There are two types of public hot springs in Japan: onsens (hot spring, 温泉) and ofuros (bath, おふろ／お風呂), and one may want to know the difference beforehand. The two words are often used interchangeably, and I thought they meant exactly the same. God was I mistaken. Okay, this is the difference: in an onsen, you may be alone or with other 5 to 20 people; in an ofuro, you may be with 150 or 200 other people. If you want to have some decent amount of water volume for yourself, and relax, feel free, “commute with yourself, comparing the serenity of your heart with the serenity of the ether, opening your heart to the thoughts which fall from the Unkown”, you go to an onsen. I went to an ofuro.
An extra 100 men mean an extra 200 eyes staring at you. The kind of spotlight one does not want when walking around naked and suffocating of heat. It is one thing to be looked at whenever you enter a place, and a whole different things having a bunch of men constantly staring at us. Whenever I opened my eyes and checked my surroundings, there were at least five life-less serious faces looking straight at me, like something could happen to me any second, and they did not want to miss it. There is also this really old man who kept following us to whichever pool we went to and we desperately tried to ditch, but I guess that’s just this one weirdo. After 45 minutes I had enough and my head was getting somewhat dizzy, so we stepped out. As soon as we put our clothes back on, though, we became invisible again.
Jokes aside, it’s almost a day trip in itself. Thinking I was going to an onsen, Piotr and I went to check out Ofuro no Ousama (お風呂の王様), one fairly popular chain of public baths. Once you pay the entrance fee (800¥ in this case), you are in a big compound with a big living room, sleeping room, Western- and Japanese-style dining space and the entrance to the bath. The facilities for men and women are typically separated by a wall, as seen in the picture below. In my opinion, a nice social experiment would be to separate by age, and not gender. I would definitely like a completely unsegregated system, but if we have to put a wall somewhere, let’s put it at 40-50 years of age, and not depending on gender. I would never mind sharing my space with any kind of human, but if I have to choose, I would rather have fun talking to guys and girls my age, who wouldn’t mind a bit of noise and whatnot, than silently sitting across old people I don’t have much to share with. I am confident 80 year old men and women would appreciate that too.
(real life pictures here, website of the place I went to)
So, anyway, you go upstairs and enter the locker room. I myself lost the key and also forgot which locker was mine on my very first day, but the cleaning guy was nice enough to give me a second try when I wrongly guessed “114!”. He flashed a shy smile and I thought he was going to laugh it off and go away, but he listened to me when I tried to tell him (mind you, sign language) that “it was either 111 or 114 or 117 and my ID was in one of them”. Concerned though he was about privacy at first, he finally accepted to give me a second try and opened locker 117, and there behind my underwear I put my hand and showed him my residence permit. He then lectured me for a it (I think), and I happily joined my friend inside.
Before going into the water, you sit on one of the stools by the walls and clean yourself. I think nowadays everyone has a mental image of a row of naked women or men sitting on white stools, knees up, merrily shampooing themselves next to each other, putting special attention to VIP body areas; so this part can be skipped. There are a few indoor pools, some hotter (up to 41ºC, I believe, though I did not check some really crowded ones full of steam and sweating skins) than others (28ºC). A couple of them had water jets (jets for those who wish to lay down, and jets for pools in which you remain half kneeling inside the water, 95 cm deep). Two sliding doors take you outside, where the black baths are. This description of the baths is getting too long, so I’ll just say there are hot springs with all sorts of colors in Japan, and the black ones are very popular (the water is blackened with some organic plant material that can also add cloudiness to it). There are also single bath pools for only one person (we called it the king’s pool, but never got to try, always taken) and then a couple of areas with surface to sleep on. So you can either sleep naked inside the bath area, or dress up and go out of the bath and take a spot in the (mixed, but not naked) sleeping room of the place.
Instead, onsens are hot springs, normally with water coming from a natural source, and are normally less crowded. If you are ever in Kyoto, there is an awesome onsen that is often completely empty in the middle of the woods. Nice place, fresh air, and trees all around. It is called Kurama, found in Kuramahonmachi, north from the city. Totally worth the long ride and all the transfers from the city center.
Oh, and ofurus have saunas with TV. They were screening sumo matches.
Last night I dreamed the police came to my apartment and arrested me because I had thrown plastic rubbish into the PET bottles container. There are zero rubbish bins in the streets besides plastic bottles containers next to the vending machines, so I don’t know what to do with every other kind of rubbish yet.