Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bathing with strangers - a surprisingly nice Japanese tradition. (A guide to Enospa and onsen etiquette.)

It's been almost a month ago since I bathed with strangers at EnoSpa, but we've had so many visitors and have been so busy that I'm just now getting a chance to write about it.

One of the things everyone says you should do when you visit Japan is to go to a Japanese onsen. An onsen is a spa/inn/bathing facility with a natural hot spring. Onsens in Japan date back to Ancient times, as onsens were believed to have healing powers, and the arrival of Buddhism in 552 AD supported the use of onsens as a way to remain purified.

To the average Westerner, the idea of going to an onsen and bathing nude with complete strangers is shocking.
Western, Christian-influenced views of nudity – and its relation with sex – are at odds with the Japanese take on nakedness, which finds nothing intrinsically suggestive, offensive or debauched about public bathing in the buff. When Francis Xavier inaugurated the first Christian mission to Japan in 1549, the missionaries who arrived were horrified to learn of the Japanese custom of almost daily public bathing, often with men and women sharing the same tub. Their disgust was exacerbated, too, by the fact that many sixteenth century Europeans believed daily bathing to be harmful to one’s health. (
I know several Americans who have tried onsens while here, and all of them said it was a great Japanese experience. I had made up my mind to give it a try, but I had yet to go with my husband because we'd have to go to separate bathing areas. (There are mixed-bathing facilities where you are required to wear a swimsuit, but it's not quite the same experience as the traditional onsen.) The last thing I wanted to do was try to figure out proper onsen etiquette on my own. So, I was thrilled when our friends came to visit in April and said they wanted to try it out.

We decided to go to Enospa on Enoshima Island - about a 20 minute drive from our house. If you'd like to go to an onsen, and would specifically like to visit EnoSpa, here's your guide (with photos taken straight out of the English brochure):

Getting to Enospa:

What to do when you get there:

When you go to the admission counter, you'll get a locker key. This key will be attached to you/your party and will be used for a locker, and to pay for any services. For instance, when you put on a robe before/after your soak and go get a massage or eat in one of the restaurants, the attendant/waitress will charge the service to your key number. Then, when you leave Enospa, you'll take your key back to the front counter and you'll be charged for whatever services you used.

You'll also be given a mesh bag with 2 towels (one large, one small) and a robe.

The baths:

There are co-ed and gender-separated baths. Bring your swimsuit so that after you soak in the women/men-only baths, you can go down to the other indoor/outdoor pools. If you go during the day, you might have a great view of Fuji. We went in the evening and though we didn't see Fuji san, it was wonderful to soak in a hot bath with the ocean waves just beneath us.

Onsen etiquette:

When you walk into the women's/men's area, find a locker and undress. Wrap yourself in the large towel and carry the small one with you to the onsen door. There are two doors leading to the onsen. Inside the first door are cubbies where you take off your large towel and store it until you come back out of the bath. On the wall behind you is a large board with suggested ways to bathe (when to wash yourself off, suggested orders of baths, how long to stay in, etc.). After you have removed your large towel, take your smaller one and walk through the second door into the bathing area. There will be small shower stalls along the inside wall. Sit down at one of these stalls, on the small stool provided. On the shelf in front of you will be shampoo, conditioner, and body wash - all provided by the spa. Wash yourself really well before getting into the bath. When you're ready to get in, place the small towel on your head (or wrap your hair with it) and enjoy your soak.

My favorite bath was the carbonated bath! It felt so good to have tingly little bubbles all over your skin. When you're done with bathing, wash again before leaving the room. If you are concerned about doing things the right way, just pay attention to what all the Japanese are doing and copy them.

Go back out to the cubby area and wrap up in the large towel before exiting. After we left the nude onsen, we put on our swimsuits and robes and met our husbands for dinner upstairs. (Don't do what we did and completely miss the small row of slippers just inside the restaurant door.) After dinner, we all went down to the co-ed pools for another soak. And surprisingly, we opted for a second soak in the nude onsens before leaving for the night. I would not mind a soak in the onsen every weekend!

I have to say, as nervous as I was about bathing in the nude with a bunch of strangers... it turned out to be wonderful. It was amazingly relaxing, and to be honest, it was nice to be around a bunch of normal bodies - bodies not photo-shopped and all exactly alike - with absolutely no cares in the world about the fact that we were all naked. It is so different from American culture and ideas about nudity - and it was refreshing.

Other things to do at Enospa:

Hours and prices of Enospa:

Hours vary slightly depending on the season, but the average hours are 10:00am-10:00pm with last admittance at 9:00pm. Also, if you go after 7:00pm, you'll get a discounted price.

Full-day price is 2,742 yen (about $27 US) and night-spa price is 1,705 yen.

If you have ever considered going to an onsen... YOU NEED TO GO! It's a great experience and you'll be very glad you did. 

Have any questions about a visit to an onsen? Let me know and I'll try to answer them.

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