Japan. Both volcanically and tectonically active, this sublime archipelago hosts almost thirty thousand of the most exquisite hot springs in the world.
As a result, not only is it in high demand as a vacation spot, but it is now a thriving industry of countrywide onsens.
Should you ever be lucky enough to visit this culturally rich part of the globe, you would certainly be missing out if you decided not to visit one of the many stunning establishments, structured around a natural hot spring of decadently warm and welcoming waters.
Volcanically heated and mineral-filled, the Japanese make the most of these natural baths, constructing restaurants, bars, and cafés practically on top of them.
The Ryokan (旅館), a traditional Japanese inn, is the most frequent of these kinds of establishment.
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As inviting as the concept might be, for many westerners, a communal bathing experience can be very daunting.
Particularly when everyone is completely naked and there are enough things to consider, when visiting Japan, to begin with.
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You are even expected to blow your nose quietly, in public places.
So, here we will try to make the experience a little less disconcerting by guiding you through the culturally traditional expectations of women, specifically, in Japanese hot springs.
Culture & Tradition
Steeped in cultural traditions, the Japanese are among the most respectful and proud people on Earth.
Honour, Courtesy and Respect are just some of the values engrained within Japanese society. For example, to bow is an expected societal obligation.
These obligations can, however, be slightly different between men and women. Rules in onsens are no exception to this.
As archaic as it may seem to us, women have a specific and widely accepted etiquette to adhere to.
The majority of onsens, ryokans and sentos (銭 湯 – bath houses) will often consist of separate bathing areas for men and women.
So, before you get naked and take a dip, here are the rules you need to bear in mind.
Read later – Mizuburo – Cold Water Bath in an Onsen
1. Stick to Your Own Side…
Although there are mixed establishments where both men and women bathe together, as well as private sentos and onsens for couples, generally men and women bathe separately.
Be sure to follow the rules.
If separation is in place, then you must stick to your designated area.
Doors will be clearly marked:
- otoko ‘女’ for men
- onna ‘男’ for women
Entering the wrong door will horrify some and even get you banned.
The entrances are also often colour-coded:
- red for women
- blue for men
Use the symbols to double-check.
Some mixed gender facilities even swap halfway through the day and one can be suddenly surprised by the appearance of the opposite sex.
2. Be Sure to Pack Your Birthday Suit!
While limited onsens will permit you to wear a bathing suit, you will need to check with the establishment because in these hot springs EVERYONE bathes nude.
Embarrassment, shame, coyness, can all be left at the entrance. No one will judge and it is pretty much law.
With this in mind, a certain amount of modesty is still required.
Your Choice – Most tend to cover their more sensitive parts with a small towel, when moving around within or getting in and out of the water.
This is often provided, along with a larger towel and in some mixed gender environments women will be expected to wear the larger towel for this.
Should they not be in with the cost, they will always be at least rented or sold on site.
3. Maintain the Peace
Seemingly pretty obvious in a culture of general good manners and common courtesy, keeping the peace is mandatory and applies to everyone.
Though it is very much a social as well as a tranquil experience, it is often the case that noise levels are low and kept to a minimum volume.
What to Avoid: Making too much noise, raising your voice, shouting, laughing, or having loud conversations could result in you being asked to leave.
The Yukata (浴衣) is a traditional Japanese bathrobe which is worn frequently in onsens and other similar establishments.
Staying in a ryokan, you will even be provided with one – along with some traditional slippers (Uwabaki – 上 履 き).
Slippers are ubiquitously worn in the home, throughout Japan as taking off your shoes before entering a building is practically mandatory.
Should you be outdoors, there are specific garments which you can purchase for use more public places.
Forbidden from the steaming pools, your hair must never touch the water.
In fact, from the jawline upwards, it is a requirement that you do not put your head in at all, to prevent contamination.
The waters are renowned for their natural minerals and hair has follicles which cling on to residual products, scents, and germs.
Women with long hair, and indeed men, are expected to tie up their locks in a high bun, so that it never reaches into the soothing spring.
Although this is not much of an issue – some people are curious to know about pubic hair, so that they are prepared.
There are no specific rules around this.
However, it is worth noting that generally Japanese men do not groom, whilst women at least trim down.
Again: This is just a cultural observation people about which people seek information to simply “fit in”; it is not a requirement.
6. Keep Your Hands and Eyes to Yourself
Another one of many unwritten rules in Japan, generally, is to avoid making eye-contact and/or staring at people.
In many cultures around the globe, this can be considered rude but can only be understood in one of two ways, mainly:
- That you have some kind of problem with a person.
- You are romantically interested.
Either way, when everyone is naked – you might agree already that this would be a bad move.
So, keeping your eyes to yourself is a recommendation. That goes for you hands, too.
Try to avoid even accidentally touching others, in this intensely intimate environment.
Finally, aside from mentioning that you should have a thorough shower before entering the hot spring, you should also remember these handy tips:
- Never dip your towel in in the water. Unless, ladies, you are offered one when you pay which they will explain can be used for decency – unlike the gents who do not get such an option. Additionally, you cannot use your own towel to do this for fear of contamination.
- No swimming, petting, running, or diving – similar to many western, public swimming pools but you are not even allowed to swim in the hot springs.
- Dry yourself immediately upon exiting the spring, in order to keep the dressing rooms as dry as possible.
- No clothes, shoes nor slippers in the water.
Most of all, enjoy yourself!
Navigating a completely different culture can be something quite challenging but a little bit of research will ensure that you do not offend anybody nor break any of their traditions.
Adhere to female onsen etiquette, immersing yourself in the healing waters and rich culture.
Relax, rejuvenate, and replenish your spent energy.
As long as you respect the culture and its traditions then you will have a fantastic experience!
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