Japanese culture, no doubt, is rich, even when it comes to traditional culture or pop culture. It has all the wow elements to enchant tourists. During my short stay there, my single most memorable memory was unarguably the half hour of exotic experience at the hot spring (or “onsen” in Japanese) at a resort in Atami, the region near Mt. Fuji that is blessed with hundreds of hot springs. Maybe, someone who hasn’t been to Japan, or if I ever go to Atami again, will find this descriptive narration helpful.
Until now, I have forgotten the name of the hotel where I stayed, but it was one of many along the ragged beach filled with rocks, with its front door facing the sea and the back toward a cliff. Although it was already late April, the temperature in the region was still a bit low for someone born and bred in the tropical sun of Vietnam. That was why I didn’t use the outdoor onsen of the hotel. The indoor one looked similar, if not identical, to this:
There were 2 pools with burning hot water. On one side was large glass windows, looking out at the cliff. It was quite a view considering you were having a bath.
The most uncomfortable for me was I had to be completely naked. I wore a yukata (Japanese for summer kimono) with just a set of lingerie underneath to go to the hot tub (wow, lingerie sounds really pretentious in this case, doesn’t it?). There was a lady taking us to the women’s room, but if there was no one, it would be helpful to walk slowly, reading the signs carefully (most in Japanese) and looking for the any writing in red, since red indicates “for women” and blue “for men”. She showed us to the first room, where we took off our Japanese wooden sandals (or “Geta”), put them on one of the racks, and took one bamboo basket with towels of various sizes. Then we headed to the second room, with lines of racks and shelves. She instructed us, in Japanese and body language, to take off all our clothes – the thin yukata, the bra, the undies, and put them in the basket. The smallest towel was “face only”, the medium towel “head, head”, and the largest one “body, body”. After about 3 minutes or so of confusion (this is why you need to learn basic words when traveling to another country), we knew we had to take the basket with us and walk to the 3rd room with huge mirrors, strip out all our clothes there, put in the basket, go back to the 2nd room and put the basket on one of the shelves, take only the face towel with us to the hot tub. And then came the awkward walk from that room, through a bunch of mirrors (to this point, I still don’t know why we need that extra room), then to the hot tubs.
The procedure did not end there. Once in the room heated by steam, it was essential to clean my body. The were shower stands, where I could sit down at one of the chairs and used the shampoo, conditioner, shower cream bottles provided to wash my hair and body. All the bottles had English so there was no problem understanding which one was which, and they were all Shiseido too 🙂 The tour guide told me before hand to clean real good, every millimeter of my skin and hair. It took me about 15 minutes. Can you imagine, taking a 15-minute shower in a room with about a dozen other people, all naked, while 1 side of the room was just glass, as if anyone could see everything from outside. When I was spotless, congratulations to myself, I could sit in the hot pool.
But I still couldn’t rush. I’d come this far, through all the unfamiliar language and customs, I wanted to just sit down and stay there forever. But like most people, I was not used to the temperature of the water in Japan, which is HOT, like 45-50 degrees C (113 – 122 F). I wasn’t exaggerating, it was THAT hot . So my tip is put your feet down first, then gradually other body parts – calves, legs, upper body. It helps to splash some water onto your body before actually submerging it in the water.
I just stayed there for 10-15 minutes. Although very good for your health, onsen would be counterproductive if abused.
Oops, one important note – the “face only” towel was indeed strictly for your face. 🙂 I once, as a habit, used it to rub on my arm, which was so so clean already, and one lady immediately screamed at me “No, no”. So yep, I read somewhere that towel could be used to cover your private part, but that was definitely not the right way and might offend someone. Plus, thinking about the hot steam coming up to your face, it might be a good idea to use the towel to protect your vulnerable eyes and face skin 🙂
When I got out, the reverse procedure started – cleaning myself again, walking through the mirrors, getting dressed. Now the “head head” and “body body” towels came into play to dry my hair and body. There was even lotion in the mirror room.
I went to the onsen out of curiosity, ignoring the warnings about the awkward process, thinking to myself “When in Rome, do what the Romans do”. I overcame it, and walked out the hot spring, fresh, relaxed, warm, and happy I got the chance to experience a piece of real Japanese culture.