My host family had been anticipating the trip since September. Almost every November, my host family, along with their long-time friends and relatives, spends a weekend at a well-known onsen up in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. This year, they invited Melissa and I along for the trip. Having never been to an onsen previously, I was unsure of what exactly to expect. In America there are no public bathing areas, after all. Nevertheless, I was eager to find out.
Onsen means hot spring and refers to traditional inns and public bathing accommodations. Before entering the actual onsen pools, guests are expected to clean and rinse themselves at individual showering stalls; these are equipped with shampoo, and body and face washes. Just as in the Japanese home, one showers at these stalls while sitting on a small stool. The shower heads are removable, but one is expected to use a bucket for rinsing. And you want to rinse off well – entering the onsen baths with traces of soap is socially unacceptable!
A volcanically active country, Japan offers an abundance of natural hot springs. The inn at which we stayed did not have natural hot springs but had both indoor and outdoor baths, or rotenburo. Nagano is known for its apple farms and delicious apple-flavored omiyage (gifts) sweets, so it’s perhaps not surprising that one of the baths was filled with whole apples. Nearly all the baths held steaming hot water, but one was filled with cold water. Combined with the cool fall temperatures outside, this particular bath did not seem like pleasant mode of relaxation. After spending perhaps more than an acceptable length of time in the inn’s scorching hot sauna, though, the frigid water came as a relief.
The only form of modesty in the onsen, I learned, is the small towel that guests may use to cover themselves while walking between baths. Bathers of every age use the baths together, completely naked. Once inside the bathing facilities, this is no issue – in the setting, even for me, it almost seemed “normal.” All part of the Japan experience!
Traditionally, men and women would bath in the same pools, but today only the very rural areas allow mixed-bathing. Indeed, the inn in Nagano had separated bathing units for men and women, but during the morning operating hours the units were switched. Thus, I was able to see the differences between the baths. The women’s original unit, offering a sauna and many outdoor pools, allowed more choices for bathers. The men’s unit had only one larger outdoor bath overlooking a nearby river and distant mountains.
The inn’s guest rooms are made for gatherings between friends and family. Our group, consisting of twelve people in all, stayed in one room complete with tatami floors and the necessary resources for preparing green tea. A smaller adjacent room was meant for karaoke (my host father, who is in his seventies, really enjoyed this feature!). At night everyone slept on futons, which were rolled out for us after we returned from dinner.
By dinner, though, I mean feast! The inn, along with unlimited access to the onsen baths and the larger-than-family-sized room, provides a “Viking” dinner and breakfast for guests. Baikingu, a katakana word which translates to Viking, refers to a buffet style meal. At this onsen resort, naturally the food was all Nihon-shoku, traditional Japanese foods. Miso soup, rice, and heaping plates of vegetables, tofu dishes and salad toppings were only starters. My host father went straight for the crab legs while the rest of us opted for freshly-prepared sushi, egg omelets, salmon fillets, or soba dishes. Dessert was not forgotten either; Japanese-style gelatin, fruit assortments, small crepe cakes, and melon ice cream paired perfectly with the espresso and warm teas. The breakfast foods were different from the average American family breakfast of bacon, over-easy eggs, toast, and pancakes or waffles. The Viking spread again offered rice, miso soup, vegetables, and makitamago (rolled egg). There were also more familiar staples, like fruit, yogurt, and baked goods. It may go without saying that we were all fed very well, and the Japanese flavors were delicious.
I would recommend onsen to students and foreigners alike because the experience is so unique. If one has any qualm about entering a bath with strangers, naked, do not worry too much! Here in Japan, at an onsen resort, the concept is completely normal. The only surprise Melissa and I were subject to was a couple of women’s admiration for our ability to speak Japanese.