Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Onsen: Bathing Like The Japanese

Japan has been on my bucket list for absolutely ages now – well, at least since I’d watch incomprehensible episodes of "Takeshi’s Castle" on cable TV for a daily shot of amusement. More recently, Aziz Ansari’s "Modern Romance" piqued my curiosity about Japanese society in general. With ‘Sakura’ i.e. the cherry blossom season approaching, the time was ripe.

I’ll get around to describing the rest of my travels around Japan soon (hopefully), but the one activity that has evoked the most curiosity in people around me after I returned was my visit to an ‘onsen’ – a Japanese public bath (with natural hot spring water). So here’s that blow-by-blow account of how it went.

Nagano is hot-spring country if you’re on the island of Honshu. There are numerous hot-spring-fed ‘onsens’ in the area so it was the natural choice to, quite literally, take the plunge.

At the entrance to the onsen, I was greeted by a large sign saying, "Bathing of people with tattoo will be refuse" with something that looked like a truncheon next to it. Thankfully, I haven’t got over my cowardice enough to brave a tattoo, so all was good in the hood. Next up, a row of coin-operated lockers to deposit my shoes.

Padding over to the lobby area, I gaped at a ticketing machine with dozens of options and prices, all unhelpfully marked in Japanese. However, the staff was very helpful and a lady immediately came over to explain it all and help me get the right ticket. For a paltry 650 Yen, I could shower, steam and soak in all of their various temperature-controlled pools as well as the outdoor one. There were dozens of other options such as renting or buying towels and so on.

Heading over to the bath entrance area, there was a clear demarcation between the entrances for men and women. Luckily, this was boldly marked in English signage as well so I avoided that boo-boo I once made back in the hot springs of Kulu (India)…. But that’s a story for another day; suffice to say that there are some traumatised men in that region. If you’re one of them, sorry, I didn’t mean to point AND laugh; yes, at 15 degrees C, it was a ‘very (ahem) cold day’ and it’s understandable you chose to dive into the pool in panic.

Anyhow, back to my onsen….

I entered a large and brightly lit locker-room area. It had rows of coin-operated lockers for storage of all belongings and rows of mirrors and hair dryers for after. It also had a lot of naked women. I realised instantly that I was bringing the average age down in the area by at least 50 years.

Stripping off and depositing my clothes and belongings in a locker, I made my way towards a completely steamed-over sliding glass door. The door slid open just as I approached and a genial old lady stepped through. Smiling and bowing, she said, “konnichiwa” (hello) and I returned the greeting. Just like two people passing each other on the street. Only we’re starkers.

There were rows of hand showers and taps, each with a mirror, a small plastic basin lying on a tiny plastic stool and bottles of shampoo, soap, and conditioner. I was glad I’d read up about onsen etiquette because the Japanese are particular about it and I really didn’t want to screw up.

Showering is serious business in Japan. Doubly so at a public bath where it’s customary to make a huge show of really scrubbing yourself clean before getting into the pools to soak. Women were sitting on the tiny stools, dipping wash cloths into the plastic basins and scrubbing themselves sore. Not many used the hand shower, preferring instead to keep filling the basins from the tap and applying the old dip-and-scrub technique.

I tried to follow suit, but was no match for my neighbour who sat there scrubbing herself for what seemed like forever and showed no signs of finishing even when I decided I was done at least 20 minutes later. After rinsing off the stool and replacing the basin atop it as I’d read I should do, I plodded over to the pool area.

Now, etiquette tells you to gently lower yourself into the pool. No diving and splashing, no dipping your towel into the water, and no putting your head underwater. It’s considered inappropriate to drop your towel into the water or wring it out into the pool. The Japanese women usually fold their towels and place them on their heads while they soak. I felt silly doing that and was paranoid that I’d end up dropping it into the water in my attempt to balance the thing on my conical head. So I folded it up neatly and placed it on the side as some helpful travel guides had advised.

As I soaked in the first indoor pool, I quickly became aware that I was possibly the only one with long hair and it probably shouldn’t be left free, bobbing around in the water around me. Casting a discreet look around, I spotted just one lady with slightly longish hair and she’d clipped it up. Thankfully, nobody had reprimanded me yet and I’d had the good sense to bring a hair clip into the shower area along with my towel, so I quickly piled the unruly tresses up on my head and secured them with the clip.

