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Japan is a volcanic island with soaring mountains and many hot springs. Over the centuries, bathing in hot springs has become a part of their culture. It is ritualistic and, as with all things Japanese, methodical. An onsen was originally a hot spring where one would bathe but has now come to mean the entire spa that is built around a hot spring. It is truly a delightful and relaxing experience. Men and women are segregated and the whole ordeal is done fully nude. This is mildly uncomfortable but somehow seems very normal once you partake. You have a small towel to cover your private bits when walking around and you must shower thoroughly before entering the pools. There are no pictures allowed (kinda kills the zen feel when people are photographing your junk) but we’ve found some online that look similar to what we experienced. onsens do not allow patrons with tattoos. This is to prevent Yakuza (Japanese mafia) from congregating (Yakuza are heavily tattooed in areas that can be covered by clothing). I have a tattoo on my lower leg so we searched for an onsen that would accommodate us. We were staying in the Hakone region of Japan which is known for Mount Fuji and onsens. Luckily we found one and it had very good reviews – fantastic!
The atmosphere is very comforting; whispering voices, trickling water, dimmed lights, beautiful woodwork and paper windows; wonderfully Japanese. You strip down and then thoroughly wash yourself. An elderly Japanese cleaner noticed me (I stuck out like a sore thumb) immediately and lead me to the showers. The showering area is beautiful with stonework and gorgeous wood. It’s steamy and smells like cedar and exotic soap. You squat on a stone and begin to bathe. With my confidence growing I reached for a bar of soap – thinking it was communal – I began lathering. Mid lather, I realized I had taken my neighbor’s bar of soap and he seemed to be sporting a full body tattoo. It was at this point that I realized, of all the centuries of etiquette I managed to desecrate so far, borrowing a Yakuza’s soap must take the cake. He glanced at me and I bowed as best I could and placed the bar back down.
There are multiple pools ranging in temperature and elevation. The pools are outdoors amongst immaculate Japanese shrubbery and trickling water falls. The air is cool and crisp and steam is rising from the pools. With your towel soaked in cold water and placed on your head, you slip into a pool of your choosing (or clumsily stumble and almost fall onto an elderly man – without question I was a negative zen contributor). When you feel like a cooked lobster, you plunge into the cold pool. The process leaves you feeling relaxed and revitalized. As you become more comfortable, you begin to appreciate what you are experiencing: Centuries of tradition and a spiritual feeling that the Japanese take very seriously. They crave the onsen to help balance their stressful lives. The nakedness melts away the hierarchical structures that are rigid and cold. We all need something like this.