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Ryokans and Onsens (Japanese Inns and Hot Springs)

Firstly, I would like to say that this is based off personal experience~^^ Pictures are sourced from google.

Japanese love their hot springs, and they are featured in most anime and drama, usually as a high school class trip or just a quick getaway from the city life. You wonder, if it’s really that great and relaxing from what you see in the Japan Hour programmes or is it just highly stressful that you have to get buck naked in front of strangers just for that quick dip.

A ryokan or Japanese inn is where you would most likely find an onsen. These Japanese inns normally start as family run businesses in the suburbs of Japan and start small before expanding. Most ryokans feature tatami rooms, futons for beds and provide yukata for wear around the inn during your stay. Small ryokans offer very personal service where dinner and breakfast are served in the rooms and other facilities other than the onsen is usually absent. While well-established ryokans, can have large onsens, a small library, readings rooms with fire places and generally buffet styled meals.

Inside a typical ryokan room

Ryokans also offer the option of kaiseki ryori, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, although pricey, its spread is extensive and it is recommended that you try it during your stay and it will probably leave you bursting at the seams.

See what I mean by bursting at the seams...

In Japan, people often travel light as nightwear or yukatas as well as slippers are often provided as part of the hotel service. A unique feature of ryokans is that you are expected to wear yukatas around the inn or even to nearby shops in the area. A guide as to how to put on the yukata is normally provided in the room, but just always remember, the left lapel is always on top of the right one. To wear it the other way round, would mean that you’re a dead person awaiting a funeral…I’m not joking.

See...a yukata!

Once decked out in a yukata, proceeding straight to the onsen is normal, most Japanese would use the onsen three times in the course of their stay, once before dinner, once after dinner and once in the morning before breakfast. The onsen is, of course, separated according to gender. I’m sure you’ve heard of mixed onsens, but nowadays they are not as popular. Sometimes the onsen venues of the men and ladies may be switched at certain timings due to the interior decoration of each onsen being different. If you cannot read Japanese, everything is colour coded with red being female and blue being male.

Colour coded~
When first entering the onsen area, there will be a changing room, normally with lockers or baskets to put your clothes. Yes, you have to strip there, and yes, to preserve your modesty you may cover yourself with the small towel. (There is a bigger towel but that is not to be brought with you into the hot spring, Japan Hour obviously couldn’t be going in naked so yes they used the big towel. Towels are not allowed in the water at all.)

Before entering the hot spring itself, you have to wash-up, by that I mean bathe, or at least rinse. The bathrooms in the rooms in a ryokan are ridiculously small, by that I mean you can’t even spread out arms out before hitting a wall…or a ceiling. So, you are expected to bathe at the onsens, where you sit on a stool, have all the space you need in front of a mirror, with at least three brands of soap to choose from, foot scrubbers and foam washes. Bathing in the onsen is literally a pastime, and it will make your own bathroom at home look mediocre. Also the you’ll find the water temperature at which the tap is set at, is normally hotter than what you’d normally bathe in, this is because, if you can’t take the heat there, you won’t be able to take the heat in the actual hot spring pool.

See the row of mirrors behind that's the washing place.
All washed up, now about entering the hot spring. There are normally two choices, the indoor hot spring or the outdoor one. Most people would start with the indoor one, since it is right next to the washing area. In certain ryokans, there may be temperature signs or indications as to where the water is warm, hot and very hot. The Japanese mostly go for the hot, then proceed to the very hot or the outdoor one after. It is also not advisable to stay in the hot spring for too long if you are not accustomed to the heat. Different ryokans may also have different springs which the water come from, there are about nine major types of onsen. Now all you have to do is relax...

If you were wondering, nope, nobody floats tiny boats with onigiri (rice balls) or wooden plates with sake in hot springs. It's generally not allowed, though there have been some exceptions in very few onsens and at open onsens (river onsens not owned by any ryokan).

The best season to go to the onsen, I would have to say, is winter. Yes, you read right, winter. Why? Simply because, if you go to the outdoor onsen during winter and it snows at night, it’s just about one of the most beautiful things to tilt your head up and watch the snowflakes fall and not freeze like a popcicle. All you have to do before you go out and brave the cold, is soak and get your body warm indoors then mad dash to the outdoor one, slide in and admire the view. Don’t miss out on that if you go to Japan in winter.

Winter and combo.
Finally, you’re done with all the soaking, and maybe you've spent about half an hour to 45 minutes in the onsen already, but it’s not over. Nope, nowhere close. Here’s the part where you dry off, and you may see some Japanese douse themselves with cold water right after coming out from the hot spring, but if you don’t fancy the hot cold thing, then give it a miss. Back into the changing room, there would be a corner where there are hair dryers, sinks, mirrors, and again, different brand of face cleansers waiting to be used. You may wrap yourself up with the big towel now, or get changed then use these facilities so you’ll look picture perfect when you exit the onsen. Cold water dispensers are also available in the changing room just in case you want to cool down. Massages are also available if you need one.

Onsens are a bonding affair in Japan, so Mothers may bring in their young daughters, and friends will sit next to each other and chat while washing. It’s all part of the Japan culture and community to make sure that one is bonded to a unit.
A bonding place~
So, for that next bonding experience, try staying in a ryokan and going to an onsen.

Written by Neko 

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