Rain drops fall, bouncing off the surface of the steaming, open-air pool. Up to my neck in hot water, I turn my gaze to the left see roughly hewn boulders and mini Cyprus trees flanking the water — a makeshift Zen garden of sorts.
There’s a chill in the air, which makes the scalding temperature of the mineral-infused waters more bearable.
To my right sit four Japanese men, also submerged in the water, their eyes closed and beatific expressions on their reclined faces. Aside from the gentle pitter-patter of rainfall, the silence is almost palpable.
While there’s nothing especially out of the ordinary about this scene — extreme serenity aside, perhaps — there is one thing that’s making me internally squirm.
You see, both I, and my fellow bathers, are completely naked.
Welcome to the world of the Japanese onsens where a soak means checking your inhibitions (and your clothes) at the door.
Here, swimming suits are banned, which means being totally nude in public with a bunch of total strangers.
A makeshift Zen garden of sorts is often built around the naturally occurring hot springs. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
And in the land of sushi and samurai, the onsen isn’t just a pastime, it’s a way of life.
A blanket word for both hot springs and the various bathing facilities that utilise them, the onsen has been a mainstay in Japan for thousands of years.
Thanks to its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is a literal hotbed for geothermal activity, resulting in 25,000 naturally-occurring mineral springs, which are channelled into more than 3,000 spa resorts that pepper the country.
Revered for their relaxing effects and circulatory benefits, the use of onsen bathing as a form of medical treatment is widely practised and it’s believed that the sulphur and magnesium-rich springs reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, improve the skin, ease fatigue and even help with digestion.
And while the purported health benefits are numerous, for foreign visitors who aren’t used to baring all in front of complete strangers, it can be a little awkward.
What do I do? Will they stare? Did I spend enough time washing myself? Time can be wasted stressing, rather than actually enjoying the experience. So, in the interests of research, to conquer my own fears, and for real onsen immersion (get it?) I’ve allowed myself two days in what has been described as Japan’s ‘onsen Mecca’: Kinosaki-Onsen.
Paul Ewart undertaking some first-hand research at Japan’s ‘onsen Mecca’: Kinosaki-Onsen. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied
Though under-the-radar for foreigners, this tiny town only 2.5 hours from Kyoto is hailed by the Japanese as one of the best hot spring destinations in the country. Previously named the top onsen town in Japan, it has been a local favourite since the eighth century.
Set around a scenic willow-lined river and surrounded by mountains, Kinosaki is a postcard-perfect time capsule of old school Japan.
Indeed, as I walk across a small stone bridge, cherry blossom petals flutter through the air around me, before landing on the surface of the koi-filled river below. I feel like I’ve stepped into one of those scenes that adorned your late-granny's blue and white ceramic tea set.
Stone bridges connect different parts of one of the 74 bathing facilities in Kinosaki. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
Good looks aside, when it comes to onsens here, you’re spoilt for choice. In fact, there’s one for every day of the week, and that’s on top of the bathing facilities within many of Kinosaki’s ryokans (traditional Japanese inns).
There’s a whopping 74 of them in town, but I’ve checked into what is regarded as the best — Nishimuraya Honkan.
The oldest and most luxurious, this haute inn has been welcoming guests for more than 150 years through seven generations of the same family. So for an authentic Japanese accommodation experience, you can’t get any better.
Conveniently sandwiched between two public onsens I don’t need to walk far to get wet, which is a good thing as the geta sandals I’m provided with (wooden platform shoes similar to clogs) are pretty tricky to master. Donning these and a yukata (a thin, cotton version of a kimono that’s akin to a bathrobe) I join other soon-to-be bathers, clip-clopping up the streets in their geta, clutching bags or baskets of towels.
The oldest and most luxurious inn in Kinosaki — Nishimuraya Honkan — offers a haute yet authentic Japanese accommodation experience. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
With each step I have to give myself a mental talking to. Despite having braved naked saunas in Sweden and the like, my inner-prude still lingers, rearing its ugly head.
It’s odd, as I grew up in what you’d term a ‘naked house’. I can’t ever remember either of my parents closing the bathroom door and the sight of both my mum and dad walking around the house sans underwear was a common occurrence.
It was so bad I’d fear inviting friends over in case they got an eyeful. Then there’s my memories of the loathsome, cold PE showers from my formative years at high school *shudder*.
Arriving at the onsen, the first thing I notice are the separate entrances for men and women. Historically, both sexes bathed together, but these days almost all onsens are segregated.
Historically, the bathhouses were unisex. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
Battling trepidation, I head into the changing rooms where I coyly shed my clothes. ‘Relax!’ I silently tell myself.
Grabbing the postage stamp-sized towel (the only thing you’re allowed to take into the baths) I hold it over my nether regions and walk towards the main bathing area, trying to convey a stride that gives both the impression of confidence, and that I know what I’m doing. ‘Hmm. Now what?’ I wonder.