Nobody paid me any attention as I climbed in and out of the half a dozen different pools of varying temperatures, chemical compositions, and jets, bubbles and other sensory delights. The onsen I’d chosen is a local hangout and there were at least 15 to 20 local residents. Mostly octogenarians who clearly all knew each other. People sat around in pairs or trios, chatting away happily. Some soaking, some paddling their legs in the water.

As I walked past others standing around with their baskets of toiletries engrossed in pleasant conversation, it felt so ordinary. Like the genial old residents of my area at home meeting each other at the local market on Sundays and having a chinwag. Only they’re all starkers. This must be what naked dreams feel like?

That’s when I noticed a woman crawling on all fours. Yes, starkers and on her hands and knees. She was slowly crawling toward the shower area. This placed me in a sort of dilemma. Was she in trouble? Ill or dizzy? I didn’t want to stare, more so because her bum cheeks and things were in my direct line of vision. Should I go over and try to help?

And then I realised that none of the other chattering patrons were paying her any attention. They continued to stand around yammering while she slowly crawled past them. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation hit me. I felt that awful laughter bubbling up inside me. My lips were flinching in an anguished attempt to not crack a smile. Time to extricate myself quickly and hurry out to that outdoor pool where I could face the hillside and snigger unnoticed.

Gingerly making my way around an old lady who was quite comatose in the outdoor pool, I sank into the deliciously warm water and took in the view of the surrounding hills and the steaming tiny waterfalls feeding the pool that created a comforting, steady rippling sound.

Bliss? Yes, this was it. I closed my eyes and soaked for the longest time here. The water was magical. My skin felt tingly and was turning the brightest shade of pink while my entire body felt light.

The water can feel uncomfortably hot after a bit. I could feel my ears burning from the steam and my heart starting to beat very quickly. I moved further out of the water to take in some of the cool air, hugging the smooth round stones on the side for support. I felt slightly intoxicated and figured that I must now closely resemble the hot-spring-bathing snow monkeys with their expressions of intense bliss and semi-consciousness.

My prior reading up about the onsen experience had told me that light-headedness, racing heartbeat and so on were warning signs. And so I knew my body had had enough. As I made my way back to the shower area, side-stepping the yakking ladies on my slightly wobbly legs, the spectacle of the crawling lady made sense.

After quickly showering, reclaiming my clothes and drying my hair, I was ready to face the world again.

Would I recommend this? Absolutely. If I lived in Japan, there’s no other way I’d rather bathe. I’d be right in the thick of action with the bantering ladies and their dangling toiletry baskets.

It feels completely normal, natural, and is incredibly relaxing. For the prudish and coy: take heart. Nobody bats an eyelid or looks at you even. As the sole foreigner there, I attracted negligible attention. With all that steam, hot-spring-induced borderline delirium, and possible geriatric short-sightedness, you’re well covered. Just ask butt-naked crawling lady.


Pointers for travellers in the area:
  • This onsen, Uruoikan, is run by a hotel but is open to the public from 10AM to 6PM
  • It’s convenient as it is only a 20-minute walk from the city centre (Nagano station)
  • Apparently, there are free shuttle buses from the city centre too
  • The water is fed by natural hot springs and not artificially created
  • No tattoos allowed
  • There’s a restaurant and well-priced bakery if you’re ravenous after
  • You can buy/rent towels and other things
  • The staff speaks decent English and will help you figure it all out, no worries
  • If your own nudity bothers you, you could wrap a towel around yourself while moving from shower to pool area, but you will definitely stick out like a sore thumb and attract more attention to yourself that way 
  • This is a good bet if you’re keen on onsen but haven’t the time to make it to places like Shibu Onsen (which don’t have many baths open to the public, only guests, in any case)


  1. Just a few days back I was thinking about the good old days when blogging used to be cool. I thought of you and the fact that I loved your blog and writing style. I made a mental note to try and find you on twitter or Instagram using "Basically Blah". And today I login to blogspot and find your post!! Omg, so happy to be here.
    Also, loved the post...made you want go take a shower :)

    1. Hey, blogging is still cool. People have just lost the ability to sit down and read, which is sad :) You'll find me on both Twitter and Insta by the same handle, btw! Happy to connect!

  2. I've never been to Japan and, currently, have no intention of going - I'm turned off by the cuisine. But these public baths sound very interesting. Indeed, you describe a wonderfully soothing experience (once you get over the mass nakedness).

    1. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Bryan Jones ;) The onsen is wonderful, but yes, the initial apprehensions will need to be addressed. Although after a point, your eyes just sort of glaze over and you don't care.


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