The Seven Best and the Worst Experiences of a Hot Spring Addict in Japan
By: Greg GoodmacherSince there are approximately 27,000 hot springs in Japan, a hot spring is usually close by. I have bathed in about five hundred Japanese hot springs. Memories of seven poignant hot spring experiences still cause strong feelings of relaxation, embarrassment, or repulsion to ripple through my body. From the uniqueness of the location to the social interaction, each onsen was unforgettable. These stories are of mostly positive encounters, but one was very disturbing.
- Sandiest Hot Spring (sunamushi 砂蒸し)
The idea of bathing in sand, at first, turned me off, but since I was traveling in Ibusuki City, which is famous for sand baths, I had to try once. How could I ever call myself a hot spring addict if I didn’t? At Ibutsuki’s famous sand-bathing beach I saw a comical scene. A row of people had been buried in the sand parallel to the sea with their heads sticking out. Small blue, red, yellow, and green parasols stuck in the sand protected the faces from sunburns. One by one, someone would stand up, shake the sand off, and walk away. Another would take that place.
I paid, and an attendant buried me. Hot steam from the earth naturally passes through the sandy beach and the heavy sand became moist and warm and then hot. The heating process was gradual and relaxing. It felt like being in a sauna. I sweated out the poisons in my body while smiling at the blue sea and my fellow bathers in the sand. Since that day, I have bathed in sunamushi in various locations, but nothing compares to that day on that steamy, sandy beach in Ibusuki, Kyushu.
- Friendliest International Milieu at a Hot Spring, Mugennosato (夢幻の里)
This outdoor hot spring, or rotenburo (露天風呂), was full of laughter, friendship among strangers, and hope. It was one of those magical times when people relax in a hot spring and create unexpected connections. The Japanese idiom hadaka no tsukiai, which literally means “naked relationship,” describes the fellowship that develops when nothing is hidden.
The forest setting, warm soothing water, and ambiance of the hot spring in Beppu, Japan, led the Japanese, Brazilian, Korean, American, Australian, and Canadian bathers to enjoy themselves despite nationalistic barriers. Linguistic hurdles were surmounted by smiles and other body language. This photograph was taken by a Korean man who sent the photograph to the Brazilian bather who conveyed it to the Australian man who later passed it to me.
This simple, rejuvenating time gave me a vision of a path to world peace. We should transfer the United Nations from the hectic, urban-jungle environment of New York to a rustic onsen town. All meetings should transpire in hot springs, and all diplomats must be naked. People behave less aggressively when naked than when their frail bodies are concealed behind power ties and thousand-dollar suits. International negotiations could take place while passing the soap back and forth. (Diplomats, please remember to soap up and rinse off before entering the bath.)
- Most Embarrassing Japanese Hot Spring Experience
My Japanese in-laws will never let me forget the day I mistakenly wandered naked into the women’s empty bath area, soaked, and napped spread-eagled with my family jewels (called gold balls, or in Japanese kintama) on full display.
Many hotels and other buildings with hot springs have separate facilities for men and women. The baths, views, saunas, and greenery are not identical. To give everyone a chance to experience each side, the facilities are switched each day or each week.
A Japanese noren (door curtain) with the kanji for man (男) or woman (女) usually hangs in front of the bath areas. I had gone many times to the same hot spring and had always bathed on the right side. That particular day, I just entered without paying attention to the kanji on the curtain.
A comfortable steamy wooden bath greeted me. No one was in it. After soaking for a long time, I lay face upwards on the floor and quickly drifted asleep. The surprised cry of a woman and a hastily closed door woke me. It was my sister-in-law who had walked in and had seen the bottom half of a naked man who she thought was either dead or had fainted. My wife heard the story and assumed it was me. After dressing, I profusely apologized. I felt like a fool, but with time this terribly embarrassing situation became an amusing story.
- Remotest and Wildest Hot Spring
The roughest hot spring in Japan is probably Yumata Onsen in the Japanese Alps of Nagano Prefecture. My wife and I had been backpacking for four hours when we saw what looked like a three-meter-high calcium encrusted upside-down pinecone.
