Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

by Paris B on · 37 comments

in Bath & Body,Musings,Tips,Travel

I was talking to someone about hot springs recently when I remembered my own experience at hot springs in Japan and Korea.

onsen Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

In Japan, I visited Hakone, a town situated about a hour out of Tokyo by train. I loved Hakone. It was a gorgeous place even though I was caught in cold autumn rain and I much prefer it to Tokyo. It is also a country town famed for its onsen and you know what they say – when in Japan, do as the Japanese do! Well perhaps they don’t say that but you get my drift. I had to see what it was all about icon smile Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

When you mention Japanese Hot Springs, people usually ask you in a hushed whisper “Is it true you have to be … (pause)… NAKED?” Don’t tell me that thought didn’t cross your mind too! Its never “How was the experience?” “Are the mineral waters truly beneficial?” Its always “Is it true you have to be NAKED?!”

My answer is “Yes. Stark naked. Leave your inhibitions at the door. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200″

Mineral hot springs are good for health and beauty

But before I get into all the nakedness, I learnt before I went, that the mineral waters from the hot springs are really beneficial for the skin. I found that after a hot spring mineral bath, my skin felt markedly smoother to the touch. It feels slippery (but not dirty) and skin feels softened.

Other benefits from soaking in a mineral hot spring is that it can also cure some skin diseases, depending on the composition of minerals in the water.

I also personally felt it beneficial for warming up the body especially in the colder months. The hot water opens up your pores and helps your body relax as you soak in the hot spring. It warms your bones and even after you dress and exit the spring, your body retains that warmth in your bones. It is probably a good thing for those with arthritis or rheumatism. It helps you feel more comfortable. It is therefore no wonder that the public hot spring baths in Seoul that I visited, were filled with older people (I did go in the morning of a working day after all)

Onsen (Japanese) or Oncheon (Korean) Ettiquette

In Japan, I was considerably lucky. The hotel I stayed in at Hakone had an in-house mineral hot spring bath. The waters were fed from a nearby hot spring and I did not have to pay extra to use the facilities nor have to be exposed to too many members of the public. I did read that at the public onsen, most people are now advised to wear a bathing suit. Modesty seems to have crept in with the 21st century.

In Korea, I went out to Onyang-Oncheon about 2 hours from Seoul by subway and that was a public oncheon. I chose to go with the public one because it cost only 3,500 Won as opposed to 10 times that for a private room. That was an eye opener in many ways icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

In both, you strip down in the changing room and store your clothes in a locker or a basket. You are usually given a small towel. Its not big enough to cover the top and bottom so choose icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths? Or as most ladies do, don’t bother. After all, what you have, they do too icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths? The hot spring baths I went to were gender segregated as I believe they are in most places for security if not for modesty.

The first thing you’d realise the minute to step through the doors is how hot it is. The water in the hot spring pools are usually at least 25°C. The first thing you do then is to wash yourself.

onsen2 Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

There will usually be a row of taps and hand held showers with soap and shampoo provided. You sit on a low stool and wash yourself thoroughly. Some ladies spend a long time cleaning and scrubbing themselves with a loofah or scrubbing cloth. If you don’t have one… that’s what your towel is for! So wash yourself properly. The crowd in the Japanese onsen were younger and more friendly so they showed me what to do. In Korea, the crowd was mostly old women who eyed me suspiciously as they shared gossip and did not give a toss what I did except to eye me up to ensure I washed icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

Once you are clean, you can then step into the hot water pool. In Japan, they had a pool outside of the building. It was a cold wet evening in late autumn so the contrast of cold air and hot water on the skin was exquisite! The water was hot but not uncomfortable after the initial shock to the skin, and the few of us ladies just sat and soaked in companionable silence. A lady did try to strike up conversation but she spoke only Japanese and I didn’t so we ended up just smiling and staring into the scenery in the distance.

You aren’t advised to stay in the hot water too long. I personally can’t or I’d feel faint. So after about 10-15 minutes, you get out of the pool, shower again and if you like, get back in. There was an indoor pool too which felt hotter but wasn’t as chilly.

