Cultural Views

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If you are planning to visit Japan for vacation, you might have heard of the word “onsen (温泉).” It literally means “hot spring,” but it usually refers to a resort area or accommodation facility that uses hot spring water for its baths. There are thousands of hot springs all over Japan, because Japan, after all, is situated in a volcanic area.

The people of Japan love onsens. An annual total of 128 million people stayed in onsens, according to a survey done by the Nippon Onsen Rearch Institute.  The figure means that all of the Japanese people stayed at onsen over night, once every year.

I am an onsen lover, too. Soaking in a large bathtub placed under the sky and filled up with hot spring water, which is fresh out of the earth, is so soothing and I really wish I was writing this article in a long-stay type onsen inn.

So, I do recommend all foreign visitors to stay in one of onsen resorts. Many of high-end onsen hotels are equipped with private onsen bath attached to each room. However, if you are interested in Japanese culture, soaking in a “public” onsen will tell you a lot about Japanese people. I know nudity with others is a huge blockade for foreign visitors, but it’s just a cultural thing. We naturally avert our eyes so as not to look at others in dressing and bathing areas. It is just as simple as that.

In order to enjoy onsen just as the Japanese people, however, you need to have one skill, which is to wring out a hand towel. If you cannot do it, you might end up getting a lot of attention, because we cannot observe good onsen manners without the skill to wring out the hand towel that we will bring with us when getting into the bathing area. I know it is difficult to anticipate why, but consider it is something like using chopsticks when you have authentic Japanese dishes.

The above is a short video to show you how to wring out a hand towel. The Japanese people do it naturally and don’t take the step by step processes as shown in the video, but the key is to make the towel in the shape that will fit in your hands. For your information, the hand towels provided in onsen inns or hotels are of standard size and thickness. It is difficult to practice it with western facial towels, which are usually too thick and large.