I love Japanese public baths.
It doesn’t matter if it’s onsen (a bath house where all the water is pumped up from volcanic activity in the earth) or sento (regular boiled water with the occasional minerals added), after a stressful day of meetings, writing, and hard-core Japanese studying, nothing makes me feel better than soaking in a public bath with a bunch of old grannies.
Recently I got the opportunity to record an awesome “How to do Japanese Onsen” video at a fancy onsen in Tokyo (I still can’t believe they actually let me bring my camera in after hours to record!) … and sometime between soaking in the water, editing the video, and replying to comments in YouTube I realized “Wow, onsen is probably one of my favorite things in Japan (you know, aside from the husband).”
It’s strange how something you used to be afraid of – and kind of hate – can become something that you treasure. That’s how I feel about onsen.
I wrote about my first onsen experience in this post. Really, the thought of stripping down in front of a bunch of strangers used to make my blood run cold. Now it doesn’t even phase me. Because I love Japanese public baths that much.
Why do I love Japanese public baths (onsen and sento)?
1. It has all sorts of health benefits
Soaking in an onsen with trace amounts of minerals (especially sulfur, magnesium, and calcium) is great for your body, because trace amounts of these minerals are absorbed into your body. They help heal your immune system as well as various organs.
But even if you elect to go to the cheap sento down the street, instead of a more expensive onsen, you still get some fantastic health benefits. Soaking in a hot bath increases your heart rate (as soon as you get into the hot water), increases blood circulation, and lowers your blood pressure (your blood becomes warmer, which causes your blood vessels to dilate and increases blood flow).
It’s also supposed to increase your metabolism.
And ward off illnesses in the winter (as well as making it easier for you to sleep).
2. It’s incredibly relaxing
I don’t need to tell you that soaking in a hot bath is relaxing, of course you already know that. I’ve found that the hot bath also helps with stress relief, by relaxing your muscles. And then when you get cold again (when you get out of the water), it further helps you relax and fall into a deep sleep that night.
I sleep best right after visiting the onsen.
These days, I go twice a month – usually to celebrate finishing a project or right before a big, stressful day (so that my anxiety doesn’t keep my up all night). I have a members card for the local onsen, so I get nice discounts.
3. Soaking with naked old ladies is awesome
The overwhelming majority of onsen patrons are old folk. Personally, I love it.
Little old ladies in the countryside make wonderful onsen companions. Every so often, one will strike up conversation with me and introduce me to a couple of her onsen friends. So then the next time I visit, we nod at each other and have a pleasant conversation.
Small talk isn’t big in Japan (something I talked about in this comic) – pretty much the only place I get small talk these days is from naked old grannies in the bath.
4. It’s refreshing to be able to put your walls down (and not worry about what other people think)
I’m naked, you’re naked, let’s all get naked!
When I was a kid, I never thought I would be comfortable enough in my own skin to be able to be naked around another person (not to mention a dozen other people I don’t even know!). I had a hard time even just wearing a swimsuit at the pool.
Now sitting on the ledge of the hot bath doesn’t even phase me.
Japanese Onsen totally fixed my self-esteem issues and made me comfortable with my body.
5. It’s a nice break from technology (and a chance to reconnect with nature)
Okay, so I’m a little bit addicted to the internet. To be fair, 90% of my job involves using the internet… so it’s not like I’m surrounding myself by blinking screens for 12 hours a day just for giggles.
If I get a headache from a particularly difficult project (or from too much squinting at the screen), a nice trip to the onsen will fix that.
6. The mineral waters make you skin feel AMAZING
My skin is soft, squishy, and acne-free for the days following a trip to our local onsen. And I love it.
If I have a big TV gig coming up (or something really important where there will be cameras), I will head off to the local onsen a day or two before, to make sure my skin looks good the day-of.
Because even thought surfer onsen might smell like rotten eggs, it does wonderful things for your skin.
If any of y’all have been to hot springs, what has been your favorite part?