One of the most common responses I always receive when I ask about recommendations for things to do in Japan is, “have you been to an onsen?”
A trip to an onsen, or natural hot spring, has been on my bucket list for a few years now, but I never had the opportunity to go to a bathhouse during my last visit to Japan in 2015. So, I told myself that as soon as I found a bit of free time after settling in last week, I’d find the closest onsen and finally find out for myself why onsens are such a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike.
Onsens are all over Japan, usually situated in a hotel, inn, or bathing facility. Whether it be in a bath house on the 2nd floor of a shopping mall or in a private ryokan, you can find them in every nook and cranny of the country, from the tip of Hokkaido to the Okinawan islands and everywhere in between. There are two very popular, highly recommended onsens in Minoh – one of which is just down the street from me – but the prices were a bit too high for my pre-first-paycheck budget. (Though, I am planning on checking out every onsen in the city by the end of the year!)
My friend and I opted for a local onsen called Suisyun, which was only about a 10 minute bus ride from our closest stop and a much cheaper option than the much pricier Minoh Onsen Spa Garden. The name, website, and directions were all in Japanese, but we were able to figure out our way there through pictures from online reviews and the help of the Google Maps, as usual.
Upon entering the mall where Suisyun was located, we mounted the escalators and walked down the hall to our right until we reached the doors to the entrance. We took off our shoes – as is expected at onsens country-wide – and placed our belongings in lockers beside the front doors. We watched the people ahead of us walk up to two ticket stations adjacent to the front desks, so after putting away our backpacks we walked up to the stations to buy our entry tickets.
Usually, visitors come prepared with their own towel and toiletries, but you can also use the ticket stations to purchase items like shampoo or a towel or a hairbrush. All you have to do is press the button with the designated label. But my friend and I quickly discovered that making our purchases would not be a simple task because all of the buttons were in Japanese. I can read katakana and some kanji, but not well, so the two of us stood in front of the station attempting to decipher the labels for about 10 minutes. (My friend told me that the onsens he’d been to in the past catered to non-Japanese speaking tourists, but we’d happened to pick a “local” onsen that wasn’t exactly English-friendly. So, if you’re interested in visiting an onsen and have limited Japanese skills, I recommend searching for a place that caters to foreign guests.)
But with a bit of time and patience, and the help of Google Translate, we paid our entry fee and purchased the items we needed and took our tickets up to the front. The lady at the front desk took our tickets and then looked up at us with an uncomfortable smile. She attempted to explain to us that the items we’d bought were already available inside the onsen, so we didn’t need to buy them in the first place. She refunded our money for us, though. We bowed in apology and said “sumimasen” – multiple times. (My first trip to an onsen was not off to a stress-free start.)
After receiving our entry wristbands, we finally made our way to the baths. Since onsens are separated by gender, my friend and I were forced to part. I was a little nervous about being by myself. I’d never been in an onsen before, but he reassured me that I’d be alright – it’s just a bath, after all.
It’s just a bath. I repeated, attempting to reassure myself. I’ve taken tons of baths before!
So I nodded and we parted ways; I entered the entrance on the left, he on the right.
I braced myself – towel and body wash in hand – and stepped inside. I walked into the locker room where other women were either drying off or preparing to enter the bath. That’s when I realized that I had no idea what I was doing.
I glanced at the old women beside me and tried to follow along. When they started undressing, I did the same. I’d never been naked in public before, so undressing all by myself was not an easy task. After taking the key from my locker I walked to the bathing area as fast as I could. But the door to the baths wouldn’t open! So I stood in front of the doors, naked, with an anxious grimace on my face.
One of the workers eventually came up to me and motioned at my wrist – apparently I had to scan the wristband I’d received upon entry to open the door to the bath. I hadn’t even entered yet and I was already mortified…
I scanned my wristband and tip-toed into the bath. Again, I had no idea what to do. There was an older lady using a bucket to rinse her body off with water from a large pot, so I did the same. I casually glanced at the room while washing off, attempting to figure out what my next step would be.
There were three different baths in the main indoor area. I stepped into the bath in the center first, because there were two other women inside and I wasn’t about to enter an empty bath alone. (Later I’d learn that I should have showered first – it’s important to wash down thoroughly before entering a bath for the first time.)
Though my first dip in an onsen was just as refreshing as I’d imagined it to be at first, I only stayed submerged for about 3 minutes because of the water’s scalding, intense heat. Meanwhile, in the middle of recovering from my bout of embarrassment after attempting to enter the onsen, an old woman came up to me, her brow furrowed. She pointed at my head and then started scolding me in Japanese. At first I didn’t understand, but then I realized that she was telling me to put my hair up, which happened to be flailing around freely in the water.
Mortified, I quickly wrapped my hair into a tight bun. I got out of the bath and walked over to the showering area – to shower, since it’s important to shower well before entering and exiting the baths – and to recover from my episode of embarrassment. (Again, if you visit an onsen, please don’t make the same mistake I did! Make sure you ALWAYS tie your hair up – apparently it’s disrespectful and unsanitary to let your hair dip into the bath water, which I obviously had to learn the hard way.)
After tying my hair into the tightest, tiniest bun imaginable and covering my head with my towel, I walked over to a bath that was called “Milky Bath,” because of the water’s off-white color. Again, the water was very very hot, to the point where I started to feel dizzy after less than two minutes.
On top of my low heat tolerance, I was still shaken from getting yelled at by the Japanese lady and I couldn’t help but worry that I was going to end up doing something else wrong. Needless to say, I had quite a bit of trouble relaxing, which I thought to be pretty ironic.
I eventually gave up and exited the milky water. I returned to the front doors, making sure to scan my wristband this time. I dried off in the locker room with my damp towel, dressed, and returned to the lobby – wet, and slightly disappointed with myself for not having done more research on onsen etiquette in advance.
Luckily for my mopey self, there was a cafe outside of the bath with dessert and beverage options for customers in need of a cold and refreshing treat to offset the onsen’s boiling temperatures. While waiting for my friend to finish his bath (which he thoroughly enjoyed, by the way) I sat down at the cafe, sipped an avocado smoothie, and tried to process the strangeness of my onsen experience.
Though my first trip to an onsen did not exactly relieve my stress, I’m looking forward to trying out another onsen again in the future – after doing a little bit more research on proper etiquette, of course.
Remember, if you ever happen to visit an onsen in the future, make sure you understand the rules carefully before attempting to enter alone! I definitely don’t want you to get yelled at by an elderly Japanese lady too.