Onsen are Japanese hot springs, and bathing facilities built around them. Japan is known to have a lot of them and people regularly use them. There are also Sentō, which are communal bath houses, they differ from Onsen in that they don’t use natural hot springs, but heated normal water.
Onsen and Sentō have a lot of etiquette to ensure hygiene and safety of everyone, and to also be mindful of tradition.
Some of these rules are:
- You have to thoroughly wash yourself in the open before you get into an Onsen, ensuring all the soap is washed off.
- You cannot wear any clothing, you have to be completely naked when in the water.
- Your hair should not touch the water, so you keep your head above the water and just dip your body.
- It’s not meant for swimming, you just relax and let the hot mineral water do its thing.
- Most public Onsen don’t allow folks with tattoos, some may allow them, others may allow if the tattoo is covered with a sticker.
The most stark aspect of considering going to an Onsen, for me, was being unclothed around other people.
I broadly don’t have a problem with nudity. But being nude while being foreign, brown, bearded, long haired, and tattooed in a very traditional Japanese setting amongst the locals certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to consider doing. Especially given how people’s glances lingered on me even when out and about (for being foreign), mostly out of curiosity than judgment. Expecting this in an Onsen wasn’t a pleasant thought.
I found a tattoo-friendly one and went to it on one of my first few days in Japan.
I was anxious at start, but the being-nude aspect of myself and others got normalised very quickly. Everybody was there to enjoy the hot spring, and nobody cared about the others. That was quite refreshing.
I took a shower amongst others using a sitting stool so as to not splash a lot of water on others next to you. Tied my hair up and entered the hot spring and found a nice corner to sit and relax in.
It was amazing!
Surely, the hot spring, following a set of procedures before entering it was all great—ceremonial even. What stood out most was the blatantly non-sexual setting where everyone is nude. It was very refreshing to have such a space. To be free, not judged (at least not openly).
I was later told by some Japanese friends I met along my travels that the Japanese believe that showing your body is not a big deal because we all have pretty much the same parts. But it’s bearing your thoughts, your mind—that’s considered a more significant deal, as that’s what makes you uniquely you.
Found that interesting.
I ended up going to Onsen and Sentō every chance I got. It became a favorite activity through my travel.