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Onsen (How to) July 20, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Onsen (How to)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-rG

Onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring bath house.  They range in size from quaint little barrels located on a hill to grand modern style baths.  Japan is well known as being one of the most active areas in the world for volcanoes and earthquakes.  With all of this seismic activity, Japan is a hotbed for natural hot springs.  For a tourist, or even a resident foreigner, it’s very difficult to understand the feel of an onsen, or really understand why people do it.  It’s definitely a cultural identity for Japanese people.  When visiting Japan, I would recommend visiting an onsen, but if you are uncomfortable with the process, don’t be sad if you don’t go.  I don’t believe it is necessary to experience Japan, but if you are living in Japan, I would recommend trying to go to an onsen at least once.

When visiting an onsen, you have to understand the rules.  Once you know of all the rules, you can decide whether or not you wish to go to the onsen itself.  All onsen have the same rules, and it’s easy to forget what they are.  The first step to the onsen is to enter the building and take off your shoes.  Most of them have a small entrance with shoe boxes available.  If you wear shoes that are bigger than a size 12 (US), you might have trouble putting your shoes into the shoe lockers.  Don’t go with boots either as they will more than likely not have lockers for boots.  The next step is to pay for the onsen itself.  The prices range from 400-700 yen depending on the place.  I’d recommend bringing a small bath towel with you, and purchasing one at the onsen as well.  Towels are usually very cheap, roughly 100-300 yen each.  These are to be used inside the onsen itself.  Your towel can be used to dry off when you exit the onsen.

After you pay for everything, you can enter the bath area.  There is almost always a men’s and women’s section.  Men’s are usually easy to see as they have a blue curtain in the entrance, and the women’s section uses red or pink.  When you enter the private area, you will be in the locker room.  There is usually dozens of lockers where you can put all of your belongings.  Some onsen have baskets with small lockers for wallets and watches.  There is also a section for you to primp yourself after the bath, but I’ll get into that later.  The first challenge is to get naked.  My first time in the onsen, I was very shy.  I knew what was expected of me, so I stripped down pretty quickly and all was okay.  No one will look at you.  If you have long hair, make sure it’s tied UP.  This is especially important for women.  You can let it down as you shower, but try to keep it up all the time.  The basic rule is, if you can tie your hair up, do it.  From there, you can enter the actual onsen.

When you enter the onsen, it’s traditional to cover up your privates with a small towel.  If you buy a towel at the onsen, you can use this towel.  It’s not very thick, nor fluffy.  The sole purpose of this is to aide in the cleaning process, and to slightly cover up.  You don’t have to use it to cover up, but I do it either way.  The shower area is the first place to head to.  The shower area is very easy to spot.  There are several rows of “seats” and mirrors.  Each shower is pretty standard.  You are given a small area to sit.  Each shower has a mirror, small seat, bowl, soap, shampoo, a faucet, and a shower head.  The method to use the shower depends on the plumbing, but generally, there is a temperature switch on the left, flow for the shower on the right, and a button for the faucet in the middle.  Adjust the temperature and turn on the shower.  Rinse off the entire area with water before you begin.  Clean off the mirror, the soap, the faucet, and both bowl and seat before you sit down.  After this, you can finally take a seat.  Once seated, you can shower any way you like.  Some prefer to wash their hair first, and some prefer to use the towel as a way to scrub their body.  Once you have finished soaping up, you can use the faucet to pour hot water all over your body.  Place the bucket under the faucet and press the centre button.  There is no temperature setting for the faucet, so beware that the water will be hot.  Personally, I prefer to rinse with the shower head itself and use the faucet water to prepare myself for the onsen baths.  Think of it as a warming or preparatory rinse.  Once you have finished your shower, you should give everything in the shower area one final rinse, the same as when you entered, and put everything back where you found it.  You can then proceed to the baths.   Do note that many sites recommend you do a quick rinse, bathe, then shower with soap, and bathe again.  I have not seen this myself when I visited onsen.

How to bathe will depend on your own personal preference.  Whether you prefer to enter the hot bath first, and proceed to the cooler ones, or just enter one bath and finish is up to you.  Smaller onsen have only one or two baths.  Part of the fun is to just try each one.  As you enter the bath, do be aware that the water can be extremely hot, especially the baths inside.  Do not put your towel inside the water, and do not put your head under water.  These are not allowed and you may get a stern lecture on etiquette if you make a mistake.  With the towel, just fold it up into a small square and place it on your head.  You can always place it on the side, but most men will put it on their head.  If you head outside, you can also enjoy the outdoor bath which usually has either natural or concrete rocks that has a very calming effect.  If there is a sauna, do be aware that you will probably have to use your own foam seat if there is one provided.  They are usually located outside the sauna and you return it to the cleaning bin which should be next to it.

Once you have finished with the baths, you should either shower completely, or rinse off.  A quick trip to the shower area or utilizing a standing shower stall is effective.  I generally don’t enjoy the residue left on my skin by the onsen water, so I prefer to shower completely, but very quickly.  Some onsen and many websites recommend that you don’t rinse at all.   As I said, I personally don’t like the feel of the minerals left on my body, so I prefer to shower quickly.  I also suggest towelling off with the wet towel before entering the locker room.  Depending on the onsen, it may or may not be required, but it does make drying easier when you are finished.  After you exit the bathing area, you can get dressed and make use of the powder room area.  There is almost always an area set up with a counter, mirrors, and hair dryers.  If you go to an expensive onsen, there will be an array of facial creams and hand lotions that you can use.  There may even be some hair products.  Generally, you should bring your own stuff.  You can take as much time as you need to get ready, and it’s pretty simple and straight forward.  Afterwards, you can exit and enter the common area.  The common area is a place to relax after the bath.  There is usually a place to buy some food, but mainly for drinks.  Japanese people love to drink alcohol, especially beer, after a nice bath.  At night, don’t be surprised to see lots of people sitting in a tatami room enjoying a few beers and having a nice conversation.  You can also buy things such as milk, or ramune, a type of citrus soda.  If you are waiting for someone to come out of the onsen, you can enjoy a magazine, newspaper, or manga while you wait, but it will depend on the onsen itself.  There are also several gifts that you can buy, such as scrubbing blocks, soap, and other bathing products.  They are generally not cheap, but the quality is very good.

