EmBAREassing Moment at the Onsen

Takaragawa Onsen, Minakami, Japan

Last Sunday found me gingerly tiptoeing across an icy bridge over a small mountain river…barefoot…and naked. It was one of those surreal Japan moments, an Alice in Wonderland trippy ‘Wow, what am I doing walking around in the snow at three in the afternoon with nothing but a thin towel I bought at the 100 yen shop?” type moments.

Before you go and get the wrong idea about me, I’d just like to make it clear that I was at an outdoor Onsen (think ‘spa’ but with natural volcanic hot springs instead of Jacuzzis) and in Japan, communal bathing sans clothing is how you roll.

So there I was, in this picturesque hot spring resort in the mountains, surrounded by snow and fir trees, a rushing river, cages of live black bears and…the very picturesque view of very fat, very naked, Japanese men.

Yes, I was at a mixed-gender Onsen, which roughly translates to “a few dozen men and four women sitting in a miniature swimming pool -sized bath tub. Outside. In the snow. Naked.”

And apparently there’s a sort of unspoken code of conduct for a mixed-gender Onsen, one that involves rules for appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Apparently, if you’re male, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit in the bath in your birthday suit or with a wash-cloth sized towel strategically placed across your lap. It’s inappropriate, however, for a female to do the same. If you’re female, you’re supposed to wrap a large towel around you and wear it mini-dress style wherever you go. Yes, even in the bath. Especially in the bath.

My Australian friend and I weren’t aware of these rules and weren’t even aware of our mistake until about 20 minutes after we’d settled into the bath, minus a towel, (dress size or otherwise). Most everyone I’ve told this story to have interrupted me at this point to exclaim incredulously: “How could you have not realized?!” But about 95% of the people in the Onsen were male and therefore towel-less and honestly, we spent most of that time trying very hard not to look at anyone and carry on a normal conversation, (as in “Ho hum, just another normal day, bathing outdoors in the middle of winter with a tub full of strangers.”).

It wasn’t until we noticed the creepy guy who was shadowing us, openly staring as we moved from bath to bath and the group of teenagers who kept darting over to our side of the bath, supposedly to admire the river view, that we realized something was amis.

These weren’t normal “Hey look at that foreign looking person” looks, they were leers. Where were all the other women? we wondered aloud. And then we noticed them, huddled close together and very conservatively, very self-consciously fully covered.

I swear, Japan needs to come with a handbook; some written instructions on how to survive here without making a complete ass of yourself.

The Immigration office gives you a watered down version of one when you apply for a visa. It’s this pamphlet of supposedly useful information that a newcomer to Japan might need to know. ‘What to do in the event of an Earthquake’, ‘How to Separate your Trash’, ‘Who to Call if You’re Feeling Suicidal’…that sort of thing. Not that any of that isn’t important, but what I would have loved to have received would’ve been a detailed booklet on the ‘do’s and don’t’s’ of Japanese culture. Stuff that those overpriced guidebooks at Maruzen don’t cover. Like ‘Where to Buy 100 Yen beers in Tokyo’ or ‘How to Buy a Cellphone When You Don’t Have an Alien Registration Card’ or ‘How to Make a Tortilla Out of Japanese Supermarket Pancake Mix’. Important Stuff like that.

A friend and I were talking about writing a cookbook targeted towards Westerners living in Japan. It would feature recipes of Western food with substitute Japanese ingredients and what they are called and where you can find them. It was a joke thought up one drunken night when we tried to make a pie without an oven (there are no ovens here), but sometimes I think that we might have been on to something…

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20 thoughts on “EmBAREassing Moment at the Onsen

  1. Reannon, are you *SERIOUS*?!?!?!?
    Didn’t someone, a staff member or a sign somewhere, tell you that women should wear a towel???

  2. Ahahah! I have been there twice, and I have to say, I couldn’t ever imagine not wearing the towel. I mean, it was instinctive to keep it wrapped around. Thanks for letting me know what happens when you don’t have the towel 😉

    Really enjoy your blog BTW!

    Jen, a non-leering girl in Tokyo

  3. Hi Shan,

    Long time no hear! Thanks for reading my blog…let’s meet up sometime.

    Anyways, I didn’t see a sign. But I didn’t really look either.

