicap-accessible pool, with a wheelchair, handrails all around and a swing to lower someone into the bath (shown below). I actually thought about how nice it was that the culture of onsen is inclusive of people who need a railing or wheelchair.
I lowered myself into the water and kinda just hung out there, wondering what the public bath was like. (According to my fellow tour members, apparently, it was quite an experience, with a cold plunge pool to alternate with and an indoor/outdoor setup overlooking a valley – so, I missed out on that.)
In another first that night, I put on a kimono, the beautifully printed robes from Japan. I kept trying to buy them at every hotel, but was politely declined based on the fact that they are considered part of the laundry service. At my final stop on the tour, I begged the hotel staff to sell a green one to me and offered to pay double (as any good Chicagoan would), and they kept firm with their answer. Not to push karma too much, when checking out, I carried it down to the lobby hoping they’d say “yes”. When they turned me down again, I bashfully turned the kimono in to the desk with an awkward bow, as if to say, “Well, at least I didn’t steal it!”
Let’s Try this Again!
The second time I was booked for an onsen was in Kikuchi in Kumamoto Prefecture, which was a beautiful traditional home stay with floor seating, rice paper doors and a bed on the floor, which was set up by the staff after a traditional dinner (also on the floor).
This onsen-for-one was a little more inviting, as everyone on the tour was booked their own private bath. So, I didn’t miss anything! We got to choose our decor, from traditional large-stone baths to tile to a local cedar one, which is the one I chose (shown here). Cedar’s scent is known to have a relaxing effect.
As per the rules, you sit on a small stool to shower. This onsen featured shower products with a horse on them (shown below). Presumably, these are made with oils from horses. As a Westerner, this was a little hard to get used to. They eat horse meat in Japan as well as make soap products from them. Sigh.
After getting over some squeamishness, I sought to hit the soaps and shampoos. However, the labels were all in Japanese and I had no idea which was soap, conditioner or shampoo! Solution? Use all of them all at once. Problem solved. After a solid rinse, I was ready for the bath.
This one was prettier and had nice lighting. We had a full Japanese dinner, including the local Shochu liquor similar to sake but made of sweet potatoes and mixed with soda water, so it wasn’t hard to get into chill mode.
It’s Getting Hot in Herre
I assumed the usual position floating first whilst leaning back on my arms on the side of the wood bath. I was totally committed to staying in the full hour. But, after a few minutes of float, I got really hot. I then moved to the seated “Thinker” position, not really having anything else to do with my hands but hold my chin. Hotter still, and I moved to the edge of the bath, sitting rather like the guys having lunch on the skyscraper plank in New York City in the 1930s. Breathe. Repeat: Float, Thinker, Skyscraper. Float. Thinker. Skyscraper… I think I lasted about 20 minutes, total.
It was a very nice experience, though I was longing to know what it was like to hang with the peeps in the public baths. Either way, there were benefits: The elderly lady that looked after us at our home stay swore by the onsen for keeping her looking and feeling young. It’s true, the people in Japan tend to have beautiful skin and are very spry regardless of their age. That, at the very least, was motivation to come back to Japan and try onsen again.
About Andrea McKenna Brankin
Andrea McKenna Brankin is a journalist and author from the United States who lives a full life with bipolar disorder. Her book, Bipolar Phoenix, is awaiting a publishing contract. She is also currently a volunteer at the DaySpring Residential Treatment Centre for teen girls in Singapore, providing befriending-family support, therapeutic writing and rugby coaching.
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