In Hot Water: A Japanese Onsen Experience In Tokyo

The desire was simple; to relax in the mineral-rich hot waters in a Japanese onsen. I looked up many onsen online. The pictures of natural rock surrounded pools overlooking views of green countryside, of mountain vistas made the butterflies in my stomach form a kick line. Did that onsen really have a view of Mt. Fuji? It could have been Mt. Some Other Inferior Japanese Mountain for all I knew, but it looked staggering.

We had priorities. So we booked a hotel with an onsen in the middle of Akihabara, Tokyo. It would be close enough to an authentic experience … right? We change into our hotel provided clothes; the same mesh shirt and pants for men and women. The shirt had a Chinese collar (or was it Japanese?) and the stretchy waistband pants were laughably high water pants on my 5’3” stature. We slipped our terry cloth slippers on and shuffled towards the elevator with a shushing sound as our feet never left the floor. Onsen, 9th floor, going up. The onsen were segregated for men and women. Our men casually strolled in, waving a little goodbye as they entered their changing room. We looked at each other and fumbled for our code that changed daily, preventing men or any other unwanted attendees from entering the women’s private area. Entering the code twice, we finally succeeded. The door pushed open and locked behind us.

We were asked by a sign and a half wall of cubbies to remove our slippers prior to entering the changing room. Our feet started down the path to nakedness first. Then, up the ramp towards a long vanity with 3 seats, and 3 walls of wooden lockers. We picked a locker and looked around questioningly. Is it time to get naked? Already? But no one was in the room that we could mimic, so began to shed our clothes. In the same locker, my clothes on one side, hers on the other. My sports tape covering my tattoos felt odd, like a comb over trying to cover my theoretical bald head. But naked with sports tape circled around my middle, I persisted.

“What are we supposed to do?” I whisper to Carly, putting a hand over my mouth as soon as the words escape, immediately regretting speaking, remembering my unspoken instructions to be silent in the onsen. She remembers though and shrugs weakly. We sit down on buckets at miniature vanities, exposed to onsen except for mini blinders on the right and left. In front of us are sprayer wands, a water faucet and a large knob. On our left is shampoo, conditioner, and body wash.

I’m done with my seated shower only a few minutes later. I rinse off my chair bucket and stand, silently waiting for Carly to finish. There are three onsens, two outside and one outside. The onsen indoors was big and surrounded by a light colored wood bench, the bottom covered with a bed of thick gravel you could bury your toes in. Out the door into the chilly air were the other two. The left onsen was a raised wooden tub for two people, and the right onsen was a man-made rock pond, again with a thick bed of gravel at the bottom with a capacity for 4 people comfortably. The outside onsen were surrounded by a high wooden fence and a wooden roof, but they did not meet, letting the chilly air creep in to contrast the steaming water. We climbed into the left tub first. The water was achingly hot; the temperature read 42oC, and my feet felt like they were on fire. We reluctantly got out of that tub and tried the right onsen. Slightly cooler at 40oC. The inside tub was also 40oC. Panting from the heat, we gave up and shifted inside to shower off. We grabbed our towels from the locker, trying not to drip too much on the mats. We dressed slowly, pulling on our uniform of mesh and settled at yet another vanity to take advantage of the complimentary hair brushes, hair dryers, lotion, and cotton swabs. With red hot skin, we heaved our clean bodies to the elevator, so relaxed as if the water was a drug and we were now in an elevated euphoria, lulling us to sleep.