When Westerners think of saunas, our minds don’t immediately jump to letting the goodies loose in front of others. I mean, does it for you? Maybe if you’ve been in Japan too long.
Experiencing a Japanese onsen is one of the most Japanese experiences one can experience in Japan. An onsen is the Japanese word for hot springs, thermal baths, saunas – all of that. The thing is: you’re supposed to experience it all without the comfort of your towel. Being alone in Tokyo, I knew there was no better time for this. If it’s uncomfortable and awkward, no one has to know besides me and my guilty conscience. And if it’s good, well, then I’ll have something super authentic to tell my grandchildren one day.
Prior research on Google will show you that onsen are everywhere in Tokyo. It’s like me trying to figure out which coffee shop to go to back in the States. I Yelp, read every review, look at every picture, compare prices, then it finally just comes time to just frickin’ pick one. Shimizuyu, I choose you.
Ok, I picked Shimizuyu cuz it was the cheapest at ¥460.
I arrive at Musashi-Koyama station, which looks like the most stations. There’s a MUJI, a random French boulangerie with incorrect translations, and probably even a Family Mart somewhere.
I find my way to the Shimizuyu onsen, weaving in and out of the little alleys (shout out to Location Services for still showing you show your location despite being on airplane mode). I find the onsen and then do that awkward thing where you stand outside, acting like you’re tending to something really important on your phone while in your head you’re both trying to calm down your inner freak-out and at the same time, pump yourself up.
Yeah, I’m just freaking out more than I am calming myself down, but then finally, it happens:
HELLO! You’re doing this. You did NOT come all this way to NOT go.
I walk in, take off my shoes, insert my coin in the locker, put my shoes in, and grab the key. An older Japanese woman looks at me…confused, but still smiling.
I gesture “How?” by raising my hands up to my shoulders. She leads me to this machine.
It’s all in Japanese, but you can choose if you want the steam room add-on (which was totally by the honor system, by the way), a small or large towel, and vending machine items. Your price depends on your own personalized package and the time of entry, but for the onsen entry ticket alone, I pay ¥460. I bow, wish the woman an arigato gozaimasu, and make my way to the mens’ locker. She goes back to her work at the front desk.
I walk in the men’s locker room and BOOM. Notice how there are no more photos from here on? Yeah, because…
Everyone is butt-a$$ naked.
Hmm…so clearly this is not like American gyms where people are so afraid of even their towel falling.
I act like I know what I’m doing to make the whole thing less awkward (you know as if it’s not clear to everyone that I’m not from here), and it works cuz I figure out the locker just like that. The layout of the onsen looks pretty straight-forward, but still, I don’t know what I’m doing. I strategically wait to see someone else make a move on where to go, and I follow. Signs are in Japanese, but it’s clear that you need to shower before you use their “services.”
So I go. Naked.
During my prior Google research, I remember every blog saying something along the lines of “Oh, don’t worry so much about the nudity; You’ll be the only one thinking about it.” I was over there behind my screen like, Oh yeah right.
But what’s surprising is that…everyone is just doin’ them. Maybe those blogs are right. Maybe I am the only one thinking about how we are all naked right now (I mean, how could you not?). But then it’s like, who cares? We all got the same thing; we’re all humans. But again, no one is even thinking that far. I am invisible to them. It’s clear that I’m the only Western face out of thirty bathing Japanese men, but I’m not looked at in that way. Nobody asked where I was from or asked what I was doing here – this isn’t a tourist destination; this is actually what they do in their daily lives.
There are a few pools (just think jacuzzi-sized baths) – one with scalding hot water, another that apparently had electric properties sourced from a nearby volcano, and another lukewarm pool with golden-bronze water had anti-aging properties. I don’t know? Another pool was ice-cold, like Ice Bucket Challenge cold. Didn’t see anyone go in that one.
Outside, there was another pleasantly warm larger pool, tub, bath, and a pretty typical jacuzzi. Women’s facilities, I’m assuming are more or less the same – I could hear women talking on the other side, as the outdoor pools are divided by a tall tiki wall. It’s probably identical.
There was no music and the décor was pretty drab, but again, this place isn’t for tourists. It’s an onsen that serves as a place of relaxation and as a bathhouse to clean up. Most of the men there were in their 40s and 50s, as were the women in the lobby.
I stayed for maybe thirty minutes going from pool to pool, then I showered, got dressed, and left. It wasn’t as “scary” as it sounds online, so if you’re a Westerner reading this, I assure you it’ll all be OK – and if you’re Japanese or someone who’s super open with your body, then….carry on now, you’ll probably not feel at all out of your comfort zone.
How To Use a Japanese Onsen
Step 1: Take off shoes and store in the locker (Most use the coin-key system where you insert a coin as a deposit to open the locker, and once everything is inside, you can lock the locker, and take your key. You will get your coin when you return the key to the locker.)
Step 2: Get help with the vending machine (The worker was adorable)
Step 3: Store clothes in locker, except for your small or large towel