A visit to an onsen ryokan (spa hotel) is part of every trip to Japan. Unfortunately, it’s an adventure fraught with hazard and danger. As I found out the hard way.
Many onsen ryokans are beautiful old wooden Japanese style buildings. They’ve often seen better days – the 80s of the bubble economy. After the bubble burst, many establishments stopped being visited by all expenses paid company groups. These days, only the best are left. And you don’t have to pay half the price of the 1980s.
In your room: Don’t panic if you don’t find a bed.
Upon arrival, you’ll check-in just like at a usual hotel. Your room will likely look a little different though. The Japanese like to eat, socialise and sleep in the same room. All without furniture getting in the way of things.
So don’t bother spending your time looking for the bed or table and chairs. They’ll suddenly appear in the middle of the room when you need them. I’m not sure how.
In your room you’ll be issued with the usual slippers, as well as the usual bathroom slippers, and a yukata, which everyone thinks is a kimono until they’re brusquely told otherwise.
Obaachan: Your ultimate helper
There are precise rules about which side of your kimono, I mean yukata, you should fold over the other before you tie the belt. Don’t worry about getting it right though. A friendly obaachan (granny) who works at the hotel will happily fix it for you. Without asking or explaining what she’s up to as she unties the belt and exposes whatever might be underneath.
If you hadn’t realised it yet, obaachans find themselves in an exulted position in Japanese society. They can get away with anything, in any way they like. The good news is, this will invariably be in your favour. Even if you won’t realise it at the time. So my suggestion is to allow yourself to be manhandled, undressed and dressed by any old ladies at onsen ryokans.
Ready to go?
Once you’re dressed properly and have given up looking for the bed, you can make your way to the onsen itself. But wait, what should you wear under your yukata? Clothes so you can get changed in the changing rooms? A bikini or boardshorts?
Knowing that onsens are famously nudist, I asked my trusty bilingual future wife whether I should take off all my clothes under the yukata. I got an absent minded “yes” as she tried to remember which side of her kimono to fold over the other.
Never trust an absent minded Japanese person. They are never absent minded if they’re actually listening to you, so it’s a sign something could go terribly wrong.
It turns out that Japanese people supposedly distinguish between “clothing” and “underwear”.
What happened next will go down in family history. Thank god it happened in the ryokan’s room and not a public area. Unfortunately, my future in-laws were only feet away.
My future father-in-law later consoled me by pointing out that it was perfectly normal to wear nothing under your yukata… “in the Edo Period”. That’s between 1603 and 1868. I learn a lot from him.
The good thing about onsens is that, for every embarrassment, there is an opportunity for revenge. Only 30 minutes later he found himself in the difficult position of having to explain to me how to get out of the onsen. It wasn’t difficult for language reasons given his decent English. The problem was that he was squatting in front of me in the nude as I lay in the spa’s pool…
Leaving with etiquette
As you can imagine, I had trouble leaving with the correct etiquette afterwards.
Unsure of where to put my towel, I put it in the bin provided. Next I couldn’t find my slippers amongst the dozens on the shelves. Unable to steal from some poor onsen goer, who would immediately know it was the gaijin (foreigner) who did it, I decided to trudge back to the room slipperless. Only to be sent back to the reception to go and find a new towel for tomorrow’s onsen session. And new slippers.
No, bathroom slippers must not be used elsewhere.
There’s nothing like a gaijin (foreigner) standing slipperless at the reception asking for a towel…
As embarrassing as it may be, I was deeply grateful about my visit to the onsen. It could have been worse. Thank god the obaachan yukata adjusting incident didn’t happen while I was dressed in the Edo Period style…