Last night I took the boys to the local public bathhouse, here in Kansai known as an onsen. Onsens are defined as a bathhouse built around geothermally heated, natural spring waters. In Japan, sentoo use heated tap water, but in Kansai, all baths, natural or artificial, are known as onsens. They used to be more popular, but as Japan modernized, more people had private bathrooms, and there was a lack of need public bathhouses.
They are similar to a hotel resort but lack a large swimming pool. We went to the closest onsen to our house, located in the mini-mall, Bb’s. The onsen at Bb’s features a huge sauna, a salt steam room, many different temperatures of baths, some with jets, others still. There is an outdoor section, surrounded by lighted bamboo forests. It has a capacity for 50-100 people.
Temperatures this winter have been near freezing so the sauna/hot tub is so refreshing. There are 4 big onsens near our house and I will try to go to all of them this winter.
The unusual characteristic of onsens in Japan is that people bathe in the nude, and there are sections for men and women. At first, it is strange, but one learns to avert their eyes, strategically use the hand towels provided. The boys were nervous when we went to our first onsen at a hotel when we arrived to Japan in 2014, but they have since gotten used to it. The often go with their buddies after sports practices or school events.
I like the communal nature of the onsen and that here in Japan, there is nothing perverted about public nude bathing. Families go to onsens, even bringing their young daughters (age below 5) to the male section and there is no fear of weirdos.
Onsen etiquette dictates that before entering the pools, it is required to bathe in the shower area. These are Japanese-style, with a small stool provided. It is funny that most onsens ban tattoos, which are culturally not acceptable. This dates back to the idea that gangsters (yakuza) sport tattoos. As more tourists visit Japan, this restriction is slowly going away, with about half of public baths now allowing them. As you can see in the sign below, Bb’s bans tattoos. Expatriates with small tattoos can cover them with a band-aid or tape and they will be OK.
As I am now a middle-aged man, comfort is key. In the winter, a hot bath is vital to keeping me comfortable, so I am often preparing a bath at home. However, it is nice to go out into the cold and go to the onsen. I love spending time with my sons and it is a fun outing. I am looking forward to more visits this winter. I’ll give my definitive guide to Minoh area onsens in a future blog post.