After coming in from skiing, we decided it best to have a couple beers from the vending machine downstairs to take the edge off before my first plunge in the onsen. The reason, you see, I’m feeling a little anxious is that the only way to enter the onset is completely naked...exploitingly naked, as you see by examining the onsen bathing procedure described below.
First, you enter the changing room , like a locker room, where there are shelves lined with baskets. You claim a basket and strip down to nothing placing all your clothes inside that basket. At this point you open the door to the onsen, or bathing room. The tiled tub with the circulating hot spring water is in the middle of the room while a few faucets about 18” off the ground or “showers” are placed along the surrounding walls. The proper etiquette is to wash your body off before entering the onsen. However, this is not exactly like taking a shower before you get into the pool at the Y (except that there are lots of naked old women). At an onsen, you will find in front of each faucet is a stool. Not a bar stool, a plastic stool that, I kid you not, sits six inches off the ground. This stool is not made for American butts. It had the stability of one of those plastic delivery pizza inserts. Squatting on a stool made for toddlers is definitely bad-naked. Not only do you feel ugly but you get to look at yourself too. Yes! They place mirrors on the wall at each faucet reflecting in the most horrible of angles. Enough said.
Next to the stool was a bowl. You are to fill the bowl with water and dump it over your body rinsing yourself before getting into the tub. Once you are ready to get in the hot spring itself, you raise yourself from the stool, turn around, and prepare to enter the large, sunken tub in the center of the room. At this point I learn that the water is too hot to enter all at once. Great, so now after I’ve been squatting facing away from all these people in the onsen, I get to sit on the edge of the tub facing forward. At this point I decided that boiling skin would be more comfortable than sitting on the wall any longer, so I quickly slid in the tub. The water in the tub was filled right to brim and as I got in, I saw the wave of the water displaced. It was like a middle school science experiment come to life. Finally I’m in and can enjoy the hot spring! All onsets are different. You can try public ones for free, or pay for fancier privately own ones. These are not pictures of the onsens I went to, but they do look somewhat similar so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about.
Here’s a funny poster they have outside the onsen describing the etiquette in more detail. Notice "It is our culture to bathe nacked."
Once in the water, you do find it very relaxing and you realize no one really is looking at you. I stayed in for about 10 minutes until I felt cooked, and got out much more comfortable than I got in. In fact I enjoyed the hot spring part enough that I went back to do it all again on Sunday. I don’t think I’ll make a habit of bathing in onsens and I'm happy to check that one off my Japan to-do list.