My Trip to the Onsen or How to Take a Bath with a Bunch of Other Guys (Part 1)

Sara and I have returned from our latest trip:  Tokyo and Taipei.  While I have been to Taipei a few times in the past, this was my first visit to Tokyo.  I must say that I absolutely loved it.  The people were friendly, the city was safe and clean and the food was incredible.  We also got to experience a true Japanese tradition:  the onsen (hot springs).

Before I tell you about our adventure in Japan, I should talk a bit about my previous time at an onsen, as it was eventful.  My first experience was in Taiwan in 2004, where we had traveled by train to a hot spring resort in Chih-pen, Taitung.  Sara and I were accompanied by her parents and sister and were all staying in the same room at the Royal Chih-pen Hotel, sleeping on the floor on Japanese style tatami mats.

Sara had instructed me on the proper etiquette and on what to expect, so once we arrived, I did what I was told and changed into a robe with nothing underneath.  This is where my problems started.  For those of you who have never been to Taiwan, you should know that most Taiwanese are fairly short.  I am 6' 2".  I don't think the resort has many foreign visitors, because their robes are designed for 5 foot tall people.  Consequently, my robe came to mid-thigh.  I felt like a Go-Go dancer from the sixties.

I am generally not one who is comfortable naked around others.  In the gym, you won't find me shaving at the sink buck-naked like some guys.  I get in, change, and get out.  So, when it came to walking around the hotel room with all of Sara's family present and my butt cheeks nearly popping out of the bottom of my robe (I was terrified to drop anything and have to bend to pick it up), I was less than happy.

Then came the announcement that we would be eating in the room, again, Japanese style:   on the floor.  We would all sit around a low table.  I sighed and then contorted my body this way and that, while clenching my fists around the robe in strategic locations to keep the good stuff hidden.  I finally got settled on the floor and comfortable, when, Michael, Sara's father, emerged from the bathroom in his robe...with his pajama bottoms on underneath!  Oh ha, ha.  Pick on the white guy.  Everybody had a good laugh at me as I carefully struggled to my feet to find my pajamas.

Once we got to the actual bathing area, the men and women went their separate ways.  As the bathing is done in the nude, the sexes each have their own areas that are completely separate from the other.  Michael and I were on our own and he showed me the ropes (among other things).  The rules are very strict and even though they are not posted, everyone knows them and follows them.

When one enters the locker room, one is given a full sized towel with which to dry off at the end and a small wash-cloth sized towel to take into the bath.  However, the small towel is not allowed to touch the water.  It can only be used to wipe sweat off of your head and face, but must never be rinsed off in the bath.  Consequently, the most common place to store the towel when not in use is folded on top of one's head.  I thought for sure that Michael was joking about this and once again I would be the object of much laughter by all of the other patrons, but indeed it is true.  Almost everyone had their towel on top of their head.

Before one enters the bath, it is necessary to wash completely from head to toe.  To accomplish this, the facility provides hand-held showers, a small bucket and a stool that is actually smaller than the ones that my two-year old has at her school.  One must sit on the stool and wash completely, using the provided soap and shampoo.  I think the bucket is to pour water over oneself, but I found it easier to just use the hand-held shower.

Once I was clean, I got to enter the water.  There were several large pools, each two to three feet deep and each a different temperature.  They ranged from freaking cold to unbelievably hot.  I tried all of them, moving from one to another and trying to find just the right one.  I finally settled on just plain hot.  As I grew hotter, it became necessary to wipe my face.  Of course, I used my towel and then dunked it in the bath, wrung it out, wiped my face again, "Man, that feels good," dunked it again, this time did not wring it out, but washed my face with a full wash cloth, dunked it again, wrung it again, and then noticed Michael virtually sprinting from the other side of the room to me.  This is when I found out about the first rule I told you about.  He had told me to keep the towel on top of my head, but had not really explained why.

