A common problem foreigners run into while in Japan is not knowing the endless cultural rules and taboos. If you stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice you will see natives’ faces go white and the longer you stay here, the more you learn about these types of rules the hard way. In particular, I have had many questions and concerns about konyoku onsen, or mixed-gender hot spring, bathing etiquette.
A brief history
The concept of a konyoku onsen may sound like a cultural taboo itself, but it has a long