Wednesday, 2 October 2013
The Onsen Experience
While in Japan I was fortunate enough to experience an amazing part of Japanese culture. I learned of the great benefits of the bathing custom and how relaxing it can really be. When we think of bathing here in the western part of the world, we think of getting in the tub and scrubbing down. While this is true in Japan they do use this time to scrub down after a long day at the office or being out and about however, there seems to be another element to the whole process.
Bathing has been a long time tradition in Japan and some other parts of asia. Japanese used to bath in public bath houses called “Sento”. This was because most people could not afford a bath in the family home so off to the sento they would all go. Many decades ago these sento used to be mixed gender known as “Konyoku”, The whole family would go and wash and relax in the warm steamy bathing areas. Now this was in a time when the idea of mixed nude bathing was not even a thought in the forefront of the mind, it was simply done an no body had any hangups about it. Now days the Konyoku almost does not exist any more. The only place true konyoku exist now are deep in the mountains in natural hot springs called “Onsen”. They can be accessed but are usually very difficult to get to and quite often involve a little bit of hiking.
As the economic wealth of the average family increased so did the ability for them to afford a bath in the family home. This has changed the social element of the sento which are usually located in and around the cities. People no longer socialised as a community from the neighbourhood they would go as a family unit as a night/day out and most likely not as regularly. Families will go for relaxation and now days they are split by gender as social attitudes changed toward mixed gender nudity. Dads will go off with the boys and or son in-law or friends, and likewise for the mums.
The etiquette of bathing in Japan is different to the way we bath in the western part of the world. When one enters a bathing area be it at home or in a sento/onsen the rules are the same. When you arrive in the onsen the first thing you do after you pay is to go to the respective dressing room, strip down nude and make your way into the bathing area. Next, you must rinse or wash your body before entering the bath and the bath is not for washing but soaking only. This is the reason a whole family can use the same bath in a night as they do not make the water dirty and the bath is designed to keep the water hot and filtered. Many onsen/sento have a few different kinds of baths ranging from mineral, cold, extra hot and many more including green or red tea. After a relaxing soak in the bath(s) people would then spend time scrubbing down shampooing and all the personal hygiene acts one would normally perform during wash time. They sometimes also have outside baths called “Rotenburo”, these are magnificent in winter when it is cold outside and the steamy 42deg water is up around your shoulders!
Going to an onsen or sento can be daunting for those not familiar or comfortable with nudity in a public setting but its not all that bad. The key to enjoying the experience is to simply follow every body else and pretend you have been there a million times. As a nudist I never had this issue and it felt like such a natural thing to do. I did learn how good bathing can be for the body and soul. I found my body was not as sore every day and my injuries from a car accident was never a problem even when it was cold. Its a good chance to de stress and relax after a long day at work and until I learned to bath every night before bed I never knew what I was missing. Now as we have been back in australia for some time now I do truly miss the night time bath and even more the Onsen.
I will be looking forward to visit Japan again with my family and as usual we will go to an Onsen and I will enjoy it immensely! If you should ever travel to Japan or even Korea it would do you well to seek out an onsen or sento, your hotel staff can direct you to one and most big hotels will have either their own or a partnership allowing guests to use another hotels or a local establishment.
Give it a try and lose yourself in the amazing custom of the Japanese bathing experience.