When in Japan: Onsens

From the moment I walked out of customs, I knew something was different.

“Did somebody just die here?” my fiancé asked in jest.

It was completely silent in the waiting hall.

Many faces stood out over their signs, patiently waiting.

Nobody said a word.

No cheering, clapping, yelling. None of the loud, brash shouting from every direction that I had come to expect from spending extensive time in China.

We had a stamped receipt; that was it.



A few hours earlier on the plane, we flipped through the catalogs quickly, as we always do.

“Oh look! A spa! An overnight one. Let’s go.”

He already knew from my face that there was no arguing. “They’re going to cheat us, aren’t they?”

“Whatever, who cares. Let’s just try it.” We bought two tickets from the flight attendant: $33 each.

At the airport, we walked around aimlessly looking for where to go. Like I said, all we had was a stamped receipt. The first stranger we asked spoke perfect English and directed us to the information desk. The worker told us where to go, then actually went with us.

What kind of alien planet am I on?! I thought.

Downstairs, the bus was waiting, exactly as the airplane catalog and the information desk worker said it would be. At precisely 12:40am, it pulled out and we went on our way.

A few minutes into the ride, a TV screen flipped down, showing an instructional video about the Onsens—the hot spring spa we were about to go visit. The video walked us through the doors, told us where to go, and what to do, in what order.

“Take off your shoes and put them in the locker. Take the locker key to the front desk, where they will check you in and take your luggage. If you’d like extra towels, you may retrieve them. You can visit the hot springs, get a massage, or relax in a rented flat bed chair. You may purchase food or drinks to enjoy.”

The screens folded back up.

We looked at each other.

“So what was our ticket for, exactly? The bus ride?” I asked.

“Looks like we’re gonna get cheated.”

When we arrived, everything was exactly as the video showed. The spa was 1 floor of a larger building; not what you would expect for a spa that is advertised by and sold through a major airline.

But it was exactly what it said it was.



“Yeah, an Onsens is a spa, but you all go in the hot springs naked,” my friend told me.

“Naked? You mean in a bathing suit?”

“Nope. Totally naked.”

There I was, totally naked.

Nobody was looking at me. I didn’t care, either; I was enjoying myself.

As shy as I thought I’d be, I wasn’t.



If you haven’t gathered by now, an Onsens is a hot spring pool, similar to Roman baths.

What I didn’t know going in was that there are literally a dozen or more different pools, each for something different.

The pools range from really, really cold to hot tub-levels of hot water. There’s totally still water, carbonated water, and varying levels of other bubbles. The pools range from shoulder deep to just above ankle deep. Some are meant for lying in (i.e. lying baths), others are set up for lounging, others for sitting. Some of the water is only meant to be dipped and poured over your body.

Even though the Onsens is semi-crowded, it’s totally silent. That’s not because it’s 2am, it’s because it is part of Japanese culture to respect others by being quiet. This is something I immediately adapted to; it felt like falling head first into a deep pool. Nobody had to convince me, it was so natural for me.

Each pool has a sign above the water, explaining the history of the pool and the use of the water. A thermometer nearby lets you know what you’re getting into before you do.

The pools lap over each other, interwoven with amazing architecture.  Each one, made of different stone material, is comfortable, clean.



Relax, relax….”

The hardest part so far was calming my own mind. I’m so itchy to do one thing, then the next, then the next(!) that I rarely stop to take a breath.

Here I was, laying on a stone bed in tepid water, completely comfortable, and I couldn’t make myself relax.

When I closed my eyes, I realized…

I’m exhausted.

My neck hurts.

I’m dehydrated.

Wait, that was fast. How did my body tell me everything so quickly? Perhaps because this time, when I asked the question, I truly listened to the answer.

How often did I listen to my body that closely? And why didn’t I do it before now? Before I was in some weird naked bath party in Japan?

After testing the rest of the baths (when in Rome), I stopped at a shower booth and looked at myself in the mirror. “I need to do this more often,” I thought.

10 minutes (seriously) of scalp massage later, I gently washed my hair with the shower head[MC1] , feeling like I was in a salon. When I returned to the locker room, I tried out a few tester products (foot cream and rose water) and began to blow dry my hair.

It was cold!

And gentle!

It wasn’t even loud.

That’s exactly how I like to dry my hair; the reason I never do is because I despise what a hot blow dryer does to my hair.

I looked over at the next booth, where an older Japanese women gently, slowly cold blow-dried her hair.

The process of blow-drying my hair took 20 minutes.

That’s insane, right?

Or is it?

Why do we feel guilty about spending time taking care of ourselves?

Slowly, gently brushing your hair while cold blow drying feels amazing; it’s so soothing. Why don’t I do it more often?

I don’t have the time!



Fact check that assumption.

I know I do have the time. We all have the same amount of time, and we decide how it’ spent. We make our own decisions about how we spend that time.

How often do I find myself watching TV or reading another article online instead of taking care of the one body that I have to live in?

How often do I reach for a glass of wine instead of taking time to listen to what my really body needs—water, sleep, peace and quiet, perhaps a long, cold hair drying?

Why am I always in such a rush to finish each task that I have, whether that be doing my makeup or writing a blog? Some tasks surely deserve more time and patience than others. Self-care should be among those noble tasks.

The Romans spent all day in the baths.

It’s not that they had nothing better to do; it’s just that this is how they chose to spend their time.

Maybe they weren’t so crazy after all.


*Unfortunately, I have no photos of this experience, because no photos were allowed inside the Onsens (for good reason). I did go again, a week later.*

Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez is a board-certified general practitioner with more than 15 years of patient care experience. She takes an integrative approach to patient care that considers the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – and is deeply committed to assisting her patients in achieving and sustaining optimal health. Dr. Vanessa is also a skilled writer and medical reviewer, specializing in preventive care and health promotion. Her articles are written in an approachable manner that is simple to comprehend and implement in one’s own life. Dr. Vanessa’s mission is to equip her patients and readers with the knowledge and resources necessary to live their greatest lives.

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