Yesterday, I spent three hours naked with about 100 Japanese men, lolling about in hot water. No, this isn’t the beginning of some tabloid exposee on my private life. I spent the afternoon at an onsen, in Osaka.
Actually, it was more like a super-onsen and not in the least traditional. More like a hyper-onsen. Spread over 6 floors, with an attached hotel and restaurants, it was an onsen for people who prefer their spas big. All that said, I really enjoyed it.
Spaworld like most onsens, has gender-segregated facilities. Unlike most onsens, it alternates them by month, as they contain different pools, saunas etc. So yesterday, it being September, I could only access the ‘Asian’ section. This was fine with me, as I wasn’t that interested in experiencing recreations of an Ancient Greek sweatbox.
If you’ve not visited one before, here’s what you need to know: onsens are traditionally hot springs where you can soak and ease away tensions of the day or address ongoing medical issues. Nowadays, they are accompanied by all sorts of modern spa facilities such as steam rooms, massages, facials and the rest.
An addition, fairly important note: Being gender-segregated, all business is conducted sans clothing. Naked. In the buff. You get me?
In my research on the onsen experience, I read all kinds of reviews that included the writers being completely and utterly freaked out by the need for nudity. There was a correlation between this and their US nationality, you won’t be surprised to learn. Most Europeans (the Brits being an exception here) didn’t blink an eye at the requirement to get nekkid and dive in.
So if you can get your head around the nudity and just focus on the relaxation, you’ll have a ball.
On my last visit to Tokyo, I enjoyed a half-day in another modern onsen and was amazed at how relaxed and generally chilled out it left me feeling. I honestly walked out on a high, feeling like there wasn’t a single bone in my body. I was the human equivalent of a very relaxed jelly-fish.
So I was keen to repeat the experience here in Osaka.
I was also amazed that it only took me 10 minutes to completely comfortable with the lack of clothing. I’m not a prude, nor am I an exhibitionist, but the idea of an entire afternoon naked with only strangers for company didn’t exactly thrill me.
I shouldn’t have worried.
As a European visitor, you spend so much time trying to figure out the various rules and trying not to break them that your naked flesh is soon the last thing on your mind. You get a locker for your shoes (and an accomapnying key), a locker for your clothes (and replacement ‘pyjamas’ to wear when in public areas), cleaning kit (including razor, soap etc) and towels.
You’re expected to strip off and clean yourself like you’re about to perform open-heart surgery. This is taken very seriously – the last thing they want is for you to get into the hot spring bringing all your filth with you.
Wash first, soak later.
You do get a ‘modesty towel’, something most people I know would call a face-cloth. While some people do keep it firmly in front of their nether-regions, most pop it on their head or around their neck and just get on with things.
It’s also preferable to be quiet – though some of my fellow onsen enthusiasts ignored that rule yesterday. It’s supposed to be a place for relaxation and quiet contemplation. But yesterday’s facilities included a bar, so the beers naturally led to some raised voices.
“What about money?” I hear you ask, quite logically. Well, you’ll be pleased to learn that you don’t have to tuck 1,000 Yen between your butt cheeks for beverages. Instead, you get an electronic bracelet, which you can use to pay for food and services (massages, facials etc).
You can easily run up quite a bill, so keep a watch on what you spend.
Yesterday’s facilities included outdoor hot springs, which were definitely my favourite. There are few things as nice as sitting in 42C water outside while the sun shines down on your face.
A close second was the salt sauna. Here, you sit in a very, very hot sauna after covering your body (not face) with some mineral salts. I have to say, I’m not a believer in most alernative medicine, but this took the pain and swelling out of all my mosquito stings within minutes. And left me with skin soft as a baby’s bottom all over.
One downside to visiting these places in Japan as a European is that you’re invariably in the minority, racially. Meaning you definitely stand out in the crown. That means lots of pointing and talking about you. And your body.
This was mostly by the younger kids, while their embarassed dads tried to hush them up. Though one gang of older teens did blatantly talk about me (and my hairy chest – obvious from their hand movements) while I sat next to them in the sauna.
I soon got used to it and spent most of my time with my eyes shut.
Another minor downside is the tendency for these large onsense to have TVs in the sauna. I know! Massive big-screen TVs pumping out Japanese ganeshows. So it’s much more difficult to relax in there. But it’s still fun, trying to figure out what the hell is going on during the show.
All of that said, I’d heartily recommend visiting one of these places if you ever get the chance.
If I come into money some day, I’ll open one in London. Until then, I’ll just to have to use the sauna in my apartment building and mumble in Japanese to myself, to recreate the experience.