Visiting Japanese Onsen as a Foreigner

By Lana Katai, DCE Intern, Summer 2019

Before even arriving in Japan for my internship at Ibaraki Christian, I had a bucket list of things I wanted to do during my summer here. On that list included visiting Tokyo, going to the Ghibli Museum, venturing out to Kyoto, and of course: trying out an onsen. There are no onsen in America. Just the concept of public bathhouses is pretty surprising to those hailing from the states. I was definitely no exception to this. However, upon visiting the onsen, I was pleasantly surprised and left wishing America had onsens too!

My host family invited me to go to the onsen with them on a cool Sunday morning. We drove out to the onsen sight, which was conveniently located right on the coast. The first thing I noticed about the place was how clean, calm and quiet it was. The wooden floors of the building were smooth and shiny. The staff were kind and smiley, and not invasive(like how resort staff can sometimes be in America). They let us go about our business and enter the bathhouse.

The bathhouses were gender-divided. I’d heard that some onsen were gender-inclusive, where men and women bathed together. I was already a bit nervous in general about being completely naked in front of strangers, so I was thankful that this onsen was gender-divided. My host mom assured me that no one cares about my nudity, because it’s a bathhouse and everybody is naked. The point is to bathe and relax, not stare at other people. I was probably the only oddly uncomfortable person in the building, but I couldn’t help it! The experience was so new to me. Though, once I got into the bathhouse, I calmed down and was able to relax and enjoy the different baths.

The onsen was divided into different baths with varying temperatures and purposes. Some were bubbling, others were calmer with water flowing from taps. I enjoyed trying out the various indoor baths before venturing to the ones outside. Because the onsen was located right on the coast, the outdoor baths had a wonderful view overlooking the ocean. I loved the outdoor baths the most because the cool breeze was a nice relief from the bath’s heat. I tried just about every bath in the bathhouse, but the outdoor one was definitely my favourite.

After enjoying the baths for a bit over an hour, we left and enjoyed some kakigori(a shaved ice dessert) in the lobby. My host family told me more about Japanese onsen and how frequently some people visit them. By the end of our visit, we were all feeling so relaxed.

Visiting the onsen has been one of my favourite things that I’ve done in Japan thus far. The ambiance is the most relaxing environment. If you’re a foreigner considering visiting an onsen, I highly recommend it! Push your nudity nerves aside and enjoy the naturally heated baths. Onsen is an experience you can only have in Japan, so I suggest you make the most of it and enjoy one whilst you’re here. I definitely plan to visit more onsen during my summer here!

*Note: All pictures included in this article are not mine. Naturally, pictures were prohibited, so the above images are from Google Images.*

Tattoos in Japan

I am a heavily tattooed woman, at least in the eyes of the Japanese culture. I have a half sleeve on my right arm, tattoos on my thighs, shoulders, wrist, and much more. Within the United States, it’s normal to be heavily tattooed especially within my generation. You can get jobs, you can be successful students, and live a normal life. There’s no discrimination against people who are heavily tattooed. I don’t have to worry about a career or being seen as professional when you work and live in United States. It’s just a different culture.

Before heading to Japan, I heard stories of how Westerners with tattoos wouldn’t be able to go certain places, get stared at, get kicked out of places, what have you. Which terrified me, especially when I heard the job market will be next to nothing if I ever wanted a full career in Japan. Unless, I wanted to cover myself up entirely to keep people from seeing my skin. However, Japan gets incredibly hot in the summer, and I’m not about to sweat to death. 

During my entire stay in Japan I was never kicked out of any place, but people definitely did stare, and my students did a lot of touching. Which, I didn’t mind! I was accustomed to my students and comfortable with them, and their curiosity was very cute to me. So, I let them indulge in how my skin didn’t feel any differently, and answered as many questions as I coud. I had to be a little bit more precautious when volunteering outside of the school, because I didn’t want to offend anyone. Which was ultimately my biggest drawback. It wasn’t that anyone made me feel unwelcomed, it was that in my mind I was scared that I was going to offend anyone. I didn’t want to go to bathhouses, even if I knew they were okay with foreigners with tattoos, because in my mind I thought I would make the other bathers uncomfortable. I wanted to be as reclusive as possible and not bring any attention to myself. So, I avoided bathhouses, gyms, and any place where I could make people in a close vicinity uncomfortable. 

That was really stupid of me! If you are a tattooed Westerner coming to Japan, don’t be scared. Indulge in your experiences, enjoy you time there. Within bigger cities, like Tokyo and Osaka, you’re fine to enjoy your time. However, please be conscientious of your surroundings and the environment around you. Don’t limit yourself and your experiences, but still be respectful and aware of the people around you.