Spying low shower stations lining two walls, each with a corresponding plastic bucket and what appears to be stools for kids. Taking my cue from an elderly man who is sitting on one of these and washing himself, I pull up one and begin to do the same. Legs akimbo, my rear clearly on display to everyone in the pool behind me, this is far from what you’d call dignified, but no one else seems to mind.
Not to cause offence to the notoriously hygienic Japanese, I self-consciously scrub for way longer than I ever would in my day-to-day toilette, before rinsing off and making a beeline for the pool itself, again, clutching my paltry towel to my privates as I go.
The notoriously hygienic Japanese commonly rinse off in shower stalls before slipping into the public pools. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
I slowly submerge into the steamy water — Christ , it’s HOT! I later discover that the water is usually at least 40 degrees or hotter.
I can only tolerate it for 15-minutes or so at a time. There are three pools in the complex all up, each differently sized. I enjoy the two outdoors pools the most, which are fashioned to appear as natural as possible, mimicking a pretty, rustic setting.
It’s in this pool that I begin to feel the high. The sense of accomplishment that I braved and survived getting my kit off is enough to make me smile. I quickly get over catching glimpses of dangly bits that I’m not used to seeing en masse and relax.
I realise at this moment that being naked in public really isn’t a big deal because, well, everyone else is starkers too.
Then there’s the actual pleasure of the water itself — it feels amazing. The muscle-soothing heat, the tranquillity, the beautiful setting … Take it from me, even the most bashful of you will agree after a session in an onsen that it’s well worth battling your inner-prude.
And for me it has helped counteract my lingering adolescence memories of the chilly post-rugby showers I endured as a schoolboy.
"Take it from me, even the most bashful of you will agree after a session in an onsen that it’s well worth battling your inner-prude." Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
However, take note — despite the nudity, onsens aren’t completely carefree. As with many Japanese traditions — especially ones that have been ingrained in the culture for centuries — observing etiquette is highly important.
To help you pop your onsen cherry and make your first-time visit as smooth and faux pas-free as possible, I’ll walk your through a few of the basic rules.
Take it all off — As already stated, an onsen requires you to be completely naked. So, no speedos, no shorts and no bikinis. You need to be completely nude. Sorry!
Stash your gear — Most onsens are split into male and female. Within each there will be changing rooms and lockers or baskets in which you can leave your clothes and other items. This is also where you need to stash your big towel. You’ll be given a small hand towel either by the ryokan you’re staying in, or by the onsen itself. This is the only towel you can take with you into the actual bathing area.
Mind your ink — If you have tattoos then make sure to check on the onsen’s policy beforehand as, believe it or not, most don’t allow them. Despite the increase in the number of international travellers frequenting onsens, more than half of them still refuse customers with ink. A small percentage will allow entry provided that the tattoos are covered with a bandage or plaster.
Hatsune Room private garden at Nishimuraya Honkan ryokan. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
Scrub up — To the Japanese, the western practice of taking a bath without showering first is pretty gross. Even when bathing at home, Japanese always clean themselves before enjoying a long soak. Off to the side of the bath is a row of shower stations and miniature stools, each with shower gel, shampoo and conditioner. So, before you jump in to an onsen, you’ll need to scrub up.
Know your towels — Remember the small towel I mentioned earlier? Learn from Hugh Jackman’s mistake. When visiting an onsen while filming in Japan the actor failed to use this towel for the correct purpose. Using it to cool his head rather than to cover his manhood, the actor let it all hang out when walking from the changing room to the baths. While most of us wouldn’t object to getting a look at Hugh Jackman’s goods, Japanese bathers didn’t feel the same way. Though nudity is required, modesty is expected. Use your small towel to casually hide your nether regions as you move from bath to bath.
Also, while you’re soaking, make sure the towel isn’t in the water, either place it on top of your head or at the edge of the pool. Like swimwear, towels are regarded as being unclean.
Don’t get snap py — Bringing your camera into the onsen is forbidden, as your fellow patrons will be starkers, after all. Any other surplus items — books, magazines, food and the like — aren’t allowed either.
Chill out — But lastly, and most importantly, relax! Remember, that — formalities and rules aside — the entire point of going to an onsen is to relax and de-stress. Once you’ve overcome the initial trepidation, lie back and enjoy getting hot and steamy.
Depending on the time of year you visit, the cherry blossom trees by night in the town of Kinosaki make for a stunning spectacle. Picture: Andrea Black, EscapeSource:Supplied
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there — You can get to Kinosaki via Kyoto. Rail Europe offer a variety of Japan rail passes, including the Japan Rail Pass, which includes unlimited travel on all railways, affiliated buses and ferries.
Checking in —Guests at Nishimuraya Honkan ryokan receive a pass to access all seven onsens in town, in addition to the on-site onsen. Rooms are traditional in their style — complete with tatami mats and futons for sleeping — and are arranged around a central, beautiful garden. A few also come with their own rotemburo (outdoor baths). A check in here also means complimentary access to the onsen facilities at nearby sister-hotel, Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei, which has both a public onsen and private onsens that can be booked.
Paul Ewart is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @_paulewart
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