|My favourite onsen in Tokyo|
Onsen are the natural hot springs located all over Japan, and they are used as leisure facilities: you can go to an onsen resort for a full holiday, or you can quickly have a soak after work. I used to be intimidated (thanks, Tom) to visit onsen, but now I love it!!
Onsen used to be more stressful than relaxing for me: a handful of rules to follow, the fear of making a faux-pas and, most importantly, being naked in public. I think there is nothing relaxing about the idea of walking around naked (as an already conspicuous foreign girl), especially while trying to remember specific procedures. Sadly, all my apprehensions kept me (and most likely many fellow expats) at an arm's length from the country's finest natural resource for a few years.
When a friend suggested visiting the onsen a few weeks back, I immediately panicked: would it be a day trip, or a weekend getaway? And... nakedness?! Turns out, yes, it would involve taking clothes off, but it would not involve getting out of Tokyo. Surprisingly, our city boasts a small amount of natural hot springs, right in the heart of the city.
It's important to make the distinction between sento (public baths) and onsen (hot springs): the difference is that onsen use natural spring water, while sento use just hot tap water.
In the olden days, sento served entire neighborhoods as older Japanese houses were not equipped with baths or showers. Onsen have a similar purpose, although they are just so much nicer and pleasant (and it's reflected in the higher price tag). Tokyo’s onsen are the perfect place to visit after a long week, as they allow visitors to relax and unwind, and provide a temporary escape from the city's hustle and bustle.
As the stress of an onsen visit loomed over me, I took a deep breath and decided to get over my frivolous fear. Armed with two towels (a small one to wash, and a larger one to dry), I headed to the other side of the pink curtain and followed all the steps carefully: I stored my clothes in the provided locker, slipped the bracelet key around my wrist and nervously walked to the bathing stations, clutching my tiny towel. I then meticulously scrubbed and rinsed (entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is socially unacceptable) in the washing area, which was complete with stools, buckets, and toiletries.
Turns out no one even gave me so much as a glance, to my relief. I finally relaxed a little, and spent the next hour soaking into different types of mineral waters, towel on the edge of the bath (don't immerse your towel in the bath, as it's considered unclean). By the time my session was nearing to an end, I was peacefully perched on a rock and almost forgot the being naked part.
Onsen visits have since then become a weekly pilgrimage, as they tremendously help me relax and sleep, and soothe my sore muscles and joints. I highly recommend making some time in your busy schedule for regular onsen soaks, as for me they literally melt away the stress. Make sure you re-hydrate afterwards, and be prepared for some of the best sleep you've ever had.