The first chapter of Japanese people explained! Talks about the culture of relaxation and explaining “What is Acupuncture”?
Today I will talk about another form of relaxation The Hot Spring (Onsen: 温泉)
The Japanese people love their baths.
To explain how much they love their baths, I need to explain how efficient they designed their bathroom/bathtub so that its ecological and very little waste of water.
A typical bathroom looks like this.
The wash/shower area (on the left) and the bathtub are in the same room and you normally have a lid on the bathtub when you shower, so that the shower water won’t get into the bathtub.
When you finish showering, then you take a bath. This way the water in the bathtub stays clean. The small panel next to the bathtub, is a control panel to adjust the water level, the temperature and also there is function to reheat the bathwater.
So, if a family member A takes a bath at 7pm, and family member B will take a bath later in the evening, family member B will just need to reheat the bath to his desired temperature. The same panel can be found in the living room so you don’t even have to take a trip to the bathroom to change the settings or reheat it. The panel will ring and inform you when the bath is ready. My mum’s house’s panel makes a little music and a welcome message that your bath is warm and ready. (This freaked out my husband the first time he visited)
It is also common for family members to take a bath together, such as siblings sharing their bath or a parent with a child.
Once all the family members take a bath, the water can also be re-used for washing the laundry. Which also isn’t an uncommon thing to do. Saving money and water.
Ah, and before I forget the Japanese take a bath every single day.
What are Hot Springs?
Hot springs (Onsen) are derived from natural hot water often naturally heated by volcanic activities, because there are many volcanoes in Japan.
You can find hot springs pretty much everywhere. Outdoors and indoors. Some smell like rotten eggs because they contain sulphur and the color is yellowish. Some have natural gas (CO2) so it feels like you are sitting in sparkling water. (or champagne if you like that better).
Some has a gorgeous view from the top of the mountain or overlooking the sea.
There is even one for monkeys, at Jigoku-Dani Onsen. (地獄谷温泉) which literally means the “hot spring of the valley of hell”.
Kind of makes sense that, you probably see monkeys taking a bath in hell ?!
Well, actually the name comes from the creation site of the hot springs when one of the volcanos erupted and made a 450m deep valley, water boiling and gas spraying out from broken rocks looked like a habitat of demons and devils.
And now, the palace of devils became the relaxing spot for monkeys.
Joke aside, the Japanese love their Hot springs (Onsen).
Normally male and female have their own dedicated bath areas, and they don’t mix. (unlike the German sauna! ) You will be completly naked and some Onsens do have mixed gender but it is very rare, or you can rent a private Onsen for your family. Small children often can come with an opposite gender parent but until about 5-6 years old.
The Japanese onsen research institute published that there are close to 3000 Hot spring resorts in Japan. And over 20,000 hotels and facilities where hot springs are provided.
Taking a bath together for a Japanese person is a social event. It’s not a “chatty” social event, but it doesn’t bother them to take a bath with a stranger, and being naked in front of others. Because it’s something they’ve grow up with, and nudity, for the bathtub and hot springs are different from being naked elsewhere. It doesn’t have a sexual connotation, but a warm childhood souvenir like when your parents tucked you into bed.
The majority of Onsen will refuse entry to a person with a tattoo. It’s not that the Japanese people don’t like tattoos but in their eyes, Tattoos are engraved to someone who joins the Japanese mafia (Yakuza). So, it is a cowardly way of refusing the Yakuza to come to a social family space like an Onsen.
I don’t think the solution here is to hire a bouncer standing to select which type of tattooed person can enter and which can not?! “Well, this tattoo is ok because you are a western lady that enjoys engraving a flower petal onto your arms”
A typical tattoo from a yakuza is designed so the V-neck area is clear, but the tattoo goes all over the body – back, and leg. This is from the era when they used to wear a kimono. So they can blend in with the rest of the population if they don’t take off their kimono.
Recently because of an increasing number of tourists, the Onsen slowly started to accept tattoos or give them a patch to hide it, or they will suggest renting a private area, which is more expensive. You will be able to find a list of tattoo friendly onsens on an easy Google search.
It is not a criticism but the Japanese are not good at being flexible. They can’t just say, “yes, Western tattoos are ok but not the Yakuza tattoo” because first of all they don’t want to get killed, but also because “no tattoo” was a very clever way to say no to a bunch of bad guys, without offending anyone. They didn’t explicitly say “No Yakuza” – so if they get into trouble they can defend themselvs saying “we refuse anyone with a tattoo”.
Then the meaning sort of got lost and now only the “no tattoo” became a social code and children grow up thinking that tattoos are bad, or if you have one you can’t go to an onsen.
I understand it is not reasonable for tourists, but what can I say. 98% of people living in Japan are Japanese and they haven’t had to face too many issues mixing with other races and different cultures trying to be flexible about rules.
The benefit of the Onsen
My husband is American, and he loves Onsen.
First of all, it’s a natural source of water that contains lots of minerals and it magically makes your skin feel super soft. It helps for other conditions such as sore muscle pain, shoulder or back ache (“KATAKORI” we talked about on the last chapter) and even with pain caused by rheumatism.
Some hot springs will suggest not to stay longer than 15mn, the temperature might be too hot for your body or the chemicals in the water are better in small dosages.
In every hot spring there is an analysis report of the water content. This will tell you what the benefits are and will recommend how long and how frequently you should bathe.
In general, the benefits of Onsen include:
Reduction of physical pain
Improvement of asthmatic conditions
The different type of water content will have more effect on different conditions. Alkaline water will make your skin softer. Acidic water will help skin rashes such as atopic rash. Every Onsen has their report published and will tell you what that particular spring is good for.
Some social tips to make your Onsen experience a more joyful and less shameful one are:
Take off your shoes before entering the changing room.
Take off all your clothes and you can bring a short wash towel and hide yourself if you feel embarrassed.
Make sure you wash yourself before going into the bathtub. There is a dedicated washing area with soap and shampoo provided by the bath house.
When you go into the bathtub, make sure your hair is tied up so it doesn’t touch the water.
Do not put your towel into the water- the soap and the germs from the towel shouldn’t enter the water. Fold it and place it on your head or (for ladies) you can tie it like a turban and try to be fashionable.
If you thought that Japanese people are shy, guess what! You might see a different side, or a whole nude openness in them.
If you are still not convinced to be naked in front of a bunch of Japanese people, you can try an onsen theme park, so you can keep your precious bikini on.
The next chapter I will dive into the Japanese education system. Which hopefully can help you understand more about Japan.