Boiling water gushed from the top and formed a small scalding river. In a green valley, the spring-water river intersected a river of cold water from snowpack runoff. Someone had moved loose gravel and rocks into depressions deep enough for bathing at the intersection.
We bathed while watching white clouds and brown birds of prey flying above. The bird screeches were soon outdone, though, by ours. The temperature of the two wild rivers was uncontrollable. Sometimes we felt as if we were boiling, so we would move and the other person would be pushed too far into the icy river. The temperature was perfect for brief moments, though. After all, it was a wild hot spring in the middle of nature.
- Holiest Hot Spring
Sakurajima (桜島, Cherry Island), an island of Kagoshima Prefecture, created by volcanic eruption has unforgettable springs. The volcano is still active. Sometimes dark smoke and floating ashes drift in the air.
Some hot springs have historic connections with ancient Japanese religious practices. The Furusato Kanko Hotel on the island of Sakurajima, Kagoshima, has a shrine with a hot spring.
Males and females bathe together, but nudity is forbidden. All bathers must wear special white cotton robes, or yukata. White signifies purity in the Shinto religion. At the base of a cliff is a tree of great age, and hot water gushes out from between its huge roots. In front of the tree is a red torii, or shrine gate. The edge of the bath is just meters from the clear blue sea of Kagoshima Bay. Fishing boats slowly pass by, birds fly overhead, and it all combines to create a memorable spiritual and physical experience.
- Bathing with the Most Tattooed People (Japanese Mafia)
Like most other people, I fear organized crime and criminals. So it was quite a shock for me to have three men with brilliantly colored, elaborate tattoos of dragons, giant fish, Japanese gods, and other designs suddenly share a bath tub with me.
The oldest one’s right arm ended at the elbow, where it had apparently been amputated. He was in his sixties. The other two were in their twenties, and they acted very respectfully toward him. I was in a small bath of hot flowing mineral water. The older man washed first while the two others stood around him. His tattoos flowed from his neck to his ankles. The other men’s tattoos were still unfinished. In some parts, there were unfilled outlines. The older Yakuza man strode into the bath without speaking and sat near me. Then the other two entered. We were silent, and I was very tense.
The Yakuza are unwelcome at most hot springs. In fact, at the front doors of many spring establishments are signs that graphically proclaim that people with tattoos are forbidden entrance. The Yakuza are known for having numerous colorful tattoos, which express loyalty to their clans and other important messages understood by others within their subculture.
After a while, the old man made a grunt of pleasure. He smiled. I smiled. The other men smiled. Bathing close together in a small bath with the Yakuza was not a problem. Everyone needs a hot bath to rejuvenate in, no matter the occupation. From time to time I bathed with them and other Yakuza there. Once upon arriving, I saw the older Yakuza man in the bath with a man without tattoos. They were chatting in a local Japanese dialect that I could not understand. As I walked in the bath, it seemed as if the conversation was ending, and the Yakuza left.
I entered the bath and the other man introduced himself as a local police officer. I always wondered about their relationship. Maybe they were just two individuals who loved hot springs, or maybe they were discussing some sort of business. I’ll never know. I do know, though, that everyone ignored the posted sign forbidding people with tattoos to enter. I certainly did not want to mention it.
- Most Disturbing Hot Spring Experience (Sexual Harassment)
Sexual harassment is a terrible experience for anyone to undergo, and it happened to me at a hot spring. It had been a wonderful day of hiking and experiencing nature in Northern Japan during autumn when the mountain foliage turns the colors of fire. At the end of the day, my wife and I went into a hotel with separate hot spring baths. She went to the women’s bathing area and I to the men’s.
I was sitting alone on the wooden deck of the outside section. My back was leaning against the outside surface of a gyumonburo, which is a small round tub for just one person, when a young boy of approximately thirteen years old walked in my direction, smiled at me, and climbed into the bath that I was leaning against. His behavior struck me as odd.
