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Get Soaked in Japan

You are tired after a long day and think,

“Wouldn’t it be great to take a hot bath and relax?”


Well, if you happen to be in Japan, that’s easy. And you can do it with your friends – as long as they are the same sex. Even though the country is totally modern and has state-of-the-art plumbing, such as toilets with warmed seats that wash your bottom with a press of a button, the Japanese communal bath – onsen or ofuroya – has endured. It is about pleasure and relaxation.


Be forewarned. Whether you visit an onsen – an indoor/outdoor bath with mineral springs, an ofuroya, a public bathhouse, or a ryokan (Japanese inn), you may be the only one who speaks English, and sometimes the only non-Asian in attendance. Except for at the ryokans, separate facilities exist for men and women.


Bathhouse etiquette must be observed. Most importantly, know that pools are for soaking, not washing. This means that you must first either shower or sit on a small bench and soap down your entire body. Then give yourself a total rinse. You must be clean and soapless before even putting one little piggy into the pool.


Though nudity is rampant here, your body might be the biggest attraction. One’s only protection is likely a small towel about the size of a large washcloth. It is used for soaping up or in the pools or as a hair turban. Since everyone will be staring at your American body, clean yourself from head-to-toe twice. They will be impressed.


The ladies’ pools are filled with women of all ages. For the Japanese, this is both a communal and a cleansing experience. Moms bring their daughters and friends come here to sit and gossip, sometimes for hours. I think if I visited such a place with my daughters or my English-speaking friends, we would be soaking and chattering away until our skin turned prune-like.


Onsens and bath houses vary in size and style. Tokyo’s Oedo Onsen Monogatari is very popular with Japanese and tourists alike. The facility is bright, cheery and has amusement park-like atmosphere. Since few speak English, much is done by pantomime.


As is Japan’s custom, shoes are removed at the entrance and secured in a locker. For about $22 USD, you get another locker key and a kimono. Ladies kimonos come in a variety of colors and sashes, while the men can even choose ones adorned with samurais.


There is protocol when it comes to the kimono. Wall illustrations help to get this right. Fold it left over right. (Right over left is for the departed at their funerals.) The obi or sash should go around twice and be tied in the back.


Once properly kimonoed, enter an area that is an actual replica of a red-light district street in Yokohama during the Edo period (1603-1868). The “street” is lined with noodle shops, a food court, gift shops and benches. People sit around little tables and enjoy a beer, some noodles, sushi or an ice cream.


After browsing or eating, enter the locker room and receive a washcloth and a larger towel for drying yourself along with yet another locker key. Now let it all hang out, head for the showers and scrub down. For good measure, take one of the buckets, fill it with water and pour it over your head. Now you are ready for your soak.


Oh, the warm mineral pools feel so good. So does the hot tub, Jacuzzi and sauna. Taking a dip in the cold pool is a personal preference. The outside area, adorned with rocks and trees, has five, wooden, barrel tubs, and three different-sized pools. Massages are also available, but non-Japanese speakers have to be good at charades to secure one.


Other public baths are much more low-keyed. Some offer massages. Most hotels may not offer massages but they do have onsens. Soaping up while sitting on a bench, a hand-held shower and rinsing buckets are a prelude for a wonderful soak in a large, deep, wooden tub. Sometimes bathers wash themselves with a shower hose while sitting on a stool in front of a mirror. Rinsing is done with either the hand-held shower or buckets of water. Many have warm water-filled wooden tubs. Encased in warmth, it is difficult to leave.


So, if you find yourself in Japan, make a point to try an onsen or an ofuroya. It is a wonderful way to literally immerse yourself into the culture.

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