I was talking to someone about hot springs recently when I remembered my own experience at hot springs in Japan and Korea.
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 🙂
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 😛
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 😛 Or as most ladies do, don’t bother. After all, what you have, they do too 😛 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.
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 😛
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 😛
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
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 😛 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 😛
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 😛 )
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? 🙂