The cartoons on the wall left nothing to interpretation: Take off your clothes, leave them in a cubby, and forget about modesty (OK, that last part was implied). An elderly woman handed me a washcloth the size of my palm and smiled. Of course she was smiling. She got to keep her clothes on.
Once naked, I proceeded into the next room—holding that meager washcloth strategically in a battle to preserve whatever dignity I could. (I lost.) I pushed open a heavy door into a room thick with steam and the smell of sulfur. And I wasn’t alone. Through the steam, I could make out sylphlike silhouettes bathing together in a shallow pool. So I did what was expected of me: I joined them.
Untoward it was not. This is just how it goes at an onsen, a traditional Japanese bathhouse or natural hot spring. (The word “onsen” actually means “hot springs” in Japanese.) Generations of Japanese women and men have practiced the ritual of bathing in mineral-rich onsens for purposes ranging from beautification to stress relief. The country is home to thousands of onsens fed by geothermal waters that are believed to impart myriad health benefits: soothing achy muscles, relieving various skin conditions, even easing arthritis. These hot springs are frequently found in the prettiest parts of nature—you might find a small tub on a mountaintop, say, or overlooking the ocean. But the mineral-rich waters, often hotter than the average Jacuzzi, are also piped into pools in traditional Japanese inns (“ryokans”) and public bathhouses.
Despite the technological advances in skin care coming from Asia, Japanese women still consider onsens a fundamental part of their beauty regimen (sulfur is anti-inflammatory and heals acne). The ritual’s enduring popularity means versions of onsens are showing up all over the place—upscale resorts, stone pools along riverbanks, and in bathhouses like the one I was in, which doubled as an art installation. That onsen, I Love Yu on Naoshima island, had psychedelic mosaic tiling and a giant elephant in the room—which was not the fact that we were all naked. It was an actual elephant sculpture that separated the women’s area from the men’s. (“I Love Yu” is a bilingual pun: “Yu” means “hot water” in Japanese.)
Despite the shock factor, spending an afternoon soaking in an onsen was an excellent way to dip a toe into the local culture. It’s old-school, this idea that you can spend hours in nature’s spa and emerge a softer, more limber, more Zen you. But there’s something to it. Dermatologists have long known that sulfur nourishes the skin. But even beyond the science, there is the history. And this one comes with a few centuries of nourishing the soul.
Where to Onsen
Noboribetsuo: On the northern island of Hokkaido, a spectacular volcanic area known as Hell Valley supports this town’s thermal pools, famous for their varying temperatures and high mineral content.
Takaragawa: Tokyoites flock to this onsen for a dose of nature with their skin-reviving soak. The large outdoor baths with river views are mixed-gender, but shy bathers may use towels for modesty.
Naoshima: The public bathhouse here doubles as an art installation commissioned as one of many contemporary artworks and museums on this remote fishing island in the Seto Inland Sea.
Kinosaki: Throw on a yukata (traditional robe) and wooden clogs to onsen-hop around this old-fashioned village north of Kyoto, where bathing options range from historic bathhouses to private tubs in ryokans.
How to Onsen
Soaking naked requires more than you’d think.
You’ll have to shower before you can bathe: Tradition dictates that you soap up and rinse off before entering an onsen.
Some are ink-friendly, but since tattoos aren’t allowed in every onsen, ask in advance.
There’s no getting around being nude—no swimsuits or towels are allowed in the water. But you can find private onsens at resorts, like Tatsumiya Sanso Satonoyu in the Bandai-Asahi National Park in the Tōhoku region.
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