“Excuse me Mr. Yoshida. Regarding the Onsen, can I wear swimming trunks in there?”
I had taken a quiet moment during our mountain train ride in Hakone to ask our goodwill guide this question. I had hoped he would say ‘yes’ (since we are tourists after all) but he was much too polite.
“ That would be very odd, Mr. Sim. It’s not usual…” came his reply.
A photo with Mr. Yoshida, our goodwill guide before my polite question on board the Hakone Tozan Mountain Train.
Someone’s cheeky smile when she knew about the Onsen etiquette.
One of the main reasons we travel is to experience the local culture and customs of the country. Angie knows that in replacing my ‘no shopping mall’ policy would be ‘unique experiences’ policy. So in planning all our holidays, she would painstakingly include and budget for unique and memorable experiences for the whole family. Since it’s our first visit as a family to Japan (and to the town of Hakone), she has arranged for us to put up in a Japanese Ryokan for that authentic Onsen experience.
The Hakone Tozan Mountain Trains. Perfect way to enjoy scenic Hakone (more in our next post).
Dana took these shots of Mommy’s favourite flowers – Hydrangeas.
Now, it’s easier said than done this ‘unique experiences’ policy of mine. Especially since now it has been determined that if I were to fully experience Hakone, I would have to immerse in the Onsen in my birthday suit. Honestly, at this point, it was more nerve-wrecking than the wildest roller coasters we’ve been on so far.
Don’t get me wrong. while I’ve done the Turkish bath in Turkey clad in a towel and Balinese Spa/Thai massages in disposables, to hang around an Onsen stark naked is quite a different league. Worse, it’s not like being in a changing room of a swimming club, here I’m supposed to slow down and relax while I’m at it! In fact, there are guidelines to follow when using the Onsen which all visitors would be expected to follow (unless you are prepared to attract stern stares). Here’s sharing some of them but before that, some bare facts about the Onsen.
The Onsen is communal bath concept, widely practiced by the Japanese. Historically, most Japanese homes are too small to build a bathroom so public baths are created to serve the community. These baths are separated by gender but not by age. Across time, these baths, or Onsen serve as a meeting and socialising place of sorts. In fact, I’ve read that since everyone is in the buff, it is a common place for business negotiations, appraisals etc…as really, there’s nothing else to hide! Onsen in towns like Hakone are extra special as they are near active volcanoes (!!) and the water is warmed by the underground thermal springs which boast of healing and calming properties.
Before you take off and wander into an Onsen, here are some common practices to observe:
The outdoor Onsen – choose your ‘view’: Steamy view (top) or Clear view (bottom)…whichever it is, I will never tire of it.The ladies’ Onsen faces Mt. Fuji…but pity we don’t have a shot of it…
Before you go to the Onsen:
1. While in your room, change into the Yukata – a casual Japanese kimono worn in Summer time. The Ryokan provides these but the Japanese do bring their own. At the Ryokan we were staying in, there were even child-sized ones for kids. You may wish to wear undergarments beneath the Yukata or at least bring a fresh set to change AFTER the Onsen. Do bring along a bath towel and face towel froom your room for drying up after the soak.
2. Footwear: Leave your shoes behind. Along with the Yukata, wear a pair of Geta (Japanese sandals) which is provided by the Ryokan.
3. Electronic Devices: It is considered impolite to snap photos inside an Onsen (duh!) and the use of mobile phones will be frowned upon. Best to leave your cameras and phones locked safely in the room.
4. Accessories, Spectacles and Jewellery: Spectacles do get fogged up when you are near the Onsen. Why risk losing your earrings, necklaces, rings etc when you can remove them in your room before heading down to the Onsen. Some Onsens may even insist guests cover up more visible tattoos.
5. Check that you enter the right Onsen – Never-mind if you don’t read Japanese, the blue curtains are for the Male and pink/red ones for Female. On this note, I MUST recount my first experience there: I walked into the Onsen with the blue curtain only to see, back facing me, a long-haired person washing hair. I bolted out to double check the colour of the door curtain! It was blue!! As it turned out, it was a long-haired Japanese man. Sheesh….
