(16.01.2017 – 22.01.2017)

I am really sorry for the lack of pictures of beautiful Japanese landscapes, cute little village streets, or delicious food. What can I say, my days after my return from the winter holiday have been anything but exciting. Project assignments, weekly tests, and the preparation for my Master’s thesis have kept be busy and impeded indulging on the brighter sides of an exchange student’s life. However, on Friday we decided that we desperately needed heating up from the blistering cold (for those who say Japanese winters are not as bad as German winters: if you life in a badly isolated shoebox of a room where inside temperature equals outside temperature like we do, you might reconsider that thought) and decided to visit the newly-opened Onsen right around the corner.

Like I said, the Onsen we decided to visit just recently opened and was therefore brand new. So before I further describe what we experienced there, here’s a little more information about Japanese Onsen culture.

The traditional onsen

The term „onsen“ is in general used to describe a hot spring. Due to the strong volcanic activities under the surface of the Japanese land mass, onsen can be found in almost every area of Japan. The water reserves in the ground are heated up by the lava in the earth and trough tectonic plate movements somehow found their way up to the surface over the course of time. Of course the water is sometimes still boiling hot when it comes out of the earth; in a public onsen where people come to take a bath it has to be cooled down before. That is totally ok and does not disturb the onsen tradition in any way – in return, heating the water up when it comes out too cold is also no problem. The important part is that it comes from volcano springs – only then it is allowed to be called an onsen.

Normally, in places with many fountains of hot water streaming out of the earth, hotels and spa resort establish around these areas. These places then become health resort, which are ver famous among Japanese people. They love to plan a day trip there or, if the onsen is close to their workplace, seek a little after-work relaxation there. When you go to an onsen you can usually chose from several basins where the water is cooled down to different temperatures, normally somewhere between 38 and 42° degrees Celsius. A modern onsen is comparable to a sauna area in German thermal baths. You can also visit outside basins or enjoy such things as whirlpools or massage bubble streams. Often a traditional steam sauna is also within the facility.

In more traditional and natural onsen, how they can be found in Beppu for example, you may not have so many basins at your choice, but you can sit in a more natural atmosphere and enjoy the nature around. Onsen are a very important part of Japanese culture. Already in ancient paintings there are people depicted who take a bath in a hot spring and nowadays many villages have become famous only for their beautiful onsen. Some of the most famous ones can be found in Kyushu and the Oita prefecture is so proud of its many hot springs that it decided to express this even in their prefecture mascot:

Picture via Oitajet

Onsen etiquette

Of course, like everywhere in Japan, there are also some rules when it comes to visiting an onsen.

Traditional onsen are strictly gender-separated (mixed ones do exist, though) and will not allow you to enter if you have any tattoos. Tattoos in Japan are still related to Yakuza/mob activities and usually scare people rather than serve an aesthetic purpose for them. So it may happen that you are asked to leave if you have visible tattoos – and they will be seen, as you have to be completely naked in an onsen.

So, as everybody enters an onsen only with their skin as a bathing suit, hygiene is a big topic. Before you enter a basin you therefore are required (really, this is not an option) to grab your toiletries, go to one of the washing areas, and thoroughly clean yourself first. The more time you spent here, the better. Wash yourself, your hair, and every part of your body before you enter a basin. Japanese people are very strict with this, so no excuses! This also means anything that could be considered unhygienic has to stay outside, e.g plasters or tapes and also women on their period – sorry ladies! What might not be a problem in a German swimming pool is here an absolute no-go.

Even though an onsen is a place of relaxation, conversations are ok and not considered rude (unlike in the train, for example). However, make sure you are not annoying anybody and keep your talking voice to a moderate level.

All in all, just make sure to keep everything clean and free from „contamination“: take your shoes off at the entrance, don’t take anything inside the onsen water, wash yourself before entering and dry yourself with a towel before you enter the dressing area. If you keep this in mind, there is nothing that could keep you from enjoying your time in the hot onsen waters. No wonder that we could easily spent almost 3 hours there!