Obaasan enjoying bath

Onsen in Beppu—Discovering the Locals’ Hangout

On another warm night, my friend Mari and I were feeling adventurous, and we decided to search on foot for some of the lesser advertised, non-touristy bathhouses. We had a vague map, but weren’t at all sure what to expect as we squeezed through dark, narrow alleyways and around unmarked buildings. At first glance it was hard to tell if the nested complex we came to was the right place, or even a bathhouse at all. However, when we entered one of the ground floor buildings there was the familiar window for an entrance fee and male and female bath curtains. Only an hour remained until closing time, so we hurried to the middle-aged lady at the counter to pay.

“The water is hot; is that ok?” she asked us in Japanese, eyeing our white foreigner complexions.

“It’s fine,” I answered. I wondered for a moment what she meant by that; of course the bath water would be hot.

The only other patrons were a few elderly ladies washing themselves at the facets. I felt intensely out of place; a young, white American foreigner getting naked in front of older Japanese women, in what was clearly a local hangout. I’d been to regular bathhouses before and didn’t mind undressing with strangers. As long as everyone else was doing the same thing and minding their own business getting clean, it felt entirely natural. But when I already felt singled out, being naked had a way of doubling the vulnerability. I was very glad I had a friend with me in the same situation. We feigned confidence, put our clothes in their cubbies and washed at the facets.

The surprise came when we dipped our toes into the bath. It burned. I was sure that just a few degrees more, and the water would start bubbling steam hot enough to boil ramen in.

We made vain attempts to hold our feet underwater for longer than ten seconds, pulling back up with reddened skin and a gasp. While we hovered at the bath edge, one of the women stepped in, plopping down to settle herself up to her chin and shut her eyes. We stared as she made no indication of the slightest bit of discomfort. Another woman followed her example at the other side of the room. Mari and I looked at each other, poked at the water, and backed away in defeat. For the next ten minutes we sat on the stools, waiting a reasonable amount of time such that the lady at the entrance counter wouldn’t suspect that her warning had been valid.

It was all we could do to leave in awe and respect for those tough elderly ladies.

cat in bath sketch

Onsen in Beppu—Kitahama Hot Springs, Termas

onsen symbol

The symbol for onsen

Onsen are hot springs, also used to refer to the bathing facilities around the hot springs. In contrast, sentou are indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with gas-heated tap water[1]. Beppu has eight major hot springs known as “Beppu Hatto” (Beppu Eight)[2]. Beppu has the second-largest amount of hot spring water discharge in the world, with 2,909 vents[2].

My study abroad program was in the summer, through the tsuyu rainy season and on into the sweltering humidity of June-July. Some days, even fresh from a shower, it only took thirty seconds to be dripping with sweat again. It was the worst season for hot baths. Regardless, I had come across the Pacific Ocean to Japan’s most famous onsen locale; I wasn’t going to leave without trying a few.

One of my favorite onsen experiences was at Kitahama Hot Spings, Termas[3]. Termas has an outdoor bath the size of a small swimming pool. Because it was co-ed, we wore swimsuits; a good thing, because the multistory hotel between the bathhouse and the bay had lots of overlooking windows. I would definitely have raised an objection to traveling businessmen surveying a women’s bath from their hotel suites.

It was hard to resist floating around despite the no-swimming rule. There are several standard onsen rules, such as no swimming, splashing or noisiness (don’t disturb the other patrons), don’t drop your towel in, and (this might disappoint a lot of foreign visitors) anyone with a tattoo cannot enter the bath. I suppose this is to deter yakuza (mafia) from hanging out and scaring customers.

With the breeze from the bay, warm water to soak in and surrounding city lights, visiting Termas was one of the most surreal and wonderful nights I spent in Beppu. I’m sad that, because I didn’t want to get my camera wet, I couldn’t take any pictures.

To make up for it, here’s a very cute illustrated article on onsen rules: http://www.wattention.com/archives/onsen/

[1] Wikipedia contributors. “Onsen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

[2] Wikipedia contributors. “Beppu Onsen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

[3] http://www.city.beppu.oita.jp/01onsen/english/02shiei/08terumas/terumas.html