Onsen etiquette

I enjoy soaking in hot water and have tried the spa experience in several countries. I particularly liked the old-world charm of the Gellert baths in Budapest, although I had mixed feelings about being hosed down and slapped around in the massage room.  We of course have our share of spas in the UK but these seem to concentrate more on offering face packs and bikini waxes; neither of which much appeal to me.

For me the Mecca of hot water is Japan. Even the old local sento baths had their charm, but these have been mostly replaced by neighbourhood saunas. The pinnacle of relaxation however is to be found at the many hot spring resorts. These are normally built around natural hot water sources and range from completely man-made structures to natural rock pools.

As someone who feels relatively at home in Japan, I am of course familiar with the basic bathing rules – wash, shampoo, rinse, rinse and replace stool and bowl and then soak. I have though managed to get other elements of onsen bathing wrong on a number of occasions.

The first time was quite a few years ago when I and a group of friends from Osaka visited Ibusuki Onsen in Kyushu. We arrived, paid and separated into male and female groups, went into our respective changing rooms to emerge naked with several hundred other people in the same mixed sex space. My then redheaded wife (still the same model, but don’t ask) was a little concerned as to where to place the small tenugui towel which she had been issued at reception. My best suggestion was “over your face”.

More recently when visiting friends in Yoshino we decided to stay in a nearby hot spring hotel.  I had arranged to practice kendo in the early evening just after checking in, so declined to eat at the set dinner time. On the way out we learned that there was no food available outside of the fixed mealtime. So when the other guests were digesting their 11 course meal, we sat in out room with a mixed sandwich and a cup noodle each, purchased just in time from the only shop in the village.

On the second night of our stay we made sure that we were in for dinner. This time we ignored the yukata that had been provided in our room and turned up in street clothes – the only people in the room not wearing yukata. The following morning we were among the first in for breakfast, this time wearing yukata. Of course all the other guests were in their street clothes in preparation for check-out.

I have never used my local spa at Pennyhill Park, but at least I know the dress code – bath robe for the pool, jacket and tie for the restaurant and oh yes, bathing costumes to be worn at all times.