The Japanese Onsen Experience: Part 2

Wondering what happened in Part 1? Click here to find out!

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I wish I could tell you that mom and I woke up the morning after we ran out of two onsens in Kinosaki and decided to give it another go.

But I can’t.

The truth is, we were fairly traumatized. I made a lot of assumptions about what the onsen experience would and wouldn’t be, and the Japanese onsens of my head simply didn’t match up with the Japanese onsens of… well… Japan.

This is a rookie travel mistake, and I’m not proud of it. Several times on this trip I set high expectations for things I knew nothing about. This was my first time not only in Japan, but in all of Asia. And while my previous travels in Europe and Latin America seemed exotic at the time, I was not prepared for the vast cultural differences I would encounter in Japan. By the time mom and I reached the onsens of Kinosaki, our comfort level had been stretched very thin already. Trying to force ourselves to fall in love with an activity that consisted of elements not only socially unacceptable in our own culture (public nudity), but that also set off our own personal anxieties (small crowded places), was just too ambitious for this trip.

It also didn’t help that Kinosaki was an onsen town, a tourist destination designed just for bathing. While the streets were definitely filled with travelers, the crowd was mostly domestic. Nowhere did we stand out more than in Kinosaki, and the pointed stares we received from people not only at the bathhouses themselves, but also on the street, in the restaurants, and even from the staff at our guesthouse – made us extremely uncomfortable.

I was monumentally disappointed when we left Kinosaki without having ever touched their famous steaming waters. But as it turns out, the onsens of Japan were not finished with me just yet.

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I hadn’t realized as I planned this trip that onsens are everywhere in the country. And when we reached our hotel in the mountain resort town of Hakone we were promptly given a pamphlet informing us of the onsen located on the grounds. Examining the leaflet in our room, I decided this was the universe’s way of giving me an opportunity to redeem myself.

Mom and I split a bottle of wine at dinner, and while the wine only strengthened my determination to give the onsens one more try, it merely reinforced her resolve to do just the opposite.

I was on my own.

I donned the robe the hotel provided for the onsen and made my way through the winding hallways. Our hotel was massive and mostly empty – apparently Hakone is a very popular summer destination, but not so much in the winter. That walk seemed to take forever, and more than once I thought to myself I should just turn around. The quiet of the lobby was encouraging though, and so was the smile of the lady who handed me a towel and locker key.

There was only one person in the locker room, and she paid no mind to me as I walked by. Trying my absolute best to appear as if I knew what I was doing, I found my locker, opened it up, and stripped.

I picked up my hand towel and opened the door to the onsen. Directly in front of me was the pool – small and artificial much like the one I had seen in Kinosaki – only this one was empty. Along the wall on either side of me sat the showers. They were just as I had read they’d be – each one had a stool, a shower faucet with a removable nozzle, a mirror at eye level for sitting, as well as soap, shampoo, and conditioner (FYI – I have read that not all onsens provide soap for free). The showers were open in the back, but did have partitions on either side. I wouldn’t call it a private experience, but the illusion of privacy did ease my nerves. I rinsed off the stool, sat down, and scrubbed.

The room was still empty as I finished, and as I began to relax I started to see more. The wall opposite me was made up of large windows, and through them I could see what I suspected was an outdoor pool. I braced myself for the cold and trotted out the door.

To my delight, while this pool was also artificial, it was much larger and absolutely lovely. It sat at the edge of a lake into which spilled forested rolling hills. The cooler temperature of the outdoors created a fog of mist that rolled over the water. And best of all? It was completely empty.

The pool was not deep – just shallow enough so that if I sat at the bottom the water came across the tops of my shoulders. I immersed myself and finally did what I had come to do.

I relaxed.

Time passed and I found myself sitting on the steps of the pool, not caring a bit who might see. By the time I left ten or so other ladies had come into the onsen. But all of them were quiet and there was plenty of room for everyone. I realized when I returned to my locker that I had not taken any steps at all to cover myself as I walked back inside.

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Our Hakone mountain adventure wound up being buried by the biggest blizzard the region had seen in 130 years. Over the next three days we found ourselves unable to leave the hotel, with little option for entertainment other than the onsite onsen. I wound up returning to the pool four times, each visit relaxing more and more into the experience. People still stared, but not for nearly as long. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more confident in my bathing expertise and so started to care less and less about the double-takes. Interestingly, the amount of staring seemed to directly correlate with my level of self-assurance. The more competent I felt, the less people gaped.

By my last visit to the onsen I was so pleased with myself that I was tempted to make conversation with my soaking mates. Aren’t I doing well?? I wanted to say, eager for someone else to recognize how far I’d come. I was just like a child who wiped her bum for the first time. Aren’t you proud of me?!?!

By then no one would make eye contact with me. It was probably for the best.

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The onsen was never as empty as it had been during my first visit. It was as if the stars aligned just right on that night so that I could have the privacy I needed to figure everything out and become comfortable with the situation. After that I was fine – more than fine, actually. I was delighted. And while back in Kinosaki I had shook my head and wondered how anyone could enjoy bathing in public – now, I think I get it.

The tradition of the onsens in Japan began before the advent of plumbing. After a hard day of work people would retreat to their village onsen to, yes, shower – but also to melt away the stresses of the day. The Japanese have created a ritual of relaxation out of cleansing themselves. Once I got over the initial shock of the experience, I was able to fully appreciate it to the point where even though I had a private shower back in my room, I never once used it during our stay in Hakone.

I don’t know that it’s in my nature to enjoy the crowds we experienced in Kinosaki. But I feel a lot better about that experience now knowing that my discomfort came from my own personal anxieties rather than some major cultural difference I was unable to understand. Plus, I think it’s entirely possible we simply visited at a particularly busy time of year. My first encounter with onsens in Japan left me feeling very conflicted and confused. But once I got it right, I was able to see it for what it is: a wonderful Japanese tradition, maybe even one of the best in my eyes. And definitely some good, clean, fun.

…get it?? ‘clean’?!?

This whole experience just goes to show how necessary it is to let go of your preconceived notions and expectations when you travel. It also proves that what your mom told you as a kid at the dinner table is right: you’ll never know until you try.

4 thoughts on “The Japanese Onsen Experience: Part 2

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