From Mie Guidebook
"After a long day, few things are more relaxing than hanging out naked with some strangers in a Japanese-style bath."
- If you don't believe the above statement, you have to at least give it a try. Use this guide to learn about the onsen (温泉) and sentō (銭湯) here within Mie, as well as the proper onsen etiquette.
Onsen and Sentō
Understand that these are two different types of baths, despite the fact that many people are liable to refer to them as the same thing (and we will do so in this article for the most part).
- Both are very relaxing.
- The procedure for preparing yourself to get in the bath are exactly the same for both.
- Both serve as so-called "class equalizers", meaning that a company president and a lowly factory worker both bathe as equals because all signs of their societal status are removed before getting in the bath.
- Both tend to bar people with tattoos.
|The kanji 温泉 translates roughly to "hot springs"||The kanji 銭湯 translates roughly to "hot water for a small fee"|
|Onsen are naturally occurring phenomenon and since ancient times have been a valued and adored part of the culture. They are known for not just their tranquility, but also their healing and beautifying properties.||Sento are your neighborhood bath houses; a kind of proletariat onsen. They emphasize the social aspect of the onsen to a degree over the relaxing aspect, and as such can be loud and boisterous at times. There is a belief among some Japanese that nothing builds bonds between people like having a chat together naked, and the sento serves as a place to build these bonds.|
|Onsen can be found all over the Japanese archipelego as they are the result of the many volcanic mountains on these islands. For many years they have been the top driving force in the Japanese domestic travel industry and thus many onsen villages have been made into resorts.||Small neighborhood sento have been dying out en masse over the last few decades, a sad fact for sento lovers. Historically baths were not available inside individual houses, and so sento served an important role in their neighborhoods and communities, but are now limited mostly to people who specifically prefer that style – which are often old people. On the other hand, super sento (see below) are becoming more popular.|
|What is allowed to be officially called an "onsen" is actually regulated by a national government law. In general, as long as the water came from a natural mountain spring, it is allowed to be called an onsen. Even if the water is transported far away and heated upon arrival, it would still technically qualify as an onsen. Anything that does not meet the strict standards set in place by this law are either referred to as "man-made onsen" or "sento", which just use tap water.||So-called super sento are kind of sento-onsen hybrids which have become popular just within the last decade and have started popping up near shopping centers even here in Mie. They are sento at heart, but with all the beauty of an onsen (often having outdoor baths) and some of them import real onsen water, which technically qualifies them as "onsen". They also tend to offer an array of saunas, massages, and other facilities to help people relax. They have a much different feel than local neighborhood sento, and if you enjoy the Japanese bathing culture you are recommended to try both at least once.|
The Onsen Experience
The rules that govern how Japanese people make use of the hot springs their country is blessed with date back long into its history, and were pseudo-codified in the Edo era when bathhouses grew in popularity.
Japan is a culture steeped in all sorts of social etiquette and this can be intimidating for those of us who didn't grow up here. In almost every case, simply displaying a willingness to learn the etiquette will endear you to most Japanese people, and if you mess up a simple look or "sorry" will completely erase any wrong-doing from your slate. However, if there is one place where you really need to follow the rules to the letter, it's the onsen. Violating the inherent etiquette will cause everyone else's hackles to rise, whether they are Japanese or onsen-accustomed foreigners. Don't be that guy.
What You Need
- A towel, standard size, to dry yourself off with after you get out of the bath. This is generally known in katakana as a "bath towel"
- A wash cloth to be used before you get in the bath. This is generally referred in to in katakana as a "face towel".
- No fear of other people getting a glimpse of your bits – everyone is naked.
- Everything else is optional. Most decent-sized onsen have soap, shampoo, and often conditioner in the shower area for you to use, and there will generally be a basic set of cosmetics in the changing room for use after you get out of the bath, including hair dryers. However many people will bring their own soap and extra cosmetics, often bringing them in a basket.
Procedure and Etiquette
Everything you have to do between entering the door and entering the bath.
- The first step is the easiest – all onsen require you to take off your shoes at the door.
