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What it’s like to Soak in a Japanese Onsen

When I travel, I love to get to places where the culture is totally different from the one I’ve grown up with. It opens up my mind to the million different ways that life can be lived, and definitely leaves a lot to be learned. Growing up in the US, Japan is definitely one of these places.

My boyfriend and I spent time in Tokyo with his mom and brother. The three of them had all been there before, and kept telling stories about the onsens, and how we just had to make it to one. The onsens are natural hot springs, of which Japan has plenty due to ongoing volcanic activity. 

On one of our last days there, we finally went to Oedo Onsen Monogatari. It’s designed to resemble the Edo Era of Tokyo (think natural wood & straw mats). We selected this one because even though the hot springs themselves are separated by gender (since everyone soaks nude) there were plenty of co-ed activities to do as well. They explained all of this ahead of time, but I still didn’t know the half of what I was stepping into!

Arriving at the Onsen

Upon arriving at the onsen, we picked out kimonos. They came in all different patterns & sizes. Men and women separated into respective locker rooms, where each stripped down and dawned the kimonos, to wear for the entire onsen experience.

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Next we walked into the heart of the onsen building. I was shocked to see that it was filled with bars, restaurants, games, and shops – in addition to the expected spa treatments and baths. It almost felt like a theme park… it really re-define your idea of what a hot spring can be!

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Also upon arrival, everyone gets a waterproof wristband that can be scanned. To receive a service or snack, you scan your wristband, and your purchases are tracked until the end of your entire stay, when you get a bill. It’s an extremely smart and convenient way to experience the onsen, since you can just lock your wallet away in a locker and not worry about it. (The locker key is attached to the wristband.)

I was surprised to learn that people with tattoos generally are not allowed in onsens. Historically, tattoos in Japan are associated with gangs. In the Edo Era, some criminals were even marked with tattoos as punishment. As onsens have always been an integral part of Japanese life, the idea was that criminals would be shunned from the day-to-day lives of family, friends, and society.

As you might guess, many people strategize ways to cover their tattoos, and this website even catalogs tattoo-friendly onsens. 

Baths & Spa Treatments

We immediately ordered two liters of beer, thinking if we were going to soak with strangers it might help to be buzzed. After also filling up on some sushi, I wandered into the bath area. 

There is a lot of etiquette to be observed in an onsen. There are showers provided, and you must wash off completely before bathing. You are also given a small and a large towel. You leave the large towel in the locker/changing room to dry off later, and carry the small towel with you. You can kind of drape it over the front of your body to cover yourself as you walk around, if you want; some people did, some didn’t. Once in the bath, many people simply fold the small towel and drape it over their heads while they soak. You generally don’t go under the water at all in the baths. 

Keeping allll this in mind, I wandered into the bathing area. There I found cold baths, hot baths, warm baths, salt soaks, and even a bath of milk! (Alec said he had seen wine baths and honey baths at other onsens!) I excitedly tried out every single one. It didn’t even feel strange being naked, as everyone around found it to be no big deal. Onsens seemed to be a truly normal staple in Japanese life. 

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I met Alec back in the main area, re-clothed in my kimono. Next we ventured to the outdoor courtyard and tried out a barefoot walking path down an outdoor stream. The stones are supposed to be therapeutic on your feet, but some were actually quite painful! The stream was lined with other walking along, or sitting along the banks, chatting.

Night was falling by this point, and the water and rocks looked beautiful lit up by lights. We headed into another building and tried out fish pedicures, where tiny carp eat the dead skin off of your feet as you dangle them in the water. It felt strange and tickled, and [in retroactive research] can maybe lead to bacterial infections, but at the time was a fun new experience.

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Our enjoyable afternoon/night at the onsen eventually came to a close. (Although it didn’t have to, because there are actually beds that you can rent for the night to keep the party going… the hours on the onsen’s website read 11:00 am – 9:00 am next day!) We returned our kimonos and cashed out at the front desk.

I always love a good hot spring, and I love how the onsens expanded my idea of what a hot spring can be. I definitely hope to try out some more in Japan…. Specifically, I dream of visiting Jigokudani Onsen — 4 hours northwest of Tokyo, where you can soak with wild Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys!

Ellen Blazer

I am an avid traveler & I work as a Travel Agent for Dreamavoo Travel & Tours (CCRA-certified, registered with TPI, member of Ensemble). I specialize in the Caribbean, Mexico, honeymoons, Europe, and SE Asia travel. My travel blog To Travel and Bloom is designed to instill confidence in my clients & inspire them as they consider destinations around the world.

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1 Comment

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