2. Get Naked with Strangers
Japanese hot spring baths, called onsen, can be a great way to relax. If getting naked and hopping into a pool with a bunch of strangers who don’t speak your language relaxes you.
Japanese onsen is a lot different that visiting a hot spring in North America. It is a public bath. Men and women are divided and enter different areas. You may want to review the Japanese symbols for male and female, as entering the wrong side can be awkward to say the least.
The first thing you do once inside the change room is strip down to your birthday suit. Then you take your toiletries over to a showering area. You squat down on a plastic stool about six inches high and begin to clean yourself. There is a bucket to fill from the tap (for cleaning your face or dumping water over yourself) and there is a shower head (to rinse your hair). It is very important to be thorough. Japanese people will be watching you out of the corner of their eyes to make sure you scrub every last inch of your large, foreign body.
Once you are squeaky clean, clean yourself one more time to be sure. I could never quite figure out what took Japanese people so long to shower, so you should make a good show of being clean. Once you are sure you’re spotless and there is no soap left in your hair, you may enter the baths. Do not wear anything, and do not bring any towel or soap with you. The idea is to sit and relax in the natural hot water. Naked. With curious strangers staring at you.
Although Hakone (by Mount Fuji) may be the most popular and easy onsen to access for tourists, my top three onsen locations are:
Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma prefecture. It is one of Japan’s most famous onsen for good reason. The town has a centre square that shows off the plenty of spring water and smells strongly of boiled egg. There are many hotels, resorts and inns in the town to choose from. At many places you can just pay a fee to use the onsen if you are not a guest.
Unzen in Kyushu. Unzen is a little town of 1,230 on the Shimabara Peninsula of Japan’s south island, Kyushu. It’s about 65 km south-east of Nagasaki. It’s a charming town surrounded by mountains and popular with Japanese vacationers. There are trails around the hot spring park to explore by day or moonlight. The sidewalks are wooden and steam sneaks up between the boards. There are many traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) to choose from.
Hokkaido. On Japan’s north island there are onsen all over the place. After hiking Tokachidake (one of the many mountains in Hokkaido), there is no better way to clean up and rest your sore muscles than slipping into an outdoor onsen with snow all around.