What happened at the onsen

logo-3.3-with-bgI seriously considered turning back as I stood in front of the grand Meiji-era building. This was the Takegawara onsen and if I managed to do it, it would be my first ever onsen experience.

After walking back and forth by the entrance a couple of times, I decided my Japan experience wouldn’t be complete if I did not get into an onsen. I slowly counted to five in an effort to calm myself and went in.

Like most travellers, I had read up about onsen before setting foot in Japan. Onsen is Japanese for “hot spring” and this country has thousands of them. The Japanese use the mineral-rich water of these springs in public baths all over the country. You get into a bathhouse, strip to your birthday suit, wash yourself clean and immerse yourself in the hot water tank to soak, along with of course, the several other people (of the same sex; there are hardly any mixed onsen) who are doing the same.

The old building of Takegawara onsen at Beppu
The old building of Takegawara onsen at Beppu

The lady at the reception smiled at as I entered and I paid the entrance fee to her. She asked if I had my own towel or would like to rent one. I had a towel. I had done my research and had come prepared.

She showed me in and directed me to the shoe rack where I kept my shoes.

According to my research, the next step would be to go to the locker room where I had to strip and keep all my stuff before getting into a shower. I had to wash myself well there before entering the onsen.

From the shoe rack, I was directed to a door on the right side of the building. I assumed that would be the locker. I went straight ahead, moved the curtain aside and walked in.

The sight of some ten naked men confronted me!

I was on sort of a landing from where a flight of stairs went down to the onsen, which was around 15 feet long and eight feet wide. On my let were some racks where you could keep your stuff. There were some lockers too, but everyone was just keeping everything on the racks. Apart from me, there was just the one other foreigner who had finished soaking and was sitting on a bench on the landing before he got dressed.

“Is there a place to take a shower before I get in there?” I asked this foreigner guy pointing to the tank of dark yellow water.

“You just wash yourself outside the tank. There are taps on the walls down there,” he explained.

“And sir, I would advise you to get into the onsen from the far end where there is a tap pouring in cold water into the pool,” he added.

“I will do that. Thank you.”

The thing I feared the most did not seem so difficult in the end. I am, of course, talking about the aspect of getting naked in public. By the time my conversation ended with that guy, I was beginning to feel uneasy with clothes on when everyone else was stark naked!

I coolly slipped out of my clothes and placed them on one of the racks, grabbed my towel and walked down the stairs.

There were lots of large plastic bowls which you could fill with water from the taps to wash yourself. The tap water was very cold and I followed some others who were scooping out water from the hot water pool and mixing it with the cold water before using it.

I had a regular sized towel. But most of the others had smaller ones, not much larger than face towels, which they used both for scrubbing their bodies and half-heartedly trying to cover their genitals with.

The tiny towels didn’t do a good job of covering up their stuff and I saw no point of that exercise when they were already here in the onsen with nothing on.

I was done washing and scrubbing myself. It was time to soak. I remembered the naked guy’s advice and went to the far end where the tap added cold water to the pool. I gingerly put a foot in.

It was hot like hell.

I chose a place close to the tap and slowly got fully inside. I thought my body would get used to it in some time, but two minutes later, the water felt no less scalding hot.

This was supposed to be warm and comfortable and soothing, not me worrying all the while if I’d have blisters by the time I got out!

I looked at the other people around. The youngest guy there was a teenager and the oldest appeared to be nearing 80. Most of the others seemed like regulars who were used to this very hot water. People came in, went about their business and left. A couple of men sat on the side of the pool and dangled their feet in the water. It seems weird now that I think about it, but at that time, the whole process appeared as normal as going to the local store to buy bread.

I couldn’t stay in the hot water for too long. The weather was humid and I began sweating profusely after I got into my clothes. I sat for a while in the lobby watching some sumo matches on the TV and cooling off.

Onsen. Check.


5 thoughts on “What happened at the onsen

  1. Ha ha, we had such similar Onsen experiences that it made me laugh reading yours. I guess it’s the same for everyone the first time. First it feel really wierd being naked with everyone, and you don’t know exactly what to do, but you quickly get over it and it all works out in the end.

  2. I’ve never been to an onsen but always wanted to! Of course getting naked is the most difficult thing, but since you’re with people of your same genre you get to think that you have the same as them, so there’s nothing to look at!

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