In Korea, the public baths were like a wet sauna. It was dimly lit and tiled all round and feels very humid. There was a huge hot pool and a small cold pool. Every single woman in there was stark naked. Including the masseuse. That was probably the strangest bit. Even in the changing room, women set around in various stages of undress as they chatted to each other quite companionably. It was surreal as I quickly pulled on my clothings icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

Anyway, after cleaning yourself, you get into the hot pool for a few minutes, then head to the cold pool and then back to the hot pool. Sitting in the cold pool causes your blood vessels and pores to constrict almost immediately and then when you head back to the hot pool, you can almost feel the pores open up again. I was told that this is good for blood circulation and helps keep the skin soft and supple. My host in Korea goes often and her skin is lovely so I guess there’s truth in that! You don’t have to go so far out to experience the oncheon while in Seoul. You can visit a traditional Korean spa or jimjilbang in Seoul itself but I had the time and I wanted something different (and to get out of the city).

Its easy to be naked before strangers

onsen3 Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

I thought I’d feel uncomfortable having to strip down to nothing and be seen by strangers. But I soon realized that no one cares icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths? Firstly, we are all among women so we all essentially look the same and there is nothing to stare at. Not unless I have a third nipple. Secondly, it might be that I’m Asian and among Asians so again, nothing different to look at. Thirdly, they are strangers you will probably never see again. Its easy to be naked before strangers.

I think there is a lot of truth in the benefits of a hot spring mineral bath. The old people I saw limping into the baths usually walked back out standing a little straighter, walking a little more surely. On a cold day, it helps you stay warm and comfortable. The skin feels much smoother and more supple and the flush on your face from all that heat tells you the ol’ blood is circulating well. I think its a good thing indeed!

I do know hot spring baths are also popular in Taiwan and if I go there, I’ll be sure to visit. I’m a little more than addicted to these mineral baths LOL We do have some local hot springs, but I haven’t been yet. I don’t know if it feels the same or if the minerals are different. One thing is sure – no one here sits around in hot springs naked icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

If you have been to a mineral hot spring, I’d love to hear about your experience. Did you go alone or with friends? (Personally, I’d rather go alone – friends make it harder to go starkers icon razz Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths? )

Did you have someone show you the ropes or did you just ape what everyone was doing and did you feel uncomfortable being starkers before strangers? icon smile Visiting an Onsen or Oncheon : What do you really do or wear at the hot mineral springs baths?

Paris B

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[ 37 comments… read them below or join the discussion ]

LeGeeque July 14, 2011 at 8:35 am

When Bee was here, Tine and I went to Daylesford for a girly outing. We spent 3/4 of a day at the mineral springs, it was brilliant. We didn’t have the cool pool though. There was the usual mineral pool and the jacuzzi-like pool and the salt pool. We were in our bathers and even then, I was all icky because it’s winter and I’m pale and I’m hoarding up fats that should never see the light of day :D Was a good fun experience :)

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Ahhh that sounds like pure bliss! I think sometimes going starkers beats wearing bathers because the former totally forces you to accept yourself as it is ;)

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Natalie July 14, 2011 at 8:45 am

Urgh… while reading this, all my childhood memories flashed back to me! My mum used to take me to those public bath or oncheon when I was a child (till when I was a teen!! O_o) and I used to hate walking out naked to all those other naked women lol. Gosh, how I enjoy having shower/bath alone!!! :D

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm

LOL! How absolutely fascinating hearing from a native! :D I must agree that after an experience like that, a solo shower or bath is appreciated even more :D

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xin July 14, 2011 at 8:53 am

im realy upset that my jp trip was cancelled..otherwise i could have witnessed the grand view of …pool of naked ppl too! certainly being naked in front of strangers is easier because u are never going to see them again. Q is…what about friends..or family?

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Haha what you would have witnessed was a pool of heads. The water comes right up to your neck :P I’d personally find it hard to go naked before friends or family. I’d rather do it with strangers

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Nikki July 14, 2011 at 9:46 am

Wow! i’ll keep this in mind when I visit Japan! I’d love to try these, even just for experience’ sake!!!

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Yes yes! Its a must-do!

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Tine July 14, 2011 at 9:46 am

I loved onsens when I was living in Japan. It took me 5 minutes to get used to the nudity, which was heightened because I was there with friends. Japanese friends whom I didn’t know all that well were going to see me in my birthday suit :P But after the hot shower, the ofuro was a godsend. Awkwardness gone, just like that.

