An onsen is a hot spring bath in Japan, in the past mainly public, and now often attached to a hotel or other accomodation. As well as the minerals having therapeutic properties, it’s a very relaxing way to spend a few hours. After my first hammam in Morocco when I was scrubbed to within an inch of my life, I was keen to see how an onsen would compare.
It’s difficult to provide a pictorial account of a trip to an onsen because cameras and phones are generally banned. So here’s what to expect and what it was like in words.
I visited Hakone, an area famous in Japan for its volcanic hot springs. A friend from Beijing, Lin, and I went to try out the Tenzan Onsen, about 10 minutes outside Hakone-Yumoto. It’s quite a traditional and well know onsen, used mainly by Japanese people – thanks Lin for the recommendation and for your company 🙂
There’s an automated ticket machine before the entrance where you print off a ticket – here, 1300¥ (under €10) for a day pass with unlimited time.
Then you slip under a hanging cloth at the door and into a pretty plush reception area. I know about the no shoes inside rule in Japan but here came my first faux pas. The boundary line between shoes and no shoes is sometimes a little unclear. Err on the side of caution. I overstepped the barefoot line and the reception manager did an incredible job of letting me know beyond any doubt that I was in no shoe land, in barely a whisper.
We used the shoe lockers at the door and bought a towel. My little orange towel was as it turns out absolutely enormous by onsen standards. Most towels are about the size of a facecloth and are used for washing, mopping your brow, and to add a little modicum (ie no) modesty to the transferring between onsen pools.
We were guided to the ladies section of the onsen (faux pas two was going into the men’s section whilst slightly lost – I was ok at biology at school so realised my error pretty quickly), and told that as of this point there were to be no cameras/tablets or phones or clothes. It was quite nice being released from all three. In particular it was nice to remove the XXXL Japanese bought tights because the crotch comes up barely to my knees.
The shower area required careful pre-shower observation to get it right. I was the only non Asian face with red hair and an “enormous” orange towel so it was tricky to go unnoticed. I did what I did for my first chambermaiding job making right angled corners on the bed with a sheet. I watched, with a nonchalant look on my face, whilst mentally trying to take it all in. It’s not easy to do either when you are being watched.
There was a little wooden stool about 6 inches high. You give that a little hose down with the shower hose and sit down. Then you wrap the provided soap in your tiny towel, lather it up on your skin, and basically ensure you are ultra clean but non-soapy before you enter the baths. There were little wooden buckets to help with this.
I used my orange towel and a variety of contorted poses to hide my tattoo. A big no-no in most onsens. I’d heard here that it was ok but after the no shoe incident at the beginning I was taking no chances. In the Japanese criminal underworld, yakuza traditionally wore elaborate tattoos and this association remains. My little butterfly on a flower I suspect wouldn’t put me even as high as a petty shoplifter, but I didn’t want my onsen voyage to end before it had begun.
Some ladies grinned sweetly as they watched my cleansing efforts. That day there were old ladies, stunningly beautiful girls, mums to be, mothers and daughters, the whole generational spectrum were represented. Just no one with red hair and an orange towel.
Each onsen pool is different. They were all outdoors, but many with vine-covered lattices over them; one was like a cave (my favourite). Some are milky and warm, some crystal clear and goddam hot, and some crystal clear and goddam cold. You need to check the temperature with the little bucket sitting by each pool to avoid yelping in surprise.
The view from each pool was also different. Massive bamboo canes mixed with grapefruit trees, little stone statues of pagoda-roofed temples or mini gods, rocks and waterfalls. One particular lady caught my eye. She was wrapped serenely around and over some rocks in the milky pool, half in, half out the water. She was sleeping, and the steam was floating around her. She looked like a mermaid.
When that spot was free later, I tried to emulate her position. I looked like a walrus hiding a butterfly tattoo. Here is a picture.
Not obviously of me in the pool because that is not allowed and frankly might be a little frightening.
Hours passed and we dotted from pool to pool, sometimes sitting on the rocks at the edge, sometime submerging, sometimes lying on the wooden lattice benches for a rest because relaxing is hard work. I would have liked to have stayed till nightfall to see the lanterns illuminating the pools and the steam swirling around in the dark. Next time. The guy in the featured picture at the top is exactly a female version of what I felt like afterwards. Soft skin, possible not quite as soft as a hammam, but so relaxed I completely forgot the no shoe boundary again on the way out. And lounging around dreaming like a mermaid/walrus in steamy hot spring water does beat having a centimetre of skin forcibly removed all over.
How to get there
Take a taxi, or the local bus (100¥ From stop B outside the train station) from Hakone-Yumoto, which takes less than 10 minutes.
1300¥ for a day, 1200 with a Hakone Free travel pass. Children are around half price. There is food available too, if a little pricey. And soft drinks.
What to take
An itsy bitsy teeny weeny non-orange towel
Slip on shoes