Contrasting Japanese Onsens, or How to Take a Bath with a Bunch of Other Guys (Part 2)

Please note that our normally scheduled blog post on our Trans-Siberia trip is delayed due to our attendance at a wedding in San Francisco this past weekend (congratulations Stephen & Wendy!) and we did not have time to finish the post. However, a recent comment by one of our readers pointed out that we never published Part 2 of our Japanese Onsen series. I'm not sure what happened. We wrote it, but never posted it, so here it is... Meanwhile, tune in next week for the next installment in our continuing saga.
  • Ooedo Onsen Monogatari
  • Sara, Phil & Ender at Ooedo Onsen Monogatari
  • Phil & Ender at Ooedo Onsen Monogatari
  • Michelle & Michael at Ooedo Onsen Monogatari
  • Ender at the Onsen
  • Conductor on the Romance Car
  • Front Row Seat on the Romance Car
  • Sara & Ender in Romance Car
  • View from the Romance Car
  • Arriving at Hakone, Japan
  • Sophia & Charlie at Hakone, Japan
  • Ender & Phil on the Gondola in Hakone, Japan
  • Hakone, Japan
  • Sara, Ender & Doraemon
  • Hakone, Japan
  • Hakone, Japan
  • Hoeiso Ryokan, Hakone, Japan
  • Welcome Tea at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Welcome Tea at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Dinner at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Dinner at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Dinner at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Our room at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Walkway to Onsen at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Breakfast at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
  • Phil & Sara at Hoeiso, Hakone, Japan
One of the highlights of our Japan trip was our trip to the onsen (hot springs).  This is a Japanese tradition which allows one to relax and cleanse both one's body and one's mind by bathing in a pool of hot water that has come from deep in the earth.  We actually visited two very different onsens in Japan and it gave me a good perspective on how different an experience it can be, depending on the facility. After my initial visit to an onsen five years ago in Taiwan, I knew what to expect, at least from the nudity aspect.  However, the overall experience was much different, and while I would not go with my college buddies, I was pretty comfortable with my father-in-law and brother-in-law. Our first onsen, Ooedo Onsen Monogatari, was in Tokyo and was more of a day spa with a lot of extra activities to occupy one's time when not in the bath.  When we first arrived and checked in, we put all of our shoes and outer wear in a locker, and then donned slippers.  We then chose our yukata, bathing robe, from a variety of designs.  Next, the men and women separated into their appropriate locker rooms and changed into their yukatas, locking up their clothes in a locker.  It should be noted that underwear is optional under the yukata. Once we emerged from the locker room, we entered an indoor street fair.  There were little booths where you could play games, buy food or merchandise, or just sit and relax.  There was a dining area with low tables where it was necessary to sit on the floor to eat.  The variety of food was extensive, including options for a buffet and even ice cream for dessert. The bathing areas are segregated by sex and the Men's area had several indoor pools, each two to three feet deep, with differing temperatures and minerals, and a couple of outdoor pools as well.  I have talked about the rules for the onsen in another post, but one rule we did not know was that anyone with a tattoo is not allowed in the bath.  Sara found this out on her second visit to the bath, as she has a small tattoo on her back. She was asked to leave the bath, but was allowed to stay in the resort. While we were sitting and enjoying our meal, I could not help but notice a group of five college-age guys sitting around a table and eating, having just come out of the baths.  This is a major difference in the Eastern and Western cultures.  I just cannot even fathom sitting around my dorm room in college with all of my friends on a Saturday night and saying, "Hey guys, let's all go get naked and take a bath together!" Our second onsen was an overnight experience in Hakone, a hot spring resort town a couple of hours by train outside of Tokyo.  We took the Romancecar train from Tokyo to Hakone and Sophia, Sara's sister, arranged for us to get front row seats in the train.  These were not ordinary front row seats, though.  In the Romancecar train, the engineers who drive the train ride above the passengers allowing for a huge picture window in the front of the passenger compartment.  The view was incredible and we really got to see the countryside and small towns and villages along the way.  Thank you, Soph! Sophia also arranged for our stay at the onsen.  After touring the area for most of the day, we retired to Hoeiso, a nearly deserted resort, or Ryokan.  If you go, avoid the rush of Friday and Saturday night and you can have the resort to yourself.  We stayed in a very traditional 300 year old building where all nine of us slept in the same room on tatamis, which are beds on straw mats on the floor.  The stay included dinner and breakfast and I must say that this was the only meal where I was a bit freaked out by the food.  In general, Japanese food is not as scary as the typical American might think; there is usually something that you can order that will not only fill you up, but tastes incredible.  However, this was a fixed menu and it had lots of unidentifiable things.  I got enough to eat, but I was happy to find a tube of Pringles potato chips for sale in the lobby. The onsen experience here was nice because we were the only ones in the pools.  There were fewer pools than in Tokyo, but they were just as relaxing.  There was even an outdoor pool down by a fast-moving creek that was a nice early morning soak. For the average Westerner, a naked bath with a bunch of people that you do not know might not be first on the list of things to do in Japan, but if you are looking for an authentic Japanese experience, there is not one more relaxing. I highly recommend further investigation, as long as you are comfortable seeing more of your traveling companions than you are used to.
  • Sophia

    You are welcome, Phil. I am glad you guys enjoyed the train ride and the whole trip! We will do this again soon! 🙂

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