Now that I've gotten my frustrations with traffic out, let's talk about something more soothing: onsens! We mentioned them briefly before but I think that onsens deserve their own post. An onsen refers to a natural hot spring that's been harnessed for a bathing facility or a bathing facility in general. And in my opinion if you haven't been to an onsen and say you've been to Japan, you haven't really been to Japan.
Bathing is a big part of traditional Japanese culture. It's something you do at the end of the day, a ritual as a way to relax and to chat with your friends and family.They also view it as good for your health, as it makes you sweat and the water has various minerals in it – sometimes it can smell a bit sulfur-ish. It's also a big draw for domestic Japanese tourists and towns have built their economy around their hot springs. Usually the baths are divided by gender, although you can still occasionally find mixed gender onsens in a few places. It's quite lovely to see people of all ages (yes even wrinkly grandmas!) just hanging out together. If you're walking around town, you can identify an onsen by a symbol that looks like a semi circle with three vertical waves emanating from the top of it – sort of steam-bathy looking.
The etiquette is relatively straightforward; you enter a changing area, which sometimes has lockers, and you undress (yes you are completely naked – everyone else is too!). You then find the area to rinse off with water before you get into the bath. You can use shampoo and soap (which some places provide) beforehand or after the bath, but definitely not in it. Once you've rinsed off, you can jump into the bath and relax. Think of it like a giant jacuzzi; it can be rather hot, I found myself slowly easing myself into the bath a few times. Apparently there are signs warning you not to bathe alone in case you pass out from the heat. One more thing – bring your own towels, as they don't usually provide them and I'm not sure if you can even rent them.
Some onsens have rotemburos, which are outdoor baths. They can be quite spectacular, like the one we visited in Ibusuki. Basically we were sitting in the bath and could see the entire bay and giant rock formations. Giant clouds were scudding across the sky and light rain was falling which was quite refreshing! Some people even have onsens/rotemburos in their homes, Yoshi (whom we stayed with in Kagoshima) has a one person sized rotemburo on his outdoor deck that looks out across a valley all the way to Sakurajima, the volcano. Every night we each had a scalding bath with an incredible view. So we totally recommend seeking out an onsen with a rotemburo.
We even tried out a super rare hot sand onsen in Ibusuki. We laid down in a depression in the sand and covered the bottom half of our faces with a towel, and someone came along and shoveled a bunch of sand on us until everything was covered except for our heads. We laid there for about fifteen minutes, meanwhile we felt like we were being roasted alive because there was all this heat emanating from the sand. I felt pretty claustrophobic most of the time, I could feel my pulse going from my toes all the way up. I'm glad I tried it but probably wouldn't do it again.
Of course the best thing about onsens that it's so affordable to go. You'd think it would be expensive, but it's not. We paid around 3000 yen ( around $3 US) each for access to the onsen in Ibusuki. For me, it was definitely a different way of thinking about and experiencing bathing, as I've always seen it as such a utilitarian act. I'm of the "8 minute shower for cleaning purposes only" school and I've always hated baths. It hasn't completely changed my mind, but I like the idea of a ritual that the community participates in together and that it's a relaxing thing to do.