Onsen Culture: Bathing with Others






Last week I went on a weekend trip with Waseda International Festival (the club I danced with at Waseda-sai) to Kusatsu onsen. Now just to get it out of the way, in Japan, public bathing is a common activity. The baths are separated by gender, but yes, you do bathe with other people without any clothing on. Time to get on with the post.

Kusatsu is a charming town with a very Japanese feel, and it’s known for its public onsen, or hot springs. The onsen are cooled using a traditional technique called yumomi, where large wooden paddles are used to stir the water. This is done so that the properties of the water aren’t diluted by simply adding cold water to reduce the temperature.

Right after I arrived we wandered around the town until it was time for dinner at the ryokan we stayed at. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn, and they frequently will prepare dinner and breakfast for the guests who stay there and serve the meals in the rooms. There were so many people in my club that went on this retreat, however, that we actually booked the entire ryokan and ate together in a large room on the first floor.

There were 3 long tables like this one, and plenty of food for everyone. The food was very Japanese, with plenty of rice, fish, and vegetables.

After dinner I took a dip in the onsen. Bathing in Japan is interesting because you don’t actually wash yourself in the bath. Instead, there are places where you wash yourself while sitting on a little stool, and you rinse all the soap off there too. This is done because everyone shares the bath, and everyone needs to bathe in the same water, so when you enter a bath already dirty the water is contaminated for everyone else who uses it. While bathing with the other guys in my club was a little jarring at first, I got used to the sensation quickly and found it rather relaxing. It also promotes a time to be very open and vulnerable, which is important in Japan since people are frequently very reserved out of consideration for those around them. This culture of bathing has always been important to the Japanese people and onsen have been frequented since at least the year 712, but it’s likely that the practice has gone on for much longer than that.

After the bath we got together for a nomikai (drinking party) and we played games and had a little talent show. Most of the performances were fun dances done in groups by some of the Japanese members who have been in the club for years, but they invited everyone to perform. I’ve got a long history of performing musical theatre and have a decent repertoire of solos that I can sing at a moments notice, but I was a bit nervous to sing because I wasn’t sure how it would be received. After all, Most people there understood Japanese much better than English, but I only knew English songs. Also, every performance before mine was a group dance, but I was going to sing. By myself.

Not only were my fears unfounded, but I had one of the best performing experiences of my life! When I got up to sing people were applauding and cheering my name (which I haven’t seen much at any of the concerts I’ve been to in Japan) and the environment was very relaxed. Even throughout the song everyone was kind enough to cheer and applaud, and I felt accepted and supported by everyone there. At the end I was so thankful that I got up and sang and for the kindness of everyone there. Being in a foreign country, it’s easy to feel like you’re always on the outside looking in, but I really feel included here and welcomed by so many good friends!