Naturally hot waters flowing from geothermally heated springs rich in mineral content with mystical healing powers - a one-sentence textbook description of Onsens.
Wikipedia could have told you that, but I am not here to be a parrot regurgitating facts. Allow me to take you into the world of onsens, from a foreigner's standpoint with nil experiences in public nudity.
Wait, did you mean the sacred ritual of bathing/showering, that time of the day you look forward to some alone pampering time in lathers of shower gel, that's done publicly in Japan?
Yes, thats exactly what I mean. Lo and behold - if you're looking for the true Japanese experience, make sure you brush up on your public nudity skills. Oh, and even if you are successful in hiding how awkward you are in such situations, you're supposed to also unwind and bond with strangers in this bizarre world of "naked communion".
Typically found in the countryside, Onsens are an extremely popular Japanese past time for couples, families and business groups to get away from the hectic city life. The scalding hot waters instantly relaxes your muscles, making it virtually impossible to be tensed physically nor mentally.
Traditionally onsens are of mixed gender, however since the Japanese opened up their doors to the western world after the Meiji Restoration, gender separation have been enforced. Of course, mixed gender baths are still available in the more rural onsen areas.
Outdoors or Indoors?
Outdoor onsens (rotenburo) are more commonly found in "Onsen Towns". Such towns specialize in ryokan and onsen tourism, whereby local and foreign tourists come for the sole purpose of staying in ryokans, soaking in onsens and enjoying the town's atmosphere. Outdoor onsens open up to the natural environment with pleasant views, perfect for those looking to connect with nature in a more unique manner.
On the other hand, indoor onsens are more common and can be found in most ryokans and minshukus (cheaper version of a ryokan). If you prefer bathing in a temperature controlled environment, unexposed to the harsh weathers and promises more privacy, then indoor onsens are the perfect choice for you. Most indoor onsens have been decorated in traditional Japanese wood deco or artificial boulders to give it a more natural feel.
An onsen noob such as myself found the whole thing extremely confusing. Thoughts that ran through my head during the first visit;
Okay, so how do I do this?
Where do I take my clothes off?
Am I supposed to shower first?
Should I wear anything to go into the onsen? Should I wear anything coming out of the onsen? Jeezzusss help me!
It really doesn't help that most Japanese people just assume you know how to onsen. Like, they hand you the token to enter and off you go. No instructions, no guidelines, no one to hold your hand through it all. Oh how I wished I did more research on onsen etiquettes before jumping into hot waters (pun intended).
To avoid awkward "clueless tourists" moments such as the ones I endured, learn from my mistake and take a read on the TripAdvisor guide to Onsen below.
Staying true to my love for the natural outdoors and authentic cultural experiences, I instantly jumped at the opportunity to explore Kurokawa Onsen. A hot spring village in the southern island of Kyushu, Kurokawa Onsen is one of the few Onsen towns that manages to maintain its traditional atmosphere.
Eight hours of Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo, followed by a two hour train ride to Mount Aso and another two hour bus ride to Kurokawa Onsen, I was already questioning whether this journey was worth it. That thought dissipated as soon as the hums of the gushing river, stoned staircases and earthen walls greeted us. Perfectly integrated to its natural surroundings, the sight was a breath of fresh air after days of concrete buildings and loud neon advertisements.
Keen beans can opt for onsen-hopping passes that gives you entry for three onsens for only ¥1300, approximately AUD15 or MYR50. Initially, I thought three onsens weren't enough for a full day of onsen-hopping, but after the first one I understood why onsen-hopping is done over a few days. A 15-minute soak in an onsen could leave you feeling out of breath for the next hour!
For that reason, ryokan owners will usually provide space for onsen-goers to relax and wind down after a session. Who knew soaking up in a hot bath could be so taxing! But once I slipped into my yukata and sandals, sit by the fire and sip on green tea, I knew I had a complete Onsen experience...
Although the first few encounters with strangers in an onsen was awkward beyond belief, you began to question the root of all your self-conciousness after seeing grandmas strutting their stuff. Then it dawned upon me, no one gives a hoot. Nobody is there to see you in your birthday suit, they're all there for the onsen spirit.
So relax, sit back and enjoy yourself. Its not often you get to be naked in public without anyone batting an eyelid.