Before attempting to navigate the waters of onsen - Japanese spa establishments - it's best to check your calendar. It’s no secret that Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, especially in the wake of the March 2011 earthquakes and tsunami. But these events should not cast a perpetual cloud over the country or its many gifts. Among these are its thousands of onsen.
Unlike many Western spa establishments, Japanese onsen are for the rich and poor, the fabulously fit and the not-so-fit alike. Though sex segregation has been the norm since the beginning of the 20th century, some rural baths are open to all. There are rules of conduct in the onsen—washing yourself with soap and rinsing thoroughly before entering is essential, tattoos are banned, and bathing suits are strictly forbidden. That means that everyone is utterly exposed to each other.
When I first arrived in Beppu in 2005, I was aware of the city’s status as the onsen capital of Japan, but I had little interest in the experience. In university, my already pale, freckly skin would blanch at any mention of the phrase “skinny-dipping.” But at a Japanese friend’s insistence, I stripped down and jumped in.
The mineral-laden water from the belly of the earth was sublime. I have terrible eyesight, and found that taking out my contact lenses was, psychologically, like putting on an invisibility cloak. But even with my impaired vision, I was able to absorb some of the customs of the onsen: don't stare at anyone, tie a towel round your head to keep your hair out of the water, and don’t splash. After I was dry and clothed, my wonderfully jellied muscles insisted that I return the following week.
That next Saturday, I sauntered in, put my shoes in the shoe cubby, and received my numbered locker key from the elderly woman at the desk like a seasoned expat. I swished the curtain aside, entered the locker room and, just like last time, averted my eyes from the tall woman who was already in there. No one had to tell me this courtesy; I was just sensitive to these things–a sensitive traveller, if you will.
I put my locker key, #72, into locker #72 and… hmmm. That was weird, why wouldn’t the key work? I looked over my shoulder. The tall lady was gone, replaced by a man wearing a towel and raising an eyebrow.
What was that half-naked man doing in my locker room?
“GOMEN NASAI!” I covered my eyes and shouted my apology as I ran out of the men’s locker room. Why didn’t anyone tell me they switched the onsen rooms on a biweekly basis?!?!
That night, I learned the Japanese characters reading “man” and “woman” indicated on onsen room curtains, and I did return to that onsen many times. But for about a year, I pointed to the women’s side to confirm with the mama-san, “Lady onsen?”
“Hai,” she would nod and smirk. “Lady onsen desu.”Add this article to your reading list