Male and Female – Diff Colour, Diff Onsens. Not shared. There is no ‘couple Onsen’ unlike massage rooms…
Wear one of these geta (Bamboo Japanese sandals) when you go to the Onsen…
As you enter the Onsen:
1. Leave your Geta (Japanese sandals) at the door. Onsens may have a number clip system for you to clip to your Geta for easy identification.
2. At the changing area, remove the Yukata, fold it nicely and place it together with the towels and personal items you’ve bought with you in one of the baskets or lockers provided. After all that, now you’re stark naked. It’s normal. Look around, others are the same. Walk calmly and confidently to the bathing area (takes some getting used to).
Note the time: 7:35am. There was no one around. Hence I had sought the kind permission of the staff for a few rare shots of the Onsen.
Bathing cubicles on the left and the Indoor Onsen pool on the right.
As you enter the bathing area:
1. Bathe before entering: As the Onsen is a communal bath, it is important that you bathe yourself before entering. Most of these bathing stations are open and provide stools for you to sit on as you shower.
2. After bath, dry yourself and you’re ready for the soak. Most Onsens have both outdoor pools and indoor pools. It’s a personal preference but I would highly recommend a soak outdoors.
3. As you enter the pool, remove the towel. You may bring along a face towel to wipe and wash your face but to enter the pool with a towel is a big no-no.
4. Soak and enjoy. Conversations are welcomed but volume is best kept low. Children are expected to be quiet too. The Onsen pool is not for swimming. Typically, try not to soak for more than 20 minutes.
5. There are usually drinking water stations nearby for that cool sip if needed.
The myriad selection of Japanese pampering lotions and oils for the modern stud… I think.
Bathing stations inside the Onsen…quite fun to bathe sitting on stools!
After the soak:
1. Calmly and confidently emerge from the pool and walk towards your towel in the locker room. You may go to the bathing station to rinse, lather and bathe again.
2. If you like to, take a sip of cool water and sit in the attached sauna. Typically, the entire experience (Onsen + Sauna) should take under an hour.
3. When you return to the room, enjoy a warm cup of matcha Green tea provided. There is no need to shower again. You will feel so relaxed and a good night’s sleep is guaranteed with all the tiredness and body aches soothed away by the hot spring water.
One advantage of the indoor Onsen is you can enjoy a soak even on rainy or wintry days. The water temp is 41C by the way…
Taking my ‘plunge’ into the Japanese way of life…and lovin’ it.
‘Why do you want to share this post?’ Angie asked when she saw me drafting this post.
Well, quite frankly, as unsure as I was initially, I quite relish my ‘virgin’ Onsen experience. As with any other travels we’ve done in the past, it has left a mark on me.
Beyond the novelty of the experience, I’ve learnt to stop, let go and reconnect. Sitting there at the Onsen looking out at the endless rows of Hakone flora and looking out into the wild, I’m alone with myself, my thoughts, my feelings…Everything is bare for me to confront, contemplate and reconcile. No SMS, no FB updates, not even the distractions of family…just me. Being there in the buff seems to impart the significance that our outward appearances, possessions, pursuits have no baring on us as humans. When we see each other, we should see each other as who we are. I should value myself as who I am, not what the world thinks of me. That is something I will miss about the Hakone Onsen experience.
Interestingly, during one of the night baths there, I did meet some fellow travellers and witness a business negotiation being conducted between some Chinese and Hong Kong businessmen. There was also some rather serious discussions among a group of Japanese men which I didn’t understand. For Angie and Dana, it was also their first Onsen experience but I was all too glad to see them enjoying it. Both Mother-and-Daughter even gamely went to the Onsen 3 times during our short 2 nights stay at this Ryokan.
View of our Ryokan on a cloudy day but…
…when evening comes and the clouds parted, behold it’s Mt. Fuji!
A family that ‘Onsen’ together, stays together.
For my family and particularly for our daughter Dana, whom we’ve always travelled with, we hope that this unique experience will imbue in her a love for life itself and an appreciation of different cultures. Most of all, seeing her parents themselves overcoming our own inhibitions to embrace the unique customs of another people will hopefully teach her the importance of cultural sensitivity and mutual respect for this globalized world we are living in.
Stay tuned as we share more about beautiful Hakone in our next post.
Our DIY Japan Trip 2015 (Summer):
Also visit the ‘Owl Fly Away’ blog to read about the Hakone Open-Air Museum!