I used to contemplate drawing an informative comic like “Buri-chan’s guide to using an onsen,” seeing as the San’in region has many, many, many wonderful onsen, and they are one of my favorite parts about living in rural Japan. However, once I started seeing this poster in a few onsen around Matsue, I gave up on that idea. How could I possibly make anything better than the amazing Faux Pas Man (named just now by me), ultra-serious in his efforts to ruin the grouchy old man’s bathing experience?
Please forgive the fuzzy photos, as I was in a hurry to snap the photos before anyone came in–as you can imagine, camera use is generally frowned up in onsen. Those “only person in the onsen” opportunities are not that rare on weekdays, but they’re hard to plan around.
Fuzziness aside, isn’t Faux Pas Man great? I’m surprised he’s not swimming, as that’s one of the ultimate temptations for Japanese people and foreign visitors alike! Whenever I go to a big onsen and I’m the only person there, I’m always reminded of Natsume Souseki’s “Botchan” and how the main character got in trouble for swimming at Dogo Onsen (which happened to be a spot in Shikoku which Okuninushi and his little friend Sukuna-bikona enjoy, and which has appeared on this blog before on last year’s Anime Pilgrimages series I wrote with Artemis of Otaku Lounge. But I digress. Back to the star of this entry, Faux Pas Man.)
Some more advice:
1. Yes, bathing suits are against the rules. You’ll very likely see naked old people, and you’ll be just as exposed as they are. The good news, however, is that no one really cares. Once you get over the “I am stark naked” thing, onsen are a very relaxing and casual experience. Plus, people do tend to use the little hand towels for some coverage when walking from one area to another, so feel free to do so–just keep it out of the bath water.
2. Onsen water is not potable, and you should not stick your face in the water–this protects both you and everyone else from the spread of germs. If you really want to enjoy some of that beautifying water on your most looked-upon feature, there will usually be a water source which you can cup your hands under and then dab it on your cheeks and forehead. Warning! This is where the water will be at its hottest!
3. Tattoos are still against the rules in most onsen throughout Japan, despite the rise in foreign tourists using onsen facilities. This isn’t because of they think the tattoos are bad for the bathwater or anything, but because tattoos have unpleasant associations with crime. Some people with small tattoos are able to avoid trouble by covering them with a bandage, but people with larger tattoos should find out ahead of time what the onsen rules are, or they should book a private bathing time. The price and ease of doing this likely varies quite a bit, and I have not done it myself. People at tourism information centers at major train stations may be able to help you investigate this and book a time.
4. Some people suggest acclimating to the water by pouring some of the bathwater on yourself with the available buckets before stepping in (not jumping in like Faux Pas Man). Some step-by-step guides also say to do it, but it is optional.
5. Some people think it is healthy to warm up either in the hot bath or in the even hotter sauna, and then sit in an icy cold bath. This shock to your blood vessels is supposed to be good for your circulation–and perhaps by extension, circulating all the other healthy elements you pick up from the natural minerals in the onsen water. I’ve also heard this is good for sore muscles after a hard workout, as it helps flush the lactic acid out of them. Repeat the hot-cold process a few times for best results. (Side note: there is usually a shower available by the sauna to rinse off your sweat–be polite and use it.)
6. Washing off is mandatory before entering the bath–be sure to use soap and to thoroughly rinse it off, and to bind your hair and/or use a hair net to keep it out of the bathwater. After leaving the bath, some people shower again to wash off any remaining germs from communal bathing, and others do not because they don’t want to wash away the water’s healthy and beautifying effects. Use your judgement. Keep in mind the time of day the bath is cleaned, often in the late morning. It is also advisable to rinse off if you have sensitive skin or if the onsen water has especially strong elements.
7. Speaking of cleanliness, very popular bath houses will often add chlorine to help keep the water clean. Much smaller countryside onsen, with fewer bathers, often do not. Some onsen enthusiasts prefer non-chlorinated water and avoid resort onsen, and the locals in popular onsen areas often use the less fancy, and therefore less populated bathing facilities. Personally, I don’t mind either approach.
8. Be tidy when you shower. Try not to spray water on people passing by, rinse off the stool you used, and line everything back up nicely for the next person who will use it. If you must leave your toiletries or hand towels anywhere while you’re in the bath, leave them where they won’t get in anyone’s way. Side note: Leave large towels in the changing area.
9. Stay hydrated! Cold water is usually available for free in the changing area, or just outside of it in the hallway. Also, make sure not to pass out in the hot bath. That would be problematic.
10. Speaking of staying hydrated, after you get dressed afterward it’s a common practice to drink some milk while your body is still feeling really warm. I have no idea how or when this custom started, and I don’t usually do it. Sometimes in hot weather I eat some vending machine ice cream instead.
11. As good as onsen water might be for your skin, make sure to apply lotion when you get out! Your pores will be really open in all that hot water and steam, but as your skin dries, it might get really, really dry as the water evaporates. Lock that moisture in! Many onsen in hotels will provide free facial moisturizers, but bathing-only facilities often will not provide that many freebies.
12. Some “onsen” are not real onsen. True onsen must meet certain thermal and mineral qualifications at their sources in order for them to be counted as such, and the scientific specs must be posted somewhere in the onsen area. Onsen-otaku could probably describe the effects of different minerals and water qualities in very subtle linguistic differences, but it may be fun to look up what makes an any particular onsen special before your visit. This will be the topic of the next entry.