We finished our meal as we stared out the window watching the rain wash the streets outside. We were grateful to not only be going to an onsen and having more time with our new friends, but also that we would be spared of freezing in the cold, wet night.
As we watched them close up the restaurant and turn the lights off, it felt as if we had some special privilege of being able to walk in as strangers and leave as close friends. Here we were, waiting to be driven to his house by his wife and friend, while he followed us on his motorcycle that was parked outside the restaurant.
We drove through the empty, narrow streets of Shimizu, twisting and turning with every motion of the wheel. When we arrived, our friend hopped in the driver’s seat, we said goodnight to his wife and we were off to our very first onsen.
“You don’t need anything, right?”
“No, we’re good!”
Of course, we weren’t good. We had no towels, no bags, no change of clothes, and no knowledge of what we were getting ourselves into. But, we didn’t want to spare even a minute being an inconvenience or robbing ourselves of the precious moments we had ahead of us.
After we parked, we walked in and immediately had to take off our shoes.
The taking off the shoes tradition is actually one that both Boris and I are familiar with and very fond of as well. In our culture, we too, take off our shoes before entering someone’s home, but the Japanese definitely took it to another level.
These people take their shoes off everywhere: onsens, restaurants, bars, and so on. While, initially, even for us, it was a little surprising, it definitely helped to make us feel more at home.
We grabbed our shoes from the entrance way and put them in a locker. Although, to be honest, the probability of someone stealing your shoes in Japan is probably as much as the probability of someone not stealing your shoes in New York.
We watched our friends navigate through the several steps and Japanese vending machines before we even made our way to the front desk.
We got to the front desk, some conversation was exchanged and we were handed a ticket and a towel.
“What is this?” I asked as I looked down at the small pocket of cloth in my hand.
“I don’t think this is big enough to wipe my hands, let alone serve any real purpose. Do they have anything bigger?”
I know the Japanese people are on the smaller side, but the towel made me feel like a giant.
After some more exchanges, a walk back to the vending machine and repeating several steps as before, we arrived at the front desk again.
“All that for a towel? I wonder how complicated it’ll get once we’re in there.”
Boris was lucky, he had two seasoned onsen goers to help, and here I was left to fend for myself.
We had to go in separately because this was the traditional onsen, not those for tourists. Men and women were separate, and naked.
To say that we are comfortable being naked around anyone but each other is a complete overstatement, but hey, when in Japan.
We had no time to ask questions or second guess our decisions. We were about to have a group bath in our own little corners and we could only hope the Japanese people were prepared for what was coming.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a foreign woman in here before” our friend said to Boris.
They wave me off and as I saw them disappear into the curtains, I made my way inside.
The first part was pretty self explanatory. There were lockers and women undressing, dressing, similar to that of a gym. Nothing too unfamiliar.
I stuffed my clothes in a locker, grabbed my slightly larger towel and headed further inside.
Do I cover myself up? Do I just hold the towel for moral support? How does this work?
The steamed glass sliding doors opened in front of me and I was met with a sight even more frightening than I had expected. On one side was a tiny pool of water with a large ladle and a bowl. On the other side were two stalls with a shower. In front of me were 6 separate larger pools of water and around the corner were more “sitting showers”: women sitting down and washing themselves with soap and shampoo.
“Uhhh… what do I do first?”
I always want to be respectful of whatever culture I am surrounded by, but I also don’t like to Google these type of things. I’m more of a hands-on learner and this was the first time I wish I had done even a little research on what was to happen first.
I looked around and slowly paced from one side to the other wondering which of these options was the first one to take.
The little I did know from experiencing Russian bathhouses is that you shower before you enter. For cleanliness purposes.
What I later learned is that while Japanese also do the same, their purpose is more for spiritual reasons. They cleanse their bodies of any impurities and for a fresh start before heading into the onsen.
Of course, I learned all of this after.
I decided my safest bet was to rinse myself in the standing shower. It was the only semi-private space and it gave me a minute to gather my thoughts and keep going.
As I walked through the pools, clutching my completely useless towel, I dipped my hand in the waters to feel if there was any difference. There were temperatures in Celsius and yet in that moment all I could read was “hot” and “hotter”.
I go into the first pool, which I later found out was the hottest one, and the worst idea.
Within seconds, I was feeling a little dizzy and decided to subtly make my way to the less hot one.
“Okay, this is better.”
I sat there for awhile trying to observe without being creepy, and noticed a few more women come in.
Immediately, they went to the tiny bath with the ladle and the bowl to cleanse themselves.
“Oops, I knew that was the better idea.”
One of them went into a pool and the other went to the sitting shower.
“Okay, now I’m confused.”
I guess everything after that first step is less important?
I got out of the pool I was in and went to explore further.
I nonchalantly made my way around the pools, the showers, exploring what to do next and wondering if I should back track any steps.
Instead, I find a door that seems to lead to a sauna. I walked in and there was another girl sitting already. There was a TV turned up to the highest volume with some guy screaming in Japanese about who knows what. Between the heat and the noise, it wasn’t exactly the relaxing atmosphere I was hoping for, so I made my way back to the main area.
Fired up with sweat burning my eyes, I feel around to another pool I have yet to try. I dip my feet in and shrieked from the shock to my body.
“I guess this is the ice bath.”
Attempting to be smooth and also desperate to cool down, I submerged myself into the subzero waters and then hopped out.
As I was contemplating my next move, I see some people making their way to a door leading outside.
“They can’t really be outside, can they?”
My cold intolerant self couldn’t imagine being naked outside in this temperature, no matter how hot the water was. It was something I was so uncomfortable with, but yet couldn’t bring myself to miss out on the opportunity.
After one more dip into warm water and then a quick dunk into the ice bath, I took a deep breath and then headed out into the brisk night, butt ass naked.
There were huge rocks, a waterfall, a mineral bath and women bathing in barrels. I made my way inside the water and was relieved at how comfortable this uncomfortable experience was. Here I was, warm on a cold night looking up at the dozens of stars peaking through the clouds above me.
It was a good night.
I looked at the clock and realized that my experimentation had made the time pass quickly. I showered, dressed, and headed to meet the others, red-faced and relaxed.
As soon as I saw Boris, we ran up to each other with grins and exchanged stories of our experiences. As he shared with me how interesting it was and how much he learned, I glared and playfully rolled my eyes that said “wait until you hear my version”.
He told me how before they even entered, he was given the complete run-down of exactly what to do how and when. He confirmed what I had figured out the hard way about the first step, and cleared up questions I still had about every other step.
“Ohh, so that’s the order you’re supposed to do it?”
I watched in amazement as he told me the stuff that I had done completely wrong and backwards.
Apparently, you go into the warm water first, then slowly work your way up to the hot water. Then, you work your way back down to the cold water, step outside, and then work the steps again. Finally, before coming out, you make sure to rinse warm, then cold to prepare yourself for the changes when you come back outside so that you don’t get sick.”
“Guess, I’ll just have to hope for the best.”
We say goodbye and give thanks to the staff and head out to walk to the bar.
“Good thing we’re nice and toasty, the cold air doesn’t feel so bad now.”
We walked around for awhile, met up with their other friend, and checked out a few bars until we found one that was open and available.
We settled on a traditional Izakaya, headed inside and took off our shoes.
We spent the rest of the night talking, laughing and sharing stories until it was time to go.
Grateful and warm, we thanked our new friends as they dropped us off at our Airbnb. It was definitely a night we will always cherish and one we won’t soon forget.