How to use an onsen in Japan
There is etiquette involved in having an onsen in Japan, and it is worth every second of ‘trying’ to get it right. We travel to Nozawa Onsen annually where, as you can guess, there are many onsens.
Onsen is the Japanese word for a hot spring. An onsen by definition utilizes naturally hot water from geothermally heated springs, which abound in Nozawa Onsen. Onsens ARE HOT. There is no other way to describe it.
In saying that, there are a huge amount of benefits to having a daily onsen. Every skier and snow boarder will tell you that you do not get the Day 3 pain associated with skiing. The onsens are said the have great benefits for you and certainly are great for potentially aching muscles. They do work. They in fact work for everyone, because of the minerals that are naturally contained in the water. The villagers work very hard to keep the snow at bay, and they have at least two onsens a day. They work.
There are onsens within hotel complexes, but the real deals are the public onsens, utilized by the locals at least once a day, and for visitors to the region. It is a totally different experience to go to a local onsen, and one where the etiquette is paramount to observe. This is out of respect and that is the way it is. If you do not observe the etiquette, you will get in trouble. Onsens are gender specific so boys in one door and girls in another. There is separation, like a huge wall.
The villagers work hard shoveling the enormous of snow from their roofs and also from working in the ski fields or associated industries, and the onsens are a part of their daily life.
The Nozawa Onsen ski fields are owned and run by the villagers, and not a multinational and I, along with many many others, hope that this never changes. They allow their onsens to be used by people staying in the village, so observing the onsen etiquette is just plain good manners.
The onsens are in effect a replacement for having bathrooms, and you see the locals going down often, to reap the benefits, from their hard work.
I had read, re-read and learned by heart the rules and recited them as I approached my first ever onsen. Did I get it right? No. However, these are the rules or the etiquette in taking an onsen. This how it goes.
1. Take your basket of soap, washer, shampoo, etc. to the onsen, whilst reciting the rules
2. Take off shoes inside doorway
3. Walk into the little open area and remove all clothes. Don’t be modest there is absolutely no need whatsoever.
4. Put clothes AND YOUR TOWEL on an available shelf, not someone else’s
5. Enter ‘the’ onsen and make your way through the steam
6. Grab a wash basin and small stool and take it to an available space near the taps around the sides of the onsen.
7. Fill the basin with some water from the onsen, to help you get used to the temperature. Give yourself a good rinse.
8. Now enter the onsen! (Keep reading and I will give you insider trading hints)
9. Now get out of the onsen and wash yourself – thoroughly – every nook and cranny. The locals will observe what you do, and you cannot enter the onsen if you are slightly dirty. So go all out.
10. Now once you have rinsed off every on of the single soap suds you go back into the onsen, for a relaxing soak. Oh, the irony. The water can be around 40 degrees Celsius. The higher up the onsen in Nozawa Onsen the hotter the onsen, as it is closer to the origin of the thermal springs.
11. You can take your ‘clean’ washer into the onsen, but it can only be put on your head. DO NOT use it on your arm or another part of your body as I did, or you will get the crossed arms raised in front by a villager. I know. (I was so upset, that I had stuffed it)
12. After you have soaked for a while, do not rinse off with the tap water as the onsen water has natural minerals that are good for your body.
13. Dry off your body as much as you can with your washcloth. Now clean up your area. Rinse down where you were squatting, return your stool and basin and go back to the dressing room. Do not walk water in here, or else crossed arms.
14. Now you can use your towel and Get dressed, go out and put your shoes on and leave (with your tail between your legs as I did). I am sure I heard some of the women laughing.
15. Some other rules. If you have your periods, you can’t enter. Also, many onsens will not allow people with tattoos to enter. Ask first, or cover it with a band-aid. Tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia. Just be aware that you might have to do some homework on this one.
My hints on having an onsen
1. Start quivering if you see zimmer frames lined up outside, these ladies are a tough crowd and don’t broach misdemeanors. The next day they will smile at you. They do appreciate your efforts but will correct you with the crossed arms.
2. Get as close as humanly possible to the cold tap which runs at a very gentle pace into the onsen. It gives you a fighting chance.
3. Do not try and turn the cold tap on harder. You will be in really really big trouble.
4. Don’t swear, scream or anything (like oh, f… this is hot) – this is supposed to be a peaceful moment.
5. Nod and smile at anyone who looks your way. Well, you would anyhow.
6. Now the BIG one, and you should all pay me for this. When entering the onsen – slide in and DO NOT MOVE A MUSCLE. Stay still. Every inch of you must remain still because it is your nerve endings that will get you.
7. Don’t try and be a hero and stay into long. You will not be able to anyhow. There is no shame in getting out after a couple of minutes
8. Go lower down the village for water that is not as hot (haha). Remember the one at the top is where the villagers do their cooking and the temperature in this onsen is 90 degrees Celsius. (as an aside they make onsen eggs here, and they are fantastic).
9. Do not give up. Go again and again.
10. My husband assures me that the men are not as tough a crowd as the women. I think that he has also got the crossed arms but doesn’t own up!
1. After 4 years of going to Nozawa Onsen do I still slip up? Yes, but not as often.
2. Do I still go? Yes, I think that they are very very good for you and me.
3. Do I still freak out when I see the zimmer frames lined up outside with snow falling on them? Hell yes.
4. Do I have bad dreams about the crossed arms? Yes.
5. Would I rather go to a hotel onsen where it is not so hot, and you can have it to yourself, and therefore not be chastised if you slip up? No, never. (I have done so before but it is nowhere near the adrenalin rush of the villagers own onsen)
The etiquette involved in having an onsen is serious business, but well worth the anxiety, the third-degree burns, the indignity.
I hope you can tell that I am joking because I do love them. They are relaxing, they do soothe and, in fact, fix aching muscles, and they are good for you. And it is fun.