Very often the first question I get from people here in The States when they hear I have been to Japan is about the public bathing. In Japan these hot watered public baths are called Onsens. Many of these Onsens, if not all, derive their heated water  from natural underground volcanic activity; the spring feed waters are heated as they pass near to the underground volcanic  vents.  These vents are often  seen  as jets of steaming water that usher right out of the ground all about the towns, hillsides and in fields of Japan. And again, since these waters are heated by volcanic activity, the temperatures of the baths are regulated so no one  looks like a piece of Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken when they get out of them.

But really the questions people most often have about these Onsens is whether or not they are frequented by mixed sexes at the same time and place or not. The answer is almost all of the Onsens in Japan today are separated into male and female bathing areas. A few Onsens in Japan still sport the mixed sex bathing variety of Onsens but not many. Of course, mixed sex bathing is about as old as the hills when it comes to man’s cultured history, see link below. But for now at least, when you go to Japan, you can expect to see people only of your same-sex bathing next to you. I know, it’s a bummer, but what can you do right?

Entering an Onsen for the first time can be disorienting to new Onsen users. But don’t be put off by this-the experience of an Onsen is one that should not be missed by any visitor to Japan. I know we all think we are clean people, but really, especially when it comes to our toilets (but I’m not going there now), once anyone has bathed the Japanese way in an Onsen it is clear most of us carry around about one thousand pounds of ughy stuff  on our skin as we go about our daily living here in the West. Sorry-just saying….

The first thing to know is your shoes are coming off just inside  the door of any Onsen, be it a three dollar bath or an elaborate eight dollar, natural rock formation one. Slippers will be waiting for your feet on a slightly raised flooring just as you enter. You go to the counter, in most cases, wearing these slippers to pay for your bath and to receive a key for a locker which will guard your valuable belongings. Here you will either purchase a 20 inch by 14 inch towel to use or you have brought your own as well. Now you pass through a hallway that leads to either the female or male changing rooms.

The changing rooms have baskets for your clothes to be put in and lockers for your money, etc. Now naked you enter the Onsen bathing area itself. There will be several long-handled scoopers by running water to quickly wash your head, back and legs off with. Now you see a row, or rows, of benches with water faucets of hot and cold water before them. Sitting down on the bench you take the bowl before you, fill it with the temperature water your choose and dump it over and over on your body-everywhere you can think of.

Taking the towel you have you apply soap provided here and rub your entire body, arms, legs, face, head, back, butt etc. over several times. Now you use the bucket again to dump water on you until you are clean of all the soap.  You will repeat this process two or three more times which is key to getting really, super clean.  Finally it is time to take the small towel and place it on your head, as most men do, or put it somewhere clean and walk into the hot bathing area. So now, your completely clean body is soaking in very hot water. Here you rest for as long as you like.

It is important to note these bath areas are not small, cramped up spaces so your neighbor is not sitting on your lap at any time. These Onsens are nothing like hot tub parties are here in The States…

Some Onsens offer both inside and outside bathing areas and it is fun to switch back and forth between the two. Children are included in these baths so it is a family affair of many different voices. You can hear the women on the other side of the separating wall splashing around and having fun. Over all, when you get out of these baths, you are cleaner than you have been since before you were born.

Once out of the Onsen you rise off at the faucets with the buckets again. You towel off with the small towel, ringing it out over and over again as you do. I didn’t think this process would ever get me dry but it does. Now you enter the changing room again where there are fans to stand in front of, hair dryers to use and women sweeping the floor.

I should mention, perhaps, the women sweeping the floor. I found it to be a little different to be standing stark naked in front of women I didn’t know as they went about their business of cleaning the room. And, I should add, I thought it odd my first three Onsen baths all seemed timed to have me naked in the changing room as these women came in? Then I heard from my daughter that Japanese people , there is at least this rumor, think white guys have, well, you know, huge parts-King-Kong lives so to speak.

I didn’t think much about the huge white male rumor until my fourth Onsen when the eighteen year old girl, one  who seemed quite different from the elder ladies I’d encountered in the changing rooms before, entered the room I was in. She seemed somewhat taken back, maybe red in the face. As customary, this good looking girl bowed to me placing her head somewhere just below my navel. Hello! For a second it all just seemed so wrong as she looked up and our eyes met.

Anyway, I hope I have not dashed too many hopes and dreams as I made my way across the Onsen world of Japan. Thankfully, my last name has a lot of O’s in it, but this is a whole other story I’m not telling here. The point is this: the public baths are a God send in Japan. I think the whole process of them is a cleansing one in many ways.  It is liberating to be so clean and to do this with a society of people. The public baths unite a people in philosophical ways. It is a place of good, clean thought and purpose, a place not to be thought of in any other way. Go try one if you get the chance-now you know how to do it.