The Only Gaijin in the Village (Or, How the Onsen Changed my Life)

On my recent trip to Japan, my fourth, I finally tried an onsen. We stayed in a traditional, and very beautiful ryokan on Lake Chuzenji, just out of Nikko. We spent three nights eating, sleeping and bathing in the traditional way. All the traditional ways of living in Japan are surrounded with layers of etiquette and cultural history. There are social rules around most things, which is one of the things I love the most about Japan. However, as a foreigner or 外人 (gaijin), I am always hyper aware of the required etiquette and expected behaviour. The ryokan we stayed in was very honest on their website, stating, unequivocally, that all meals served were traditional Japanese meals, and no Western meals would be offered. As the ryokan was not easy to reach, a 40 minute bus ride up Iroha Zaka, a very windy road on a 13% incline, and Western tastes were not catered for, Super Sake Boy and I had a feeling we would be the “only gaijin in the village”….

We were correct. And not displeased. It felt very immersive and far less touristy than many other places I have been in Japan. Many of the things that I had been slightly anxious about ended up being absolutely wonderful. Wearing yukata, or summer weight kimono, around the ryokan, men and women, at all times when not leaving the building, seemed awkward and unnatural initially. But we acclimatised very quickly. Super Sake Boy found it a little difficult to walk down the tatami corridors, taking small steps, as the yukata is slightly restrictive. I was a natural. I have walked in kimono quite a bit, and geta (wooden sandals) and I’m a girl, so we get used to adjusting our stride depending on the current fashions 😂 It is an elegant way to move. And somewhat mindful, as you can’t help but be aware of each step.

The other thing I was a little anxious about was the onsen. Super Sake Boy is an onsen afficionado. Well, he has spent some time in onsen, in his favourite ski resort, Nozawa Onsen. Onsen refers to the hot mineral springs, but often also the bathing facilities, and the accomodation, and often the entire town. There are many famous onsen towns in Japan. Japan is a very volcanically active country, which creates many hot springs, with all different types of mineral content and temperatures. The different types of springs are said to offer differing health benefits. Some are even slightly radioactive, said to be excellent for soaking in to relieve arthritis. It is suggested the first public onsen to operate in Japan opened in 712. By the 12th century, onsen bathing was widespread. It is so ingrained into the culture of the Japanese, 9 centuries of history, steeped in tradition. No pressure…… 😂

So, the etiquette of onsen. The onsen is generally, but not always, segregated by gender. In some prefectures, like Tokyo, this is by law. Traditionally, bathing was mixed, and this only changed after WW2. Some more remote and traditional places still offer mixed bathing. The actual space is usually made up of the onsen, itself, a large, pool-like shallow bath, and then a bank of bathing cubicles. These cubicles are seperated from each other by waist height partitions. Each cubicle contains a wooden stool and bucket, a shower with a wall fixture, a mirror, shampoo, conditioner, bodywash, and face cleanser. You remove all your clothes (bathing in swimwear is forbidden) in the outer room. It kind of reminded me of a public swimming pool changeroom, only far more beautiful and with baskets and lockers, and every conceivable product and beauty implement you could imagine. You take a small towel, around the size of a hand towel and use it to discreetly make your way to the showering area. You must wash before entering the onsen. Everything. Your body and your hair. The towel then can be used to discreetly reach the onsen. Then you put it on your head. Not in the water…..

I am not overly shy or concerned about nudity. I grew up in an environment that was very relaxed about nudity. Mostly because we had a tiny house, with a toilet inside the only bathroom, and we got used to sharing the space. So, the nudity bit didn’t worry me at all. It was more the fear of a faux-pas. And the fear of the unknown. Super Sake Boy had been once, and said the onsen was very quiet. So, one night after dinner we went downstairs, and parted in the shared relaxation space. I went into the ante-room, to undress, out of my yukata. Everything was very self-explanatory, and the expectations were actually posted on the wall, if you needed to double check. I didn’t. I made my way to a cubicle, sat down, and started to wash myself. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. After a good scrub, and then a quick rinse of the space I had used, I went into the indoor onsen and sat in the deepest part. Up to my neck. Autumn foliage lit up outside the window. Steamy and warm, and so relaxing. I am a bath girl. I can sit in there forever… I could have stayed in the onsen for the rest of my life and been happy, had someone prepared and served me food and sake.

After around 10 minutes in the indoor onsen , I moved to the outdoor one, which was rocky and Japanesesy garden, and a little hotter, which was good as it was only about 6 degree celcius outside. It was lovely. I sat in this onsen the following morning, really early, in the rain. It was magical. The water is relaxing and full of natural goodness. This particular onsen was not too hot and the mineral content was varied. The beautiful products offered, the cold nashi pear water or iced rooibos tea to rehydrate and the sublime beauty of the environment made this such a wonderful and enjoyable experience. I could not recommend it more highly. I am excited to take my Mum to an onsen on my next trip. She’s English and I think it was from her I inherited my love of bathing. I know she will love it, too.

Please note: As you are not allowed to take photographs in the onsen, all the photos are the property of Hoshino Kai Nikko Resort, and are actually the onsen we bathed in.

5 thoughts on “The Only Gaijin in the Village (Or, How the Onsen Changed my Life)

  1. Your blog post reminds me of my trip in the States or Italy and my friends who have stayed at our home in Japan.

    I go to places where I am the only gaijin because I always stay at my friends’ houses. I love such the trips because I can be treated so special, lol. I love learning different culture and this is one of the good ways to learn it. I am glad that you learned our culture

    I have taken my American friend and Brtish friend to Onsen as well. My American friend loved it. Without hesitation, he took a long bath, On the other hand, my British friend didn’t like it. I took my Brit friend to a sushi bar with my hubby. We didn’t say about shirako ( Have you tried it out before? It’s a fish testicle, my favorite food, lol) and he ate it. After he ate it, we announced what he ate, hahaha. I can’t forget his facial expression!!!! I think my American friend is mucn younger than my Brit friend. Being young is great to accept everything.

    My British friend will come back here and stay at our house. I will take him to another adventrue! I just can’t wait it, hehehe. I hope you can come alone and stay at someone’s house like my friends or I do. You can learn more Japanese language and culture.

    1. Yumi, I do stay with my friends in Kyoto, and got to stay at her mother’s home with her grandmother one year, and we made mochi for New Year. It was really fun. I have never tried shirako…. I did try uni for the the first time last trip. I like it. I love learning about Japanese culture. It’s so interesting ❤️ thanks for your comment 😊

  2. You are welcome! I hope you will enjoy shirako next time! I am glad that You have already experienced to share times with your friends in Japan. I really think it’s the best way to learn the culture and the langauge! Good luck!!!

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