This is the basic onsen experience.  If you decide to go, do expect to spend at least an hour, maybe more at the onsen itself.  The bathing experience shouldn’t be more than 15-30 minutes.  Bathing in the onsen is not like bathing at home.  It’s part utilitarian and part relaxation.  The relaxation is party done outside in the common area.  Don’t be too afraid of going to an onsen, even if you are by yourself.  The only time to be worried is if you have tattoos.  Generally, tattoos are not allowed by patrons, but if it’s a small one, you could be okay.

Onsen Information:

Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onsen
Furano Tourism Authority (Guide to Furano Onsen and short instructions on how to use the onsen):  http://www.furano-kankou.com/english/onsen.htm
Japan Guide (Note:  I don’t agree with their instructions on how to use an onsen):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2292.html
Japan Guide (Basic areas for Onsen):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2292_where.html
Onsen Japan (English guide to a few onsen):  http://www.onsenjapan.net/


Dogo July 21, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Dogo” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-dogo

Dogo is an area inside Matsuyama that is very well known.  Its claim to fame is Dogo Onsen.  It is claimed to be the oldest onsen in Japan.  While no one can be certain, it has the oldest referral in any written book in Japan.  For this reason, Dogo is a must see for people who visit Matsuyama.  Being a tourist destination, you will have a lot of opportunities to see and do things that are more common in the touristy areas of Japan.

Reaching the Dogo area is very easy.  Taking one of the main trams to Dogo Onsen is the easiest way.  It is the last stop, so don’t worry about missing it.  Once you get off the tram, you will see a sea of people.  Exiting the station will point you in the direction of Dogo Onsen.  Across from the station is a popular, and free, footbath.  This fountain is very popular as a quick way to enjoy the natural spring water without having to pay for the onsen itself.  Do be warned that it can be very busy and line-ups in the middle of the day are common.  Next to the footbath is an old style clock.  This clock, like many others in Japan, has a special chime every hour.  Don’t forget to turn around after walking to the clock and footbath, so you can see the beautiful station building.  It was built to look like an old European building.  The face of the building makes it feel much larger than it actually is.

There are two routes to reaching Dogo Onsen.  The first is to follow the shotengai to the entrance.  The other is to walk up a hill and follow the line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot.  I’d recommend the shotengai as you can always buy a few souvenirs on the way.  Dogo Onsen has two buildings, as far as I know.  When the shotengai turns right, you’ll be at the new onsen.  Turn left and the building is just outside the covered shotengai.  I believe everything is the same, but in a modern building.  It isn’t as busy, and has the same natural spring water, but because it is not the original, most people go to the original building.  Upon exiting the short shotengai, you will see the old onsen.  The way people talk about it, I was expecting a building that was much larger than it was.  It was a nice small wooden building with many people on the second floor enjoying tea and Japanese sweets after their afternoon bath.  There are many guides at the entrance that have instructions in English.  I’m not sure if they speak English, but the guides have English manuals that will definitely help.

If you do go inside to enjoy the bath, be sure to bring soap and a towel.  It does cost extra if you don’t have it.  It is also well known that going at night, or most other times, you’ll have to line up for everything.  You have to line-up to enter, to get a locker, to take a shower, and to bathe.  If you are shy about being naked in front of other people, especially for a long time, I’d recommend going to the newer building.  Once you finish your bath, you can visit one of the other rooms in the onsen.  Do note that the onsen has a few classes for bathing.  You can also visit the emperor’s room, but that is also extra.  After leaving the onsen, it is almost always true that Japanese people want to drink some alcohol.  Outside Dogo Onsen, you’ll have a lot of choices.  I would highly recommend going to the Dogo Brewery located next to the onsen.  The food was excellent, and so was the beer.  You won’t find it anywhere else.

Next to Dogo Onsen is Isaniwa Shrine.  It is about 135 steps to the top, and a good trial before heading to Kotohira.  The shrine itself is very small, but dedicated top the god of war.  If you have the energy, you can try to walk over to Ishite Temple.  This is part of the 88 temple pilgrimage and one of the most spectacular temples.  Unfortunately, I was unable to find it and discovered it was much farther way than I expected.  It is somewhere that I do plan to visit again, if I get the chance.

The last thing to do in the Dogo area is to visit Dogo Koen.  It is a very nice, relaxing park, where you can see dozens of people enjoying a nice barbeque on a sunny day.  It is a very hilly park and the site of the Yuzuki-jo ruins, another castle.  There aren’t any signs that there was a castle on the grounds, but there is a nice lookout site at the top of the hill that gives another vantage point to the city.  The centre of the park is a fun place to explore and to escape the heat.  Do be aware that there are a few entrances and exits, so it’s easy to get confused.  However, the main entrance is also located in front of a tram station, so getting back to Matsuyama is very easy.


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