One of the things that many foreigners think is strange about Japan when they first hear about it is the Onsen (Public Baths). In Japan onsen are incredibly popular and they’re everywhere, especially vacation and resort areas, but they can also be found in the middle of Tokyo.
Basically an onsen is a public bath where the water is supplied by natural hot springs. Since Japan is a volcanic island, there’s thousands of hot springs all over Japan. Legally for a public bath to be called an onsen it has to have water that contains a certain minimum amount of dissolved minerals in it, like the water that comes from natural hot springs. Because of the dissolved minerals in the water many people feel that soaking in an onsen is good for their health. I actually read an article about an onsen that was slightly radioactive because of the minerals in the water. It seems to me like a really bad idea to go soaking in a radioactive onsen, but it was popular with people who said that it soaking in it gave them great health benefits.
Onsen come in a wide variety of types and sizes, both indoor and outdoor. Some of the most interesting onsen I went to were in Hokkaido during the winter, it was amazing to go to an outdoor onsen and be soaking in the hot water while the snow falls all around.
Most onsen are pretty similar in many ways. Usually there is a changing area, a washing area, and then the actual onsen. The onsen is not actually used for washing, it’s just for soaking in after you have completely washed yourself in the washing area. In the past, both men and women used the onsen together, but now days almost all onsen are separated by sex. Some of the larger hotels and spas also have family onsen, smaller onsen that can be reserve so that your family could soak together.
While I was in Japan I probably went to 10 different onsen and I always wanted to take photos, but the tricky part of taking photos in an onsen is that they are usually full of naked guys who most likely don’t want me taking photos of their naked bottoms and posting them on the internet. But when I was at the Fuji Rock Festival I stayed at a friend’s ski condo where the condo building had a public onsen. One morning I was using the onsen and no one else was there, so I thought I would take take the opportunity to shoot some photos.
This is definitely not the most picturesque onsen I’ve been to, but it gives you an idea about what an onsen is like.
Japanese Onsen (Public Bath)
When you first walk into an onsen there'll be a place to take off and leave your shoes Then you walk a little farther in and you'll be in the changing area. Most times there's baskets to put your clothes into, but sometime there's lockers. If it's an onsen spa, there is probably two changing rooms. The first changing room is to change out of your street clothes into a Japanese robe. And then a second changing area before you go into the bath area.
Since you're not wearing shoes, there's toilet slippers to wear if you go into the toilet. These are always about 4 sizes too small for my feet.
Before actually using the onsen, you need to be clean. It sounds strange at first and it's something that foreigners sometimes don't realize, but it makes sense when you realize that the onsen is just for soaking and relaxing. Most Japanese sit down when that wash, so in the washing area there's a bunch of little sit-down shower areas.
Panorama of the washing area.
Most onsen have liquid soap and shampoo dispensers next to each shower area. But since this is in a condo complex, it's expected that you'll bring your own. You need a little basket to carry everything in.
Once you've washed yourself, you can go to the actual onsen to soak and relax. This onsen has four different pools to soak in. Each pool is slightly different. I once stayed in a big resort hotel that had twelve different soaking pools.
There is one pool of cold water, two hot pools and this back pool felt like the water had come straight out of a volcano. I was a wuss and couldn't even put my foot in it because it was so hot. Japanese like really hot bathes.
After soaking in the onsen, I usually rinse off in the washing area because sometime the minerals in the onsen water can make you itchy.