This trip to Taiwan, in 2004, had been a special one.  Not only was it my first trip to an onsen, it was also when I had chosen to ask Sara to marry me.  We were going to Kyoto, Japan after we left Taiwan, and I had planned to ask her there.  Before that, however, I wanted to do the traditional thing and ask her father's permission.  This little visit to the onsen was the first time I had been alone with Michael, so now was my chance.  He had come all the way from the other side of the room to warn me about the towel thing and now he was sitting right next to me.  I was nervous, but I had to do it.

I am a bit of a history buff, but Michael is a history aficionado.  I am always interested to hear his stories, particularly of World War II.  He started telling me about the origin of the term 'kamikaze'.  As most of you know, the Japanese suicide pilots of WWII were referred to as kamikaze pilots.  "The term is actually from long ago," he began.  "When Kublai Khan tried to invade Japan, he launched thousands of ships from the mainland.  But he and his generals were used to land warfare, not sea battles, so they had flat-bottomed boats, ill-suited for the ocean."

I was getting more and more nervous.  I just wanted to ask and get it over with.  He continued, "The Japanese saw the invaders coming and prayed to their gods to protect them.  They went to sleep knowing that they had a great battle ahead of them in the morning, but over night, a great storm raged and when the Japanese awoke, all of the ships were gone.  The word 'kamikaze' means 'divine wind' and it was this wind which saved them from the Mongols.  In World War II, the Japanese believed that the kamikaze pilots would save them as well."  Once again, I was very interested in his story, but my mind was on my task.  I had to ask permission to marry this man's daughter.

There was finally a break in the conversation.  I took my chance, "Michael, in the United States, there is a tradition that when a man wants to marry a woman, he must first ask the woman's father for permission."  He looked at me expectantly.  "I would like to marry Sara and I am asking for your permission to do this."

I sat naked in a bath with my hopefully future father-in-law, who was also naked, and waited for his response.  He barely paused and said, "Of course, now did I ever tell you about when the American planes bombed Taiwan?"  Apparently, the tradition does not carry over to Asian culture.

Now flash forward to Tokyo, where we all went to a local onsen for the day.  Once again, it was Sara, her parents and sister, Sophia, but this time we added Daniel, Sophia's husband, our daughter, Ender, and Soph and Daniel's son Charlie.

To be continued...

  • Sophia

    It is absolutely the funniest onsen story I have ever known. Can’t wait to read more about the Tokyp trip.

  • soussan

    its been a long time since i laughed this hard. looking forward to reading more.

  • Mom

    I never grow tired of reading your stories…..they are just way too good!!!!! You do have a way with words!!

  • Mansur & Elena

    This one is real fun! And the proposal part is so sweet and touching. You truly inspire interest to discover new places!


    Are you planning to post part 2 of this story?

    • Flip

      Hi Traveller:

      Ask and ye shall receive. We have posted Part 2 of the story. Please check it out when you have a chance and thanks for reading our blog!


  • Pingback: Contrasting Japanese Onsens | Flying Coach()

  • This post is amazing! I laughed so hard imagining all these silly, awkward moments you had to go through. Really well-written. Keep up the good work!

  • Shonquinta25

    This was classic and very hilarious! My oldest daughter loves Japan and everything about their culture. I will share this story with her on fb 🙂

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! I would highly recommend a visit to both Japan and Taiwan.

  • Pingback: How You Can Help Japan | Flying Coach()

  • I am really conflicted about this. Should I laugh or feel sorry for you? But I sure want to try one of those hot springs…

    • Definitely try it. I have been back a few times and it is really an enjoyable experience. Thanks for reading!

  • ha! ha!  well written and certainly amusing!  thanks

  • ha! ha!  well written and very amusing.  thanks for sharing!

  • Love Japan and the hot springs!  Thanks for sharing your story

    • Japan is awesome, isn’t it? Thanks for reading!


Read previous post:
Day 13, Our Final Day: Petra, One of the New Seven Wonders of the World

The final day of our trip was also the finest.  Sara and I awoke before the sunrise in a small...