- Once you go inside the door, you'll have to pay in advance at the counter as well as hand over the key to your shoe locker. There is often a ticket machine, or you may just have to talk to the clerk. You should have your towel and wash cloth with you, and if you forgot them you can likely buy or rent them from the clerk. If staying at a hotel with an onsen, just bring the ones from your room; otherwise bring them from your home.
- Take the all-important gender-based fork in the road. Even if you can't read the kanji for men and women, they are almost universally colored blue for men and red for women; no worries.
- You'll now walk into the changing room which will have either a number of lockers or baskets. Find yourself one (bigger onsen may pre-assign lockers).
- Take off every piece of clothing you have on until you are 100% naked. Stuff everything into your locker or basket.
- Leaving your big towel in the locker/basket and taking only your wash cloth, and any extra soap/shampoo you have brought, head for the nearby steamy door that leads into the bath. In you go.
- To cover or not to cover? Whether you cover up your privates with the wash cloth is entirely up to you, you will see people that are doing so and others who are not. There is no official rule here.
- You're now in the bath area, go immediately to the showers. You are however permitted to take a bowl of hot water from the bath and dump it on yourself...just don't get in the bath (yet). All the washing has to be done at the showers, not in the bath. The showers will all be sit-down style, and are generally in rows/lines in some corner of the bath area.
Note: If you frequent onsen, you will likely see some people, almost always old people, just take a bowl of hot water from the bath, dump it over them, and hop in. Understand that in the old days this was the norm, however soaping up and washing yourself before getting in is now all but a required part of onsen etiquette. Old people either don't know this or (much more often) know it but just ignore it because they can get away with it. Concerns about hygiene have increased in recent decades though, and when the average Japanese person sees this, they will not say anything but be seething on the inside -- nobody likes having their nice relaxing onsen "wa" broken, and that is exactly what happens when someone just tosses water on themselves and hops in. Most large onsen now have signs up advising people not to do this, but you are still liable to see people do it from time to time anyway.
- Have a seat at a shower. Wash up and rinse off. If it's crowded and there are people next to you, it's hard to keep from splashing them at all, but be wary of the splash effect as if you aren't you may very well get yelled at. Some people will shave and/or brush their teeth at their shower seat as well.
- Make sure there is absolutely no soap whatsoever left on you, then you may at last proceed to your prize -- a nice relaxing soak in the onsen. You must keep your wash cloth with you however, and the two standard methods are to leave it on the side of the bath or fold it up and wear it and lay on top of your head.
Note: Girls with long hair - it is considered bad form to leave your hair loose in the onsen water, even though it is clean. Either tie or clip it up (you can use your towel for this) before you enter the onsen water.
- Just sit and relax while in the bath, don't splash or swim around, though you will occasionally see people doing exercise-like motions. People may chat you up if you're alone particularly at a sento, don't be alarmed.
- When you're done with your bath, just head back out to the changing room, or perhaps into the sauna if there is one. Congratulations, you have conquered the onsen!
- If the water is too hot (common in winter), sit on the edge and put yourself into the onsen one section at a time. Let each section sit in the water for a minute or so, then slide in a bit more of yourself; through this method you'll get used to the water and be able to enjoy the bath once you're all the way in.
- Japanese people have a strong belief in the healing powers of hot water and especially its ability to make your skin healthy and smooth. For this reason, people generally do not rinse off in the shower after getting out of the onsen.
- Almost any doctor in Japan will advise you not to get in a bath/onsen when you're sick, especially feeling a little sick. If you're feeling you have a cold coming on, it's best to avoid the onsen as the air your body is exposed to when you first step out of the onsen -- relatively frigid compared to the bath you were just in -- will very likely worsen/speed up your illness.
- Many standard sized business hotels in Japan have a public bath, often on the top floor, that functions like a sento or onsen. They are not proper onsen hotels, but for a lot less money booking one these hotels can get you a nice a hot soak after a day of travel. Capsule hotels also generally have baths, but they are almost always limited to men only.
Onsen hotels (温泉旅館 onsen ryokan), often located in so-called "onsen villages", are considered the ultimate way to enjoy an onsen, as it includes an overnight stay and a high-class Japanese-style dinner comprised of local ingredients, usually served to you in your hotel room; they also tend to have really beautiful outdoor baths (露天風呂 rotemburo) like the one seen above. A stay at a nice onsen hotel will take almost any bitter long-term ex-pat back to those starry-eyed days when they first came to Japan.
