January 9

My First Onsen Experience


We arrived at our ryokan in Hakone  and after a walk around the village it was time to experience our first onsen.

There may be some trepidation at wandering around naked in public but those concerns are all funny games in your own head!


We changed into our yukatas. A loose gown with a long belt. Folded left over right. As folding it right over left is for the dead!

Dressed in our yukata and slippers we went down to the baths. Men through the lue curtain and women through the red. We were told that at 10pm the curtains would be swapped over so both groups can experience the different baths.

An onsen isn't a mere recreation activity. It's not a bunch of people skinny dipping in a hot spring. It's not a western style soaking in a hot spring.

Onsens are a ritual. Revered and respected by most Japanese.

In many onsens tattoos are forbidden. Although some may be more tolerant if they are less traditional, or is one that caters for western tourists, or if the tattoo is small.

Tattoos in Japan are taboo. In the old days they were used to mark criminals. Later tattoos were embraced by the underworld (yakuza) who in many cases tattoo most of their body. Although interestingly none of the tattoo is visible when they’re fully dressed.

After shedding your clothes and jewellery the first step is to make sure your body is squeaky clean. Taking a small facecloth sized towel to dry and if necessary to provide a modicum of modesty.

Japanese do not consider nudity in the same way as people in the western world. In some areas there are public and mixed onsens which are used without any concerns or embarrassment.

Sitting on a small wooden stool each person has a basin, a hand shower, body soap and shampoo and goes through the washing ritual before entering the baths. It is done deliberately and thoroughly. The final step is to ensure that all traces of soap are removed before entering the bath.

The first bath was indoors and not very hot and the second was outdoors and piping hot. The night was cold and the rain dripped through the bamboo roof. It was exhilarating.

Despite the wet, cold weather we enjoyed more onsens over the next day. Sitting in the piping hot outdoor bath talking about life and business was special.

An onsen is a very different but very liberating experience ichi-go ichi-e which I’ll certainly do again if I have the opportunity.


hakone, onsen, ryokan

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