There are no public baths in the USA remotely similar to Japanese onsens. Although there are hot springs (the usual translation of "onsen") in America, and even towns named "Hot Springs," it is still fruitless to attempt to find an onsen-like establishment there. The ones I've visited in the USA featured private bathing in oversized bathtubs filled with mineral-rich (volcanic) waters.
I had read about onsens before coming to Japan two years ago, but the reality, of course, is in the experiencing. For the uninitiated, onsens are scattered throughout Japan and there are even onsen guides rating them according to surrounding scenery, mineral content, and other factors. Many hotels have them, but the best ones have an outside pool, or "rotenburo." This means that although the bath ("furo") is usually inside ("onsenburo"), in this case it is outside. Many years ago there used to be mixed-gender ("konyoku") onsens in Japan where families could go and relax together, but this has become the exception rather than the rule today. Perhaps the lascivious image this brings to Western minds has had its effect on Japanese thinking as well. Americans also tend to think of nudist resorts as places where flesh is up for grabs, whereas they are actually much more oriented toward calm acceptance of nudity.
There may be other amenities at onsens in addition to the usual heated pools, such as a sauna with an outside cooling area, a Jacuzzi or whirlpool, weight and body fat monitoring, different pools with different temperatures, piped in music, or small waterfalls or waterspouts.
Before entering the soaking area, it is necessary to wash thoroughly with a hand held shower, with soap usually being provided, but not towels. Those who go should ideally take two small towels, one to take into the soaking area and another to dry off with afterward. After a thorough cleansing, and for the Japanese the emphasis is really on the "thorough" part, slipping into the warm water is like sliding into a warm bath. The temperature is usually between 39 and 43 degrees C (102 ~ 112 F), and if there is more than one pool, one will invariably be hotter than the others. At first, it seems boring. There's nothing much to do, just sit around with a towel on your head and the warm water lapping around your neck, but after awhile, the temperature and immersion in the water start to calm your spirit and at the same time elevate your heart rate as your body attempts to compensate for the increased temperature, higher than your body's internal temp.
There's a limited amount of moving around, and practically no splashing or horseplay, not even much talking. Conversations tend to be short and limited rather than long and involved. Eventually, and especially if you're at an outside pool with a cool, quiet night sky overhead, this starts to seep into your bones, into your spirit, and a sense of calm overtakes you. It's one of those things that can't be explained, only experienced.
As this calm pervades the atmosphere, it is easy to accept the occasional child of the opposite gender, and although the exact age when this becomes unacceptable isn't clear (at least to me), it seems to be about ten. Another thing that could be a distraction for Westerners is the presence of the cleaning lady who wanders in and starts cleaning the sauna or shower area while surrounded by naked men. No one seems to pay any attention to this, sort of like the cleaning ladies in public restrooms. It just becomes part of the necessary functioning of the place, nothing to get alarmed about, though the small towels are useful to cover body parts if desired.
There's also a man who comes around occasionally to check the temperature of the various pools. This always seems to be a man, even in the women's pools, but from the reports I've heard, no one there takes any notice either. One woman even told me she saw someone checking the temp, but didn't even notice if it was a man or a woman. Later she said she thought it was a man, but it didn't occur to her that she (and every other woman) was naked. None of the women took any notice, and neither, apparently, did the lone man.
If the onsen has a sauna, the temp in there is usually around 52 ~ 57 C (125 ~ 135 F), and 15 to 30 minutes in the dry heat will start sweat streaming down your body and definitely up your heart rate. This is not a place to overstay or try to tough it out. Sitting in the cool air afterward closes the pores opened by the sweating process and then a dip into the warm pools is especially relaxing.
To get the whole experience takes about two hours, at a cost of about 500 yen, and it changes your mind as well as your body. Of course your body feels relaxed, but your mind is more calm as well, more accepting, and immersion into this unique cultural experience will affect your thinking long after the actual physical experience is over.
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