Day 94: Onsen
I’m sure if you told 17-year old me a favorite future pastime of mine would involve sitting in a tub of hot water, I’d say you were crazy. Well. 27-year old Sarah loves it.
Onsens, or hot springs, are bath house facilities containing indoor and outdoor baths with hot water from geothermally heated springs. Because of the volcanic/tectonic/crazy earthquake activity in Japan, the country has dozens upon dozens of hot springs from Hokkaido in the north to the Ryukyu islands to the south. I just happened to find myself in the southern-most onset in Japan on Miyakojima.
Onsens have very strict policies in order to use the baths. One, shoes are not allowed, they must be placed in a locker before entering the premises.
Two, unless you are in the common pool area, you must be naked (Clearly I am in common pool area). Three, you must cleanse yourself thoroughly before entering the baths, and I mean like a legit scrub down to wash your hair, body, everything. Four, you must not have tattoos. Most onsens will refuse to let you enter the bathing facilities if you have visible tattoos. In the past, tattoos were associated with yakuza, Japanese mobsters, but given that tattoos are more commonplace nowadays, onsens are more willing to let you enter if you can cover your tattoos with a bandage or sticking plaster. If you have sleeves or large pieces, you’re out of luck.
I have tattoos. Fortunately, they are small enough that they can be covered by bandages, but even if I do forget to apply the bandage, I tend to be as discreet as possible so my tattoos aren’t blatantly visible and may possibly offend the other bathers. Also, the baths are gender separated. Just putting it out there.
I do find it funny most people are deterred from going into the onsen not because of the tattoos, but because of the whole nakedness bit. I might be slightly desensitized from my job as a labor and delivery nurse (There’s plenty of unintentional nakedness going around), but, I feel like being naked is the least of my worries compared to the whole ‘I-don’t-speak-a-lick-of-Japanese’ bit (I know bits and pieces, but conversationally, DANGER DANGER ABORT ABORT). I figure as long as you’re not staring, and get used to the fact that EVERYONE IS NAKED, onsens are usually an enjoyable experience.
I love onsens, because I thoroughly enjoy a nice long soak for my achy bones (I lift pregnant people for a living, I’m entitled to say I have achy bones). It’s also super refreshing having a cold drink when you’re hopping from hot spring to hot spring (Milk or Cafe au Lait is usually my drink of choice). There’s usually a restaurant or some kind of storefront where you can buy food, eat, then go back into the hot springs again. There’s also a sauna portion for you to continue your sweat on. Some onsens like the one I visited in Miyakojima, have an outdoor portion that is not gender separated and you must wear a swimsuit
The onsen was my lifesaver after my post-Mount Fuji climb when I sprained my…knee joint and was unable to bear weight on my left leg. Sitting in the hot spring helped alleviate my pain until I could make it back to the hotel and rest for the remainder of the day.
Although there aren’t too many onsens per say back stateside, but there are hot springs which I definitely plan on visiting once I’m settled in Washington.