    It wasn’t really all that embarrassing…kinda hilarious really. We didn’t stay very long.

    I heard from two other foreign girls who were there that same day that some creepy guy took a picture of them…haha.

    You should really go though…that Onsen is supposed to be the best in Japan. It was really gorgeous!

    Just don’t forget to bring a bath towel! : )

  4. Hi Jen,

    I dunno, I guess I figured it was like Europe. They have mixed-spas there and no one has a towel…

    Japan is no France but I just thought this was like a progressive Onsen…ya know? : )

  5. I don’t read many blogs but, I love yours and reading your humorous stories!

    haha … I’m glad you enjoyed the hilarious onsen experience 🙂 and got to visit the best onsen in Japan!

    I have two onsen experiences coming up in the next two months. One a luxury private indoor and outdoor hot spring onsen in Hakone-Ginyu with my husband, the other public with some friends at Zao’s ski resort in Yamagata, which is making me motivated to diet, and I hope I don’t bump into any creepy guys there!

    Yeah, let’s have coffee and a nice chat when you have time! 🙂

  6. I have to say the bears in the cages spoiled it a little for me… I mean they have what, 3 squre metres each and no shelter. 🙁
    Loved that crazy brocante up the top though with all of that junk collecting dust…

    Anyway, the last time I was there there was indeed a pervert following me around and a yak with his completely naked girlfriend, so worry not, if anything it gives you a slightly dangerous edge 😉

  7. I think the cookbook is an excellent idea. I just told someone recently that I would starve to death if I went to Japan because I am a really picky eater.

  8. hey, i went there too and i was definitely suprprised that the women were supposed to wear towels.

    the lady we paid to get in was nice enough to tell us that in the mixed onsen we should wear towels before we went in though!

  9. Well, I tried to make the excuse to my husband that most US recipes require an oven, and since I didn’t have one, then too bad, he was stuck teaching me Japanese recipes.

    So then, his mother sent me an electric oven.

    So, there ARE ovens here, you just have to search for them online.

    I know that had very little to do with the story, but I figured nobody can live without pie, so there you are ^_^

  10. Jen,
    OMG the bears! That was awful. So sad. I totally freaked when I saw them and wanted to let them out of the cages. They’d all gone mad from being in captivity too long and one of them was eating his foot and the other ones were pacing and crying/howling or doing whatever it is that bears do when they’re upset. Awful.


    You’re lucky that someone told you! Were there a lot of people when you went? Any good looking guys? : )

    Deanna and Jen,

    Yeah, I know that they’re prob ovens to be found…somewhere. If I really needed to buy one. But like, it’s hard to find someone that owns one, you know? At least, no one I know has one anyways. But yeah, it’s tough trying to learn how to cook things that don’t involve ovens. One of my friends showed me how to make Okonomiyaki and that’s the best/easiest thing to make. I love them.

  11. Japan SHOULD come with a handbook! I have to spend a couple of months this year in Tsukuba as part of a project.. and I am sure my over exuberance will get me admitted to a small room with soft padded walls! 🙂 .. maybe you should write a handbook eh?

  12. unfortunately no good looking guys 😉 but, i did see possibly the skinniest man in existance – that’s something, right?

  13. Manu,

    Look for Reannon’s Guide to Japan on Amazon sometime in the near future. : ) Just kidding. Well, I’ll have to rethink the title at least.


    Skinny guys? Meh. A dime a dozen here, unfortunately (fortunately?). : )

  14. reading h2g2 is very useful for a travel-holic. always know where your towel is 😉

    “a towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”

  15. LOL… loved this story. Well written too. 😀 Since I live in Japan, and have experienced many of these moments, I completely relate. 🙂 (And makes the story that much more hilarious, lol).

    Anyway… as for a survival guide, that’s why I started my blog! (Surviving in Japan… lol). There are so many things that people just don’t know (as you know) – things that I felt would be good to bring up for anyone living in Japan.

  16. Thanks for letting us know! Me and my gf are visiting end of this month and i honestly thought the towel was to keep us dry and we go into the onsen naked! haha! saved.

  17. oh! I wish I could be in that onsen too ! I’m coming to Japan this April. Please someone do this again, any girl !

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