According to legend, Queen Elizabeth took a bath once a month whether she needed it or not. That’s Queen Elizabeth the first by the way. Even into quite modern times the English have been reluctant to immerse themselves in water, it has given rise to a number of Australian sayings. The Japanese are the opposite. And in a country that has hot running water coming out of the ground they have married the hot spring with hygiene and come up with a short cut to heaven, the onsen.
The bath towel is a tiny rectangle about twice as long as it is wide. I take it from my room. There is also a plastic bag in which I can bring back my dirty underwear. I am wearing my yukata, I slipped on my slippers as I stepped off the tatami. The signs in this hotel come with English subtitles but if they didn’t I’d be looking for this 温泉.
There comes a moment when the boys go one way and the girls go another. Subtitles may help but, even if these are the only kanji you learn, know these …
Beyond the curtained entrance it’s time to part with the slippers. A few steps later you are in a room that could be a gym change room. There are racks of baskets (or lockers). Get your gear off, all of it. There is likely a drinking fountain, have a cup of water. You and your towel head through the next door. Look for the showers, usually in a row, with stools and a bowl at each. Sit on the stool and shower, wash yourself thoroughly with soap from head to toe, especially between the toes. The towel is just the right length to wash your own back with. When you think you’ve finished sneak a look around. The Japanese person that was washing their toes when you came in is still washing the same toe. This is a competition to see who can wash for the longest possible time, so do it all again. Then accept that the Japanese person is going to win, he or she may still be there when you finish in the hot spring. There is always one like that.
Thoroughly wash off all the soap and make sure the towel is also rinsed clean of soap. Then demonstrate your superior manners by rinsing the stool and the bowl and leaving the stool with the bowl inverted on top. Wring out the towel, you may fold it over your horizontal lower arm so that it provides an artfully contrived appearance of unconscious modesty and stride purposefully in the direction of the hot pool, or at least in the direction you hope it is.
You enter the water, the towel does not. It goes on your head, fold it neatly first.
You haven’t come here to get clean, you did that in the shower, you’ve come here to relax. With a little practice that takes about a nanosecond.
There are indoor baths and outdoor baths and some places have both. Most are single gender affairs some are mixed. There is something beyond special about sitting in hot silky spring water, surrounded by snow with more coming down around you, discussing the meaning of life with a friend.
When your body says it’s time to get out, get out. Some people will shower again as they leave, it’s not compulsory, it is acceptable to get your razor from your basket and head back in to have a shave sitting on one of the stools, well it is in the men’s.
Have a drink of water, relax, wring out your towel, wipe down. Your inner warmth will have you dry in next to no time, I never bothered with a big towel.
Tattoos are generally forbidden in the onsen. In Japan they signify membership of the yakuza.
Your swim wear is just as unpopular as your tattoo and therefore of no use in covering your tattoo.
Your camera is also not allowed which would have made it impossible for me to show you a hot tub were it not for the fact that I came across this one on a lake shore where the sole occupant was happy to give me permission …
A small onsen in the woods may not come complete with showers. In that case you wash with water dipped from the pool and soap may not be used.
Once you have undertaken this ritual, it is very likely that you will want to do it again tomorrow. If you are staying at the same hotel do not assume that everything will be in the same place and bowl thoughtlessly in. Some hotels switch boys and girls everyday so that everyone gets to enjoy a particular view or a special garden setting.