Once I stayed over at a Japanese friend’s house in Tokyo. Her bathroom wasn’t working for some reason, and the next morning, we braved the cold weather to the nearest onsen to take a shower and had a soak. Fun times!

It’s odd that in Australia, you have to wear your bathers. I should think that the angmohs are more open and would go starkers :P

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Its quite awkward right? I sort of stood around for a bit not knowing what to do first. Lucky for me the ladies in Japan were super friendly :) I think the whole going naked in Japan and Korea thing is for cleanliness than any modesty or immodesty. If you’re naked, at least everyone else knows you won’t contaminate the baths :D

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Mariella July 14, 2011 at 10:14 am

In all honesty, I don’t think I’d be able to pull it off. I’ll be so conscious about my body. It’ll definitely be awkward! :D

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Most mineral baths have private areas too that fit just 2 or 3 persons which I think is targetted at couples :)

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Denise July 14, 2011 at 10:38 am

I’m kinda unsure about going naked in front of other people, but going to an onsen is something I’d like to try at least once in my life :) The skin-loving minerals is a plus too.

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Before my trip, I read that most public onsen in Japan may require bathers to wear a bathing suit now. So that should take care of the modesty part :)

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Ashley July 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I went to an Onsen twice when I was 15. It was very strange and even the thought of “oh, I’ll only see them this one time and never again!” couldn’t make me feel better.
I do like that the Onsen I went to was outdoors though. The chilly air mixed with warm waters is very relaxing! Now I’m older & I realize it’s silly to be so conscious about my body. It’s not like I’ve got a tail or extra body parts that need to be hid!

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Lilly July 14, 2011 at 1:30 pm

my thoughts exactly! god knows y i was conscious then …
p/s: i cant help laughing my socks off at your last sentence. thanx for the humor…

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Oh yes I loved the outdoor onsen! It was a bit chilly at first when you walk out in the cold air (and I couldn’t help thinking I’d fall sick!) but the hot water soon makes up for it and you’re right – we should be happy with our bodies :D

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Amex July 14, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I guess the notion of nudity would seem awkward, but after awhile you get used to it. At least that’s how I felt going to an onsen and being starkers with a bunch of friends.

I’ve been to a public hot spring in Europe where we were given an ‘apron’ to cover our modesty. Not much use when your backside’s exposed. Everyone else was hapily soaking in the buff so we eventually did the same too.When in Rome,…

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Ohh yes I remember watching a hot spring in Europe where people were in aprons. I thought that terribly amusing too – guess people are just more conscious about what’s in front rather than what’s behind ;)

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Applegal July 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm

“You are usually given a small towel. Its not big enough to cover the top and bottom so choose”

LOL!!!!!

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Hanny July 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Hmmmm, I’ve been to a hot spring in Taiwan, and we were required to put on swimsuits and swimcaps for those with long hair. Taiwanese=Chinese=Modest, perhaps?

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I was also told that in Taiwan a bathing suit is required. I better make sure I pack one if I go! :D

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Monstro July 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Thanks for this post! I think I’d really like to try this if I ever get round to travelling to that part of the world. Yes, being naked around strangers would be the bonus as opposed to people you know! Haha! You can act all normal knowing you’d never bump into these people again :D I did the hot springs in the US and in NZ before and really enjoyed both. In the US, it was more of a public pool they constructed around the springs, so it felt just normal. No nudity of course. In Rotorua, NZ, my husband and I had a private bath which was really quite nice and romantic. They ask you to wear your swim wear, but really no one would know if you were clothed right? In any case, I love the hot steamy mineral baths. Makes you feel like jello after :-D

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Yes yes be sure to go to a hot spring if you ever go to Korea of Japan. The experience is very interesting! And mineral baths are amazing – my skin felt so soft and smooth for the whole day!