Men in hot springs often sit close together, but that is when there is not open free space. Otherwise, it is a violation of personal body space. I decided to move to the other outside bath that was shaped like a rectangle. The boy immediately joined me on the other side, so that we were facing each other. He was staring at me, which children living in the countryside sometimes do to foreigners. I decided to close my eyes and concentrate on the hot water.
Shortly afterwards, I opened my eyes. He was touching himself. I saw the head of his penis protruding above the surface of the water like a periscope or an image of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. He smiled at me. I thought about shouting, but thought again. I am a fiftyish foreigner. He was a young Japanese boy in his home country. If there was a problem, he could say that I was bothering him. Most people would believe him, and my Japanese wasn’t good enough to convince people otherwise.
I fled into the washing area, and the boy, with his flag still raised, followed. Several people were there, but no one said anything even though missing the boy’s excited state was impossible to miss. The boy sat near me again and started soaping himself. I left and settled into another bath. He would, I thought, get the message and stay away. When the boy sat near me once more, I rushed to the dressing room, dressed quickly, and exited.
While waiting for my wife, I reflected on my feelings. Although, I hadn’t been touched, I felt violated. I had felt powerless, too, because I feared that no one would believe me. The boy, most likely, was emotionally disturbed, but believing that didn’t make me feel better. I remembered the story of a female friend who caught a man who had climbed a fence to stare into the women’s bath. Another woman had told me about a man exposing himself to her on a train. The one positive result of this incident was that I now better understand the feelings of women who, in general, are more often sexually harassed than men.
Grab a badge that links to this contest entry!
Contest Comments » There are 14 comments
Wonderful vignettes of the hot springs experience. A writer views his life in Japan through the bubbling waters of its natural springs. Its a refreshing view that harkens to other literary journeys in Japan. Warm and bubbling with a unique perspective, these stories show sides of the hot bath that are new to me, even as a resident of Japan for over ten years. Revealing insights too!
That is a really great collection of stories. Thanks for sharing so honestly.
A lot of travel guides lack the personal touch that this account has in abundance. It is very insightful and offers a unique glimpse into an aspect of Japanese culture. Unique because it is an environment where people's guards are down and where, as the author comments, communal nakedness promotes a sense of human equality and therefore is an ideal milieu for a real 'united nations'! A fun read!
The funniest hot spring stories I have ever read. I especially love the story of the most embarrasing hot spring experience.
This is a fantastic overview of the Japanese Hotspring Experience. I love the bathing experience and now know of so many more places to go. Greg opens us up to a higher level of cultural and social understanding by relating his varied experiences.
This is a very interesting story that was written by an old friend and former co-worker from the time I spent working in Nagoya, Japan. It provides interesting insight into a very unique aspect of Japanese culture. Great job, Greg!
oo aa ee
Good article. Bathing is something dudes can do together in Japan that doesn't involve getting drunk or competing at some game. I miss it.
Great stories Greg. I especially like the one with all the friendly gaijin sharing the hot springs...sounds familiar.
hilarious ! ;D i didnt think that hot springs can be such an adventure!!
I love this comment : This simple, rejuvenating time gave me a vision of a path to world peace. We should transfer the United Nations from the hectic, urban-jungle environment of New York to a rustic onsen town. All meetings should transpire in hot springs, and all diplomats must be naked. People behave less aggressively when naked than when their frail bodies are concealed behind power ties and thousand-dollar suits. International negotiations could take place while passing the soap back and forth. (Diplomats, please remember to soap up and rinse off before entering the bath.)
Very interesting and informative. I laughed at some, felt sorry for the author at another story, and agreed totally with his view of politicians and peace. It opens a new view to me of a different and fascinating aspect of Japanese culture.
As a former English teacher in Japan I love reading these stories about hot spring experiences. My favorite Onsen experience was a gorgeous rotenburo at Yamanakako that had a view of Mt. Fuji. For anyone who likes hot spring stories, there is a book called Naked in a Japanese Hot Spring which has the funniest description of the experience I have ever read. ps - I am still mortified about the concept of my sister in law seeing me nude. No thankyou! You have my sympathy.