They are rather expensive, with ¥15000 to ¥20000 per person generally being the minimum, but they are a worthwhile experience to do once. Also, you can get in to just their onsen facilities for a much cheaper price if you go in as a day visitor only to use the bath (日帰り入浴 higaeri nyūyoku); not all hotels offer this but some do and it's a great option if all you want is a soak. If this is the case, be sure to indicate clearly to the staff upon entry that you are there for a higaeri nyūyoku or you may be told the place hotel is "full" and turned away.
Onsen villages are all over Japan, and the well-known ones in Mie include Sakakibara, Yunoyama, Toba, and Kashikojima. Nearby Gero Onsen in Gifu is historically one of the most famous in the country.
Recommended Onsen and Sentō
- Kuwana : Nagashima Onsen
- Natural Onsen. There are a number of onsen hotels right next to Nagashima Spa Land that allow visitors to the amusement park to make use of the onsen for a few hundred yen -- much cheaper than staying overnight at these fairly luxurious ryokan-style hotels. Some of the baths at these hotels are quite scenic.
- Kawagoe : Kotobukiyu (寿湯)
- Local Sentō. If you are looking for a quiet spot to unwind after a busy work week, give the local sento near Kawagoe-Tomisuhara Station (Kintetsu Nagoya Line) a try. Opened in 1957, it's privately owned by a sweet old couple and entry is only ¥360. Inside, it boasts 4 pools (denki/electric, super hot, hot, & cold) and a steam room. You must bring all your own supplies (soap, towels, etc.). If you want a unique experience, definitely give it a try! Note: Women's entrance is on the left side of the building and Men's is on the right.
- Komono : Yunoyama Onsen (湯の山温泉)
- Natural Onsen Village. There are a number of onsen hotels and ryokan located in the Yunoyama district in Komono. It's easily reached on the Yunoyama local line from Kintetsu-Yokkaichi Station (just take it all the way to the end of the line!) From the station, buses or taxis are available to take you to the onsen district for a minimal fee.
- Many of the hotels have onsen directly inside, or at the very least a sento (Japanese bath). An extra bonus is that the onsen district is located next to Mount Gozaisho, which provides a beautiful backdrop for a romantic weekend or a pleasant hike for those that are so inclined.
- You do not necessarily need to be a guest to use a hotel's onsen at Yunoyama. Some of them are very willing to accommodate day-trip (日帰り higaeri) visitors for a small fee (around ¥1000).
- Suzuka : Hana Shōbu
- Super Sento. Very new and modern onsen complex near Bell City containing a number of different baths. The unique man-woman (clothed) sauna facilities within the complex are truly impressive and beat almost all other man-made onsen or sento.
- Taki : Taki no Yu
- Super Sento. Part of Crystal Town shopping complex built in 2008. Nice, new facility with plenty of baths.
- Tsu : Sakakibara Onsen (榊原温泉)
- Natural Onsen Village. Probably Mie's most well-known onsen town. Accessible by bus from either Hisai Station or Sakakibara-onsen-guchi Station. It's a bit of a ride from either station.
- Sakakibara has a strong historical significance as it was considered in the Heian Era to be one of the top three best onsen in Japan, however in the Edo Era its position on this list was revoked and given to Gero in Gifu.
- Tsu : Inokura Onsen (猪の倉温泉)
- Natural Onsen Village. A resort which uses the same water as Sakakibara Onsen and is cheaper. Closer to Sakakibara Onsen Guchi Station than Sakakibara Onsen, and has free buses to it from the station for convenience. Also has a number of activities such as putter golf, an all-you-can-eat blueberry farm, and festivals of all kind throughout the year.
- Tsu : Gokurakuyu (極楽湯)
- Super Sento. Nice sento with nice facilities. A bit older than some of the newer super sento around Mie, but still a fairly new construction with that will help you relax. Located behind a shopping complex, a short walk from Shiratsuka (白塚) Station on the Kintetsu Nagoya Line.
- Ise: Mitasu no Yu
- Super Sento. Part of the Valor shopping complex, just north of Iseshi Station.
