The Japanese believe that clean is beautiful. Be it their zen gardens, offices, theme parks or even the busiest streets of Tokyo, personal hygiene and respect for nature is ingrained in the culture. It won’t be an exaggeration to suggest that the Japanese love to bathe, considering the fact that the country has a long held cultural affinity for public bathhouses (sento) and onsens.
Being a volcanic island, this hot bellied country is blessed with natural hot water springs. An onsen is a bathing facility that uses the hot water from these springs. The temperature of the water goes up to 25 degrees Celsius and contains over 19 different minerals that are said to be good for your skin, for treating certain diseases and also for complete relaxation. Depending on which onsen you visit, the mix of the minerals and acids in it is said to cure constipation, body pains and make your skin smoother. Some onsens have clear water while some are opaque due to the soil in them, which can also be used as a scrub.
While most onsens are usually in the mountain areas, they are usually covered into sentos - public bathhouses. Remember the bathhouse from the Japanese animated film Spirited Away? That is pretty much how it works. Anyone can use these bathhouses for a nominal fee. Now as a gaijin (foreigner), you must keep in mind a few rules before you step inside the water. Don’t worry they clearly spell them out for you. Each sento has separate sections for men and women, although sometimes, they do have private baths for families. Once you are there, you must find yourself a locker and place all your belongings there and enter the bath area completely naked.
Yes, it is intimidating and yes, you do have to share the space with strangers. But once you are inside water, it is going to be one of the most relaxing baths you will ever have. Before you enter the pool, you are expected to shower and clean yourself. And if you have any tattoos, you might have to check if they allow you in.
From macaque monkeys in Nagano to the common men in the country, sitting naked in the onsen is the Japanese way of dropping your inhibitions and being one with nature. During the Edo period, it was said that merchants insisted on bathing together before signing deals. It might sound very dramatic but for the locals, it is one of the most relaxing activities to partake. Over time, these sentos have turned into resort properties called super sentos and most office goers take a monthly getaway to these bathhouses to relax and be close to nature. Be it a foot onsen or a luxurious stay at a super sento, make sure you take a dip into this magical water at least once!