One of Japan’s most ancient traditions is the relaxation method of bathing naked in an Onsen. Wait a minute, naked? Yep. Naked. Westerners and a lot of Asians are usually embarrassingly unfamiliar in this particular circumstance, including myself. A lot of tourists that go to Japan tend to overlook this tradition as something for locals to take part in and don’t mind finding something else to do, which is what I would have normally done.
I’m sure most if you have a few questions already so here are a few FAQs to clear some things up.
Do you really get naked?
Yes. When I asked the receptionist to double check she laughed and said ‘of course you do these are Japanese baths.
Are women and men seperated?
Yes. Men and women have their own seperated baths.
Is it clean?
Undoubtedly. The Japanese take great pride in cleanliness and Hygeine. It is squeaky.
Do you have to walk naked between baths?
No. You are given a robe or Kimono.
What’s the different between a Sento and an Onsen?
Sentos are more available because they are public baths, usually not quite as glamorous as Onsens that are specifically based on natural hot springs.
Is it expensive?
Yes and no. Obviously with everything to do with travel it is only expensive if you want it to be and what you can afford.
Where do I keep my stuff?
Onsens always have lockers to keep your valuables safe.
When is the best time to go?
All year! In the Spring cherry blossoms decorate the mountainsides. In summer you are in the warmth and sun with some rivers close to Onsens being havens for fireflies. In Autumn the leaves of the mountainside make for a wonderful view and in winter the balmy spring water will warm you to the bone whilst snow falls on your hair.
On the morning I went to the Onsen I had climbed a mountain in North Kyoto where bears forage in the forests going up the mountain. Ordinarily, this would be scary enough for anyone but my Dad since birth has ingrained a fear of bears into my psyche that i have yet to shake. However, on that morning I successfully climbed the mountain and (as you can probably tell) I did not get mauled to death. Yay! So, I was feeling confident to try out this Onsen. Feeling as if I had been given a second chance in life I entered the building and headed towards the reception.
Kurama Spa is located about 14km North of Kyoto, a 45 minute train ride away at the most. The first thing you notice when gazing out of the window is the abundance of deep cedar forests that line either side of the village. Walking to the spa you will appreciate the mountainous, fresh air and much sought after tranquility.
One of the reasons why we chose to visit Kurama village to climb Mount Kurama and visit the Onsen Ryokan is due to the health benefits on offer for doing so. Kuramas natural sulfur springs are known nationally as a healthy and detoxifying way to relax. The Kyoto City Health and Hygeine Research Center has certified that the sulfur in the hot springs water contains natural minerals which are effective in alleviating a variety of different ailments including; high blood pressure, rheumatism, nerve problems, diabetes and back pains.
We chose the expensive option out of the two to maximise our relaxing state. We paid ¥2500 (£18) for a rental bath and hand towels, cotton kimonos, access to outside baths, inside baths, sauna, jacuzzi and the relaxation room. Me and Georgia went our seperate ways and off we went to let everything hang loose. But before we dipped our feet in the tubs there is a social etiquette of how to enjoy the Japanese baths without causing offence to anyone or breaking tradition.
1. Firstly, get stark naked.
1. Secondly, wash yourself lightly outside of the baths. You usually are able to sit on a little plastic seat and wash.
2. Use soap when you are outside of the baths only, this will cause problems if you do.
3. When you’re all nice and soapy wash off the soup by pouring hot water over your shoulders.
4. Enter the bath up to your chin and feel the sulfuric hot springs water working its magic with every single nerve and muscle in your body.
Some other key points to note; Japanese baths involvement in nudity means males and females are seperated. We didn’t really think of this before going in as when we entered we had no one to talk to so we just sat by ourselves! If you are able to go in groups within the same sex it might be more social. Also, never take photographs in an Onsen. Obviously people are naked and remember this is not just for adults, children as young as 2 go to Onsens so getting a camera out will be met with people looking at you strangely. The most important advice I can give you though is to rehydrate every time you switch between baths or if you go from a sauna to a bath as you sweat ALOT and occasionally I felt quite dizzy until I bought a couple of drinks.
Today has been a day where I have conquered 2 fears; bears and being naked in public. Within 3 hours of never getting naked in public to leaving the Onsen I had seen an army of old mans genitalia. I had walked naked freely around strangers and I had curbed an irrational fear of mine. A great feeling!
That’s it guys, tomorrow me and Georgia are having a lie in after waking at 4:45am to climb the mountain this morning and will be heading into central Kyoto to explore castles, manga and more!