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Jess July 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Its indeed a lifetime experience . I remembered when i went to Japan public onsen in Nara, everyone is naked walking around comfortably. So when I got in, i got to act naturally (although a lil bit afraid) so that ppl dont think i look awkward. Indeed my skin feel smoother after in onsen.. i cant soak too long in there, after 15-20 i start to feel giddy

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I feel lightheaded too after about 15 minutes. But a quick shower is all I need before I can head back into the pool – mostly just copied what the other ladies were doing :D

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yuki July 14, 2011 at 7:36 pm

hahaha… I don’t think I have the courage to go naked like that… self-conscious I guess… I won’t even go fully naked in front of my mom and sis! what more strangers? lol. Yes, it’s definitely beneficial for the skin. I soaked my legs in the hot springs in Perak for only what 30 minutes, and my legs were smooth and silky for up to a week! I couldn’t stay any longer because, it’s Malaysia and it was burning hot already without the hot spring water!

I’d just wish it to be a little cleaner then I wouldn’t mind going more often. We should have someone open a jjimjilbang here! It’d be awesome (minus the naked part)… hehehe…

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Believe me, its a lot easier before strangers and besides you do want the experience right? ;) I have heard of the hot springs in Perak but I haven’t been – I really should make a trip there some day. It’ll be fun even if nakedness is not the order of the day :D

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Stephanie/Yukaeshi July 14, 2011 at 10:02 pm

I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable being starkers in front of strangers just like your reasons, nor would I feel uncomfortable being starkers in front of my friends (Since there’s only a handful and we’re quite intimate, and I’d only be confident to be starkers in front of them if we’re close after all) :P My Mum and me still see each other naked at times until now (For example when we’re travelling and sharing a bathroom- convenience’s sake), but I’d draw the line at the opposite sex- friends or family (Except the boyfriend/husband of course!) hahaha!

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Yeah I wouldn’t like a co-ed onsen pool too – modesty is one thing but security is another and really, ladies don’t stare very much. Everyone was more intent on making sure they were clean before they could get into the pool :D

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cushy July 15, 2011 at 12:39 am

i went to hakone too in my japan. absolutely love the onsen. you’re right about easy to be naked in front of women strangers. going with friends/family……i’m not too sure, although it’s common among japanese.

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Isn’t Hakone just wonderful? I loved it! And I guess the Japanese have been doing it all their lives so its the “norm” perhaps? :)

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Marina(Makeup4All) July 15, 2011 at 6:50 am

What an interesting post. I would love to have such an experience, it sounds amazing. As for the naked part, I guess I’d be shy at the beginning but as you said, no one really cares and I won’t see those people again.

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I know there are mineral hot spring pools in Europe too (although the naked part probably doesn’t apply). I’d love to visit one of those too! :D

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Eli July 15, 2011 at 9:27 am

My godmother took me to one of the local hot springs. I forget where it is (Perak or Pahang) but you can rent a private closed pool (same sex only, husband and wife not allowed to share). We got one, stripped and sat in there for the afternoon with a picnic basket.

There’s a hot spring in Sabah but it’s quite a drive away. It’s near a river which is known for their massage fish. Only thing is that the fish are really large so it can be a nerve-wrecking experience.

My boyfriend took me to a hot springs in the middle of NZ winter with snow all around. Once we jumped in, we didn’t want to get out. The temperature was 4C. We had to wear bathers and I was really uncomfortable with people staring. Wanted to turn and yell, “Never seen Asian girl in bikini is it?”

One thing you should try are herbal saunas. There’s one at the Thai temple in PJ but nothing beats the original ones in Laos.

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ParisB July 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm

I only know of the one in Perak. My sis went there with her husband though and they had a private pool but it was a couple of years ago so perhaps the new regime might have segregated sexes now :P How on earth did you manage to sit in there with a picnic basket?! I can’t handle more than 15 minutes without feeling like I”m about to pass out :P As for herbal saunas I think I might have heard of them but I haven’t tried them – I do want to though. I love strange exotic treatments like this LOL!

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rudi July 18, 2011 at 11:33 am

My first time at an onsen I told the lady at the counter that it was my first time and I did not know what to do.

She led me into the ladies section where she handed me over to one fo the regulars who spoke as much English as I did Japanese – about 2 words each!!

By her kindness and sign language and yes, peeping at what the other ladies were doing, I managed fine and enjoyed it very much.

I did not feel as if anyone was ogling me but yes, i must admit i secretly eyed the other ladies haha. But after a few times, I was also too was not bothered to looking at others.

After that, I went for a soak at various onsens every opportunity I could. I loved how relaxing the soak was and did feel that the skin was smoother and softer.

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