- Shima : Kashikojima (賢島)
- Natural Onsen Village. The terminus of the Kintetsu line is home to a number of nice onsen hotels and resorts. Expensive, but it's worth a venture out there at least once during your time in Mie. The surrounding scenery, composed of Ago Bay with innumerable small islands littered throughout, is some of the best in Mie and can be seen from the rooms at these hotels. The Ise-Shima area is also well-known for its seafood and the food at these hotels will not disappoint!
- Hōjōen (宝生苑) - Some of the most beautiful rotemburo I've ever seen, looking out over the sunrise or sunset depending on your gender. Amazing food too, with plenty of Ise-ebi thrown in! The room and the service are so nice they'll take you back to that time before you were jaded and used to Japan -- the building itself is decorated so that at times it feels like you're walking around a temple.
- Aqua Villa - Kintetsu-owned resort, includes a pool, an observatory, a small hiking hill with a great lookout point. Dinner is buffet-style and tasty.
- Iga : Moku Moku no Yu
- Natural Onsen. Scenic outdoor baths located on-site at the Moku Moku main farm. Towel rental is included in the price.
- Kumano : Kumano Club
- Resort. Kumano's own resort club has a very nice onsen with an outdoor section overlooking the mountains which is not far from Kumano proper
- Kumano : Seiryūsō and Yunokuchi
- Natural Onsen. These two amazing onsens are located not far from each other in the Kiwa town section of Kumano, and connected by a rickety old mining train which is one of the remnants of the town's history. Seiryuso is part of a hotel overlooking a river, while Yunokuchi is more natural, featuring hot water pumped in from deep in the mountains. There are buses from Kumano Station, or drive route 311.
- Aichi : Chūbu International Airport
- Sento. Yes, Centrair has a bath inside the airport. Relax your body before the long plane ride, or enjoy a soak while waiting for visitors to arrive.
- Gifu : Gero Onsen (下呂温泉)
- Natural Onsen Village. Extremely well-known and well-developed onsen district in Gifu Prefecture, north of Nagoya. It is now known as one of Japan's top 3 onsens (having replaced Mie's own Sakakibara). It a little under two hours north of Nagoya by JR limited express (the "Wide View Hida") and costs ¥4000 one-way, though if you take regular trains it's about half that.
- Gero is one of the most touristy onsen villages in Japan and so it can have a bit of glitzy feel at times, but it also has some amazing hotels, baths, and food that are worth the visit. It's a great location to stay at if you're looking to visit Takayama as well.
- Yunoshimakan (湯之島館) - One of the nicest inns in the town, opened in 1931, with the added benefit of being perched above the town and thus visitors will feel more isolated from the more glitzy feel of those hotels right along the river. Has beautiful and deep outdoor baths, amazing food, and a maze-like corridor of connected hotel buildings that are fun to explore and get a taste of history! Check out the site, the pictures speak for themselves.
- Osaka : Spa World
- Super Sento. Humongous multi-story facility in Osaka's Tennoji area, sometimes referred to as an "onsen amusement park". Contains thematic onsens from all over the world, as well as a pool and large relax chambers with reclining chairs, which you are permitted to stay overnight in as Spa World is open 24 hours a day. It also has restaurants and some arcades. Standard entry is ¥2000, however there are seasonal specials where you can get in for only ¥1000.
- The closest stations are Shin-Imamiya (新今宮) on the JR loop and Nankai, and Dōbutsuen-mae (動物園前) on the Midōsuji red subway line -- either station is only a five minute ride south of Namba.
- Wakayama : Katsu'ura Onsen (勝浦温泉)
- Natural Onsen Village. Kii-Katsu'ura in Wakayama has some amazing sea-side onsens you have to see to believe! Most only accessible by boat! Not a far drive from the deep south.
- Hotel Nakanoshima (ホテル中の島) - Fantastic hotel built on its own island with 100% natural onsen springs providing multiple baths. The picture above (see "Onsen Experience") is from this hotel. The island also has its own walking trail, leading up to a spectacular view of the surrounding ocean/island scenery. This is an especially good place for those who like maguro, as that is the town's food specialty and served fresh at the hotel daily.
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