Japanese Onsen: Cleansing of the Mind and Soul

There I was. In the middle of the Japanese highland, the clear night sky above me, the soothing sound of clucking water cuddling my ears. There I was. Alone and naked as the day I was born.

My “private” onsen.

It was really just bad planing (or no planing) that led us to this heavenly place. Earlier we found a promising AirBnB apartment up in the mountainous Mimasaka prefecture but we never heard back from the guy, so we decided to just drive in that general direction and hope for an answer before nightfall. On the way up we saw a sign towards Yonogo Onsen Village and I remembered reading something about it, so we turned right and found what seemed to be a quiet and mostly empty (Japanese) holiday town.

First things first. We went straight to the local public bath to relax after the long, exhausting drive. (left-side driving is not something we’re used to, mind you)

The public bath in Yonogo is less like a bath and more like the most luxurious spa I have ever been to. There are three large indoor onsen and five outdoor stone “tubs”, three of them overflowing into each other like miniature waterfalls.

The thought of what it would cost me to go to a place like this in Denmark is dizzying even if just for an hour. Here we paid 700 JPY (~39 DKK/6USD) pr. person including a fresh towel and you get to stay as long as you like.

This is a picture of a picture of some of the outdoor onsen and does IN NO WAY do this place justice.
This is a picture of a picture of some of the outdoor onsen and does IN NO WAY do this place justice.

Most of the onsen in Japan (with a few exceptions like the private and super expensive ryokan onsen) are separated between men and women and so everyone is naked. Before you enter you sit on little stools and rinse yourself with buckets of warm water and soap. This ritual – besides obviously preventing dirt in the onsen – is really relaxing and prepares you for what’s lies ahead (spoiler: It is heaven which lies ahead)

The first time I went, I didn’t know you were supposed to use a wash cloth for washing. On the way out this older woman signalled for me to take one of hers and when I tried to give it back to her (after having thoroughly washed it of course!) she smiled and waved me off with a “present-o!”. People here are so nice.

Afterwards we went to look for a hotel in the neighbourhood, since the AirBnB guy had written us back that he couldn’t host us. After driving around to a couple of places, tired and not in the mood for more adventure, we settled on a place that was really over budget, but we figured, “what the heck” and settled in. As it turned out that extra money bought us a 6 person bungalow and the above mentioned in- and outdoor onsen which might as well have been private since nobody else was using them. Sometimes it pays off to travel in low-season.

The indoor part of the onsen. Pictured on the left are the washing stools.
The indoor part of the onsen. Pictured on the left are the washing stools.

We stayed in the city for two nights and the next time we went to the public bath I had some of the basics down. I knew to wash myself with a wash cloth as supposed to using my hands and I knew not to put my hair in the water (which I had unknowingly done the first time and only afterwards noticed that nobody else did. Of course no one said anything to me because, as it seems, the Japanese would rather be dead that impolite)

This morning the outside area was completely empty but for me and one old lady. Her skin looked like it was 3 sizes too big. Her breasts went to her stomach and her butt to her knees. She looked like a small, wrinkled apple with sticks for arms and legs. I loved it. She was beautiful.

Which brings me to the real reason why I love these onsen so much. In the onsen there is no pretending. No pulling in your stomach or straightening your back to look skinnier, no covering yourself with a towel. Everyone is naked, and nobody cares. Everyone is beautiful in their nakedness and the Japanese know this and have accepted it as a vital part of their culture.

We nodded in recognition of each other but stayed silent. One time she pointed to the sky and smiled – I take it she was commenting on the sun which had just burst out from the ever-changing sea of clouds. The weather shifts quickly in the mountains. We discovered that the day before when we went to the top of one of the hills overlooking the valley. We kept putting our jackets on and off as the sky presented us with a mix of sunny rays and chilling wind.

Later in the dressing room I saw one of the older ladies applying a cream to her legs. On the bottle was a picture of a human body so I applied a gentle layer to my legs, arms and back, doing so noticing a slight smell of camphor and peppermint. It reminded me of my grandmother. By closer inspection I discovered it was a muscle-pain reliever. I guess I still have a lot to learn…

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