Hokkaido: Dipping myself into Japan’s bath culture

Last Wednesday morning, I found myself in a quintessential lost-in-translation predicament.

I was on my way to the onsen (Japanase hot spring bath) in a hotel in Hokkaido, vision still hazy from sleep, and as there were no English signs that signified where the male and female baths were, ended up heading towards the direction of the former.

It was a good thing that before I opened the door and found myself in a room full of naked men, an older (fully clothed *thank god*) gentleman emerged. He looked a little shocked to see me there, in full yukata glory, so to avoid looking embarrassed, I raised an eyebrow, gave a nonchalant shrug, and made the pivot towards the women’s bath look as normal as the sun rising in the east before making its way down west.

After my quick brush with semi-humiliation, I stepped inside the onsen and from then on it was a whole new world of seeing my fellow women prancing and soaking about in their birthday suits. Bodies in all shapes and sizes, across all ages, and each sporting their preferred method of grooming ze lady parts. I suddenly remembered a trip to Seoul years ago when my sister and I were thinking of trying out the hot baths near our hostel in Hongdae, but the idea of seeing each other totally naked would just send us into fits of giggles so we scrapped the idea.

This trip to Hokkaido, we were booked in two hotels—Kenbuchi Hot Spring Lakeside Sakuraoka in Kenbuchi, and Hotel Daiheigen in Otofuke. Both had their own private hot-spring baths on the premises—the first had sulphur spring water, while the other one, our translator said, was more unique in that the minerals were plant derived, which made the water darker.

Had it not been for our tight itinerary, I would’ve stayed in the hotel all day and just spend the hours soaking away all cares in the world. Being inside the onsen wasn’t as awkward as I’d expected at all. Almost everybody was quiet—lost in thought, meditating, quietly whispering…it felt like I had stumbled into a silent dance where everybody languidly moved to their own rhythm. There were small tranquil pools, hydrotherapy pools, and saunas in the corner of the room. Making my way through the steam and all the nakedness, I started self-consciously walking to the outdoor stone pool and spotted some women I knew from the trip; the rest I didn’t know from Adam. Different thoughts circled around my head: Should I do the sauna first? Did that girl catch me looking at her? Look down, Tricia. No, look up! Wait, am I even doing this right??

The moment my feet touched the water, however, all inhibitions melted away.

It was the closest I had come to a religious experience in Japan. It felt like the first yoga class I attended in my studio, where upon finishing the foundations, I came out feeling exhilarated and my mind cleared of worries. I don’t know if it had something to do with the fact that the waters are derived from the deepest parts of the ground—Japan is literally in hot water after all—but it just had this instant calming, balancing effect. My brain—my overthinking brain, I have to say—was immediately stripped of thought. It was physically and mentally cleansing.

I came walking out of the place with a spring in my step, and that morning’s funny encounter completely forgotten.



Main photo: Chi Tranter, Flickr Creative Commons

10 thoughts on “Hokkaido: Dipping myself into Japan’s bath culture

  1. Interesting… Actually, your experience reminded me a little of elementary school. Accidentally going into the girls’ washroom was just about the most embarrassing thing any boy could do. I think wandering into the wrong onsen would top it, though.


  2. It’s all in the mind… Really :) oh btw, did you know that there are mixed onsen pools also? :D … If you have the opportunity, try doing onsen in an outdoor pool in winter. It would be a very memorable experience 8)


      1. You are welcome Tricia :) If you are attempting the konyoku (mixed onsen), hope your thoughts don’t run wild. And do note that the practice is alittle different in mixed onsen. Guys no diff, but ladies goes down with a towel. Otherwise … the feeling of getting many eyes on you can get real :D


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