Whilst we were in Hakone, we were very fortunate to be staying in a hotel that had its own private onsen (or hot spring). The onsen is a communal bath with water that is supplied by natural hot springs, which differentiates it from a sento which is just a public bathing facility. Based on the onsenhou, or Hot Spring Law, only natural springs with a certain natural chemical competition and of a temperature exceeding 25 degrees Celsius at its point of released can be officially called an onsen.
Many onsen will proudly display a chart showing the mineral and chemical composition of the water, with details on how it is supplied to the bath. As Japan is a highly volcanic region, there are thousands of onsens all over the place, and I think that a visit to one is great way to soak in the culture (literally)!
Visiting an onsen is supposed to have numerous health benefits not only arising from the pharmacological effects of various natural minerals and chemicals absorbed by the body, but from the physical benefits of heat and water pressure that improve circulation and gently massage muscles. I really enjoyed a good long soak in the outdoor onsen after a long day traipsing all over the mountainside. It was lovely to just lie in the huge pool, lazily watching the steam rise off the water toward a darkening sky and listening to the gurgling trickle of the fountain. Our onsen looked out over a beautifully landscaped little garden (bounded by high walls of course), so every breeze would bring a delicious smell of pine trees! What a way to relieve both physical and mental fatigue!
Don’t be put off visiting an onsen if you are in Japan with your family – visiting an onsen together as a family is considered a healthy bonding activity! J and Little E really enjoyed visiting the hot spring and looked forward to it every evening when we returned to the hotel.
The onsen usually will have separate baths for men and women (although young children of either gender may be seen in both baths) and there is no nude mixed bathing of any kind, unless you happen to be visiting a waterpark-type onsen that may require you to wear swimming costumes in the mixed baths.
Within the onsen, everyone walks around without a care in the world, and the general atmosphere is friendly and easygoing, so I found it surprisingly freeing!
As Little E put it, ‘Yay, I’m naked and nobody cares!’
Anyway, if you are still feeling a little bit nervous about visiting the hot spring, here is my guide to using the Japanese Onsen with your children.
Before you visit:
- Explain to your kids that everyone at the onsen will be naked and that they should not point or stare at people. Or point and laugh. Because that would be bad.
- Warn your children that the water in the pool is very hot (around 40-42 degrees Celsius) so it is best to approach the water cautiously, a little bit at a time.
- Some gentle splashing and horseplay is tolerated from the very young, but they should not be running around or screaming because this is not only obnoxious to other patrons who are there to relax, but also dangerous – wet floors are slippery!
- The onsen is not a swimming pool, and the water may not be chlorinated. This is why most onsens will discourage non-toilet-trained children from admission and swim diapers may not allowed either – so check with the onsen about their rules first. If they are allowed in, infants or toddlers who aren’t toilet trained yet usually bathe with their parents in the shower area, and then they play by the side of the big bath. In any case, you might find that the water may also be too hot for an infant anyway!
- Most onsen will have a high degree of sanitation in order to maintain a good reputation, but my personal advice to take additional precautions to prevent the spread of infection. Therefore, avoid the public bath if you or your kids have open cuts or sores, or if you are ill, and remind your children not to immerse their head in the water or drink from the pool.
- Most onsens will provide shampoo, soap and towels – but it’s worth checking before you visit!
During your visit:
- Remove your shoes at the door and trade them for the indoor slippers or walk in barefoot.
- Locate the changing area (there’s usually one for women and one for men – you can bring your kids with you into either one). This is where you shed all your clothes and inhibitions and leave them behind in one of the baskets or lockers provided.
- The onsen will provide you with towels, usually a large bath towel and a small square face or hand towel. Leave the large bath towel in the changing room basket with your clothes. The small square towel is to be used as a washcloth in the shower area.
- Head over to the shower facilities first and give everyone a thorough wash with soap and shampoo. Usually, there with be a little stool to sit on whilst you wash, and a little basin or bucket that you fill up and use to splash clean water over yourself to rinse off all the soap. My kids loved splashing around with those little basins! It is polite to rinse off the cubicle that you are using once you are finished showering.
- In order to prepare the kids for the hot water of the pool, my suggestion is to wash them with tepid water first, and then very slowly increase the heat of the shower water until it is as hot as they can bear.
- Now that everyone is squeaky clean, it is time to head into the hot spring bath! There might be several different pools with water of differing temperatures, and also a cold plunge pool. Fold up the little square towel and place it flat on your head, or roll it up and use it to bundle up your hair – this is to prevent the towel (and your hair) from getting into the bath water and it stops your head from getting cold too!
- Dip into the bath slowly so that you can get used to the temperature of the water. Soak as long as you like. When you start feel too warm, head off and sit in the cold plunge pool to cool off or wander back to the showers for another scrub, before you return for a second round!
- For very little kids, you can sit with them in your lap on the side of bath and pour the warm water slowly on their feet and legs until they get used to the temperature. Once you are comfortable and you are sure that your child is happy too, lower yourself and your child into the bath at the same time. My 5 year old, J, was happy to immerse his whole body in the hot spring for a long time, making ripples across the water with his arms, then heading to the cold plunge pool every so often for a cool down. Little E, my 2 year old, loved to relax with me in the pool for a short while and then sit on the side with her legs in the water, wiggling her toes and enjoying a nice, peaceful steam.
- This is a great opportunity to enjoy your children’s company and go over the day’s activities. We sang songs together and talked about all the things we did during the day. It was so relaxing! I even grew confident with subsequent visits and started chatting with some of the Japanese ladies who were visiting in the onsen.
- When you leave the onsen bath for the last time, there is no need to rinse off the hot spring water – just wipe the excess water off with your little square towel and let the minerals do their work! Step back and admire your children who are now positively rosy and glowing, with skin buffed to a silky sheen.
- Make sure everyone drinks plenty of water afterwards! The heat and steam will dehydrate your body so you have to replace the lost fluids.