The steam rises, gently caressing the edges of the bamboo-pattern tiles. A pipe (real bamboo this time) brings bubbling, warm water from a hot spring. A group of friends in their twenties chat animatedly as they get ready for the plunge. An older man sinks deep into the water, eyes closed, world outside invisible.
This is an onsen, and it’s not just a warm soak, it’s a deep cultural ceremony, a bonding experience and the ultimate expression of relaxation. I’ve spoken a few times about onsen in passing, but always assumed that people understood the basic idea. On reflection, this was a mistake. However, took me a while to realise how central onsen are to Japanese culture, and how a discussion of them skewers so many aspects of that culture all at once. Love of cleanliness, changing attitudes to the body, excessive ritualisation, a conflicted relationship with hierarchy; it’s all there in the stone pool. Join me as we jump in1.
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Beppu and nearby Yufuin are polar opposites in many ways. Beppu is an industrial coastal town and domestic port which looks a lot like Hawaii when seen fresh from the ferry. Yufuin is in a valley between the mountains, planted with abundant rice fields and full of traditional wood panelled houses.
However, the towns are connected by the fizzing Earth beneath them. This part of the country is Japan’s volcanolands, a place of intense subterranean activity. In Beppu’s ‘hells’, boiling steam gushes out from underground chambers. Elsewhere, cooler water can be harnessed for the creation of onsen. As a result, Oita Prefecture2 is Japan’s onsen capital, to the point that each town has onsen logo lanterns, onsen flags, and etiquette guides splashed liberally around the city.
Sure, but what is an onsen? Strictly speaking, a lot of public baths aren’t onsen at all. A sento is simply a public bath where people can go to take a dip and relax, while an onsen has to be fed by natural hot spring water. In practice, even Japanese people sometimes lump them both together under the word onsen. The most basic type are single pools costing 100 yen entry, like nineteenth-century Takegawara in Beppu. However, onsen and sento come in different shapes and sizes; the more elaborate ones will have hot and cold pools, saunas, special mineral baths, and restaurants attached for apres-soak. At Uruoikan in Nagano, you can wrap up in a yukata and watch the river below you as you eat soba.
Ideally, they will have an outdoor area, enclosed by a bamboo fence, where you can feel the fresh air on your skin and ‘connect with nature’, as all the worst people say. In fact, high in the mountains near Yufuin, there’s a wild mountain onsen in the woods, without an attached building- just a hot spring where you can peace out and enjoy the stillness of the world. We went there at night in the fog- it was genuinely magical, especially as the steam rose and the gentle rain started to patter on the water.
When you enter an onsen, after paying your fee and maybe renting a towel, you’ll slip through a colour-coded curtain (called a noren) to the male or female section. In most indoor places, you’ll find yourself in a kind of locker room where you strip off and put your clothes away. Then you enter the central room, which usually has at least one pool and a series of showers. You will sit on a little box or bucket, and wash your body thoroughly with soap and shampoo, and then sit on the side for a little bit with your feet into the water before sinking slowly into whichever pool you’re drawn to. Don’t jump, don’t dunk your head into the water, and don’t rush your shower even if you’re totally clean. The onsen ritual is almost identical wherever I’ve been.
A Social Phenomenon
But to describe the process of visiting an onsen is to strip away the strange pull they exert over Japanese society. Their popularity is sometimes explained by the love of cleanliness in Japanese spirituality- like wudu in Islam, a visit to a Shinto shrine typically begins with a ritual washing of the hands and mouth. You could say that onsen are a reflection of a deep religious tradition, but I don’t find that particularly convincing, because (despite the rituals) people don’t particularly treat onsen like a sacred space. Relaxation and religion don’t usually go together, in my experience.
A very common argument you’ll hear is that onsen are a social leveller in a traditionally hierarchical society. In aero-era Japan, people were strongly confined by their caste status and occupations, and samurai were further stratified by the rice yield of their lands- but ‘We’re all equal when we’re naked’, as more than one Japanese person has told me. Now, any sociologist can tell you that thats not true, not least because race, gender presentation and disabilities are all powerful sources of inequality. But I think the onsen-equality argument is best seen as a noble ideal, rather than a reality. And there is some support for that idea. People who wouldn’t talk on the street will talk to each other when they’re neck-deep in hot water. Likewise, people who don’t know each other so well will feel a little more able to open up and speak honestly. In the words of my current host Kaz, ‘an onsen is a place for communication’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their uniqueness and cultural weight, onsen are at the heart of arguments about changing Japanese identity. Virtually all onsen have strictly prohibited the wearing of bathing suits, which seems fair- it destroys something central to the experience if people can’t be comfortable about their bodies around one another, like taking away the element of trust. But the tattoo question is altogether thornier. Because the yazuka (quasi-criminal organisations) had tattoos, most onsen don’t allow tattooed customers. Actually, I get the impression that the yakuza are somewhat misunderstood3, but I’ll save that for another time. The problem is that as larger numbers of foreigners are visiting, and living in, Japan, the rules discriminate against a lot of people who aren’t going to cause problems, to protect the feelings of an older generation who refuse to make distinctions or bend their culture for outsiders’ benefit. This is a sensitive subject, and I’ve had more than one uncomfortably heated debate on the topic despite my ink-free skin.
You could argue that people don’t want to alter Japanese culture just to make it more palatable to foreigners. I can understand that mentality, given but I still find the onsen-tattoo taboo a weird cultural gatekeeping hill to die on. Anyway, with the Rugby World Cup coming to Oita, the rules are temporarily relaxed, and I suspect that the anti-tattoo fervour will dim over time.
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Beyond the tattoo debate, onsen are a powerful microcosm of the differences between societies. I’ve said before that I find Japan’s attitude to the body mostly healthier than the UK’s, and I stand by that. But onsen culture also points to the flawed logic of trying to categorise some societies as ‘conservative’ and others as ‘liberal’. To the western gaze, Japan’s attitude to nudity seems surprisingly relaxed and comfortable for what is often described as a ‘conservative society’. The problem is that that phrase is broad enough to describe a range of contradictory concepts, and being a western import, it probably doesn’t do particularly well at describing Japan. I make no claim to understand the soul of this country; but if you were going to look for it anywhere, you could do worse than look behind the noren curtain.
1– don’t actually jump in. That’s a big faux pas.
2– a mostly rural prefecture in northern Kyushu, with hot summers.
3– perhaps 70% of yakuza were former burakumin, members of a dalit-like social caste who were severely discriminated against in the Edo era. After the samurai order fell, burakumin were officially emancipated, but just like in India society was much slower to change. Many social outcasts, unsurprisingly, gravitated towards the clan-like yakuza.