The Onsen

Have you ever sat and pondered on a long journey what it would be like to be in a public bath house on a rainy day in Kyoto, with a bunch of old Japanese men or women who have their personal samurai swords swinging about or their Japanese gardens on show?  No!?  Well that’s because you’re an everyday standard human without a very peculiar mind. However if you have, then you will love what is commonly known as an Onsen.

Onsens (or naked bath time with strangers, as a peculiar Scottish human calls it) is a cultural entity in Japan that for many people is their way to relax and wind down before or after work. The Onsen is a public bathhouse filled with many different hot water pools, hot tubs, and saunas for you to relax in completely naked with a bunch of unknown human beings. Yes that is correct, completely naked and with people you don’t know, who are yes, completely naked.

For a westerner or any Gaijin (foreigner) an Onsen is an experience and a half, mainly down to the nudity, but for the Japanese people it’s a way to wind down and relax, to quietly sit in some water and have some sort of tranquility. The Onsen is a place of peace and quiet despite the sausage or lady flower fest that it is, although unlike Westerners the Japanese people do not think about the nudity. The Onsen is a cultural experience that has had its roots in Japan for hundreds of years where, prior to the opening up of Japan to the world in the Meiji era, both sexes would share an Onsen. The word itself means hot springs but also covers traditional inns and bathing establishments.

Like many, many things in Japan, there are rules and an etiquette to visiting the ‘naked bath time with friends’ establishment. When you walk in you and have paid your yennies (meant to be yennies just a note for the edit) to the front desk human, you enter the locker room, where the etiquette begins by stripping down to your birthday suit and putting your belongings into a basket. From there the awkwardness begins, unless you’re an exhibitionist, and firstly you have to go shower and wash yourself thoroughly before you even think about dipping a toe in the water. The washing part is a delicate experience with an unspoken rule of not looking at others whilst they shower which is a given basically, just like how not looking at a persons lightsaber as they pee in the male toilets or taking the cheesiest chip from your pals box of chips and cheese is a given.

Once you’ve washed the rules and etiquettes are fairly simple: don’t wash in the tubs, don’t put towels in the tubs, no having a wee swim swim, wipe your body before entering the locker room, no being hammered (drunk) in the Onsen and no games of tag  or running about the place. Pretty simple rules and etiquettes; if you just be fairly quiet and behave like a sensible human you’ll no get angry naked Japanese people shouting at you.

Onsens are really just hot springs and bathing places that are sort of seen in a different light based upon the elephant in the room that is nudity!

Despite this rather large elephant in the room the whole experience is very cultural, with the Onsen experience dating back for hundreds of years and always conducted in a traditional Japanese setting.  It makes it a must for all Gaijins to experience when on a trip to the country that gave us Pokemon!

Swankie, 24 – Scotland.

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