Japan is one of the few countries in which people bathe together. It’s traditional for families to bathe together, and public bathhouses are still a fixture in big cities and small towns alike. So since it’s still such a large part of the culture, any self-respecting traveler has to at least try the public bath experience once.
Since hot spring baths —onsen in Japanese — are pretty much the biggest attraction in Hakone, Jeff and I were doubly obligated to try it out, so we manned up on our second night there and decided to take the plunge at the hotel’s public baths. First, we read our guide’s bath etiquette section a few times, trying to convince ourselves that we would be as suave as possible despite being, well, naked! Traditionally, one showers off and cleans thoroughly on a stool outside the bath itself. Once clean, you can soak in the steaming hot tub. Often families will use one tub of hot water and take turns showering and then soaking in the bath.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: no big deal! We’ve all got the same bits and pieces, we’ve all gone swimming at the public pool. But when you’re in another country and another culture, I can assure you, insecurities skyrocket. You wouldn’t believe the possibilities for awkward situations to occur while fully clothed, so stripping down wasn’t easy.
Making the task a little easier was the separate facilities for men and women. After I entered the locked room, a sea of questions washed over me (where do I leave my towel? Do I bring my shower shoes into the bathing room? When do I get naked? Where do I leave my clothes? Will other women belittle my bits and pieces) I dilly dallied until I could furtively watch another woman’s example, then happily got about the business of getting clean.
Once I discovered that the hotel had Tsubaki shampoo, conditioner and body wash in the showers, two kinds of lotion in the locker rooms, vanities with hair dryers and a massage chair, I was sold on the experience. It was just like going to a spa (OK, I’ve never been to a spa, but I can imagine what it’s like), except that I was completely naked in front of other women, and I got to soak in a giant outdoor stone bath under the stars.
Needless to say, the first time was a little awkward and nerve wracking, but after that I couldn’t get enough. Jeff and I even went to another bath house in the town to get a well-rounded experience. I definitely recommend onsen to anyone going to Japan — added bonus: you get to see all the weird things that happen to a body as it ages! Relaxation and education in biology/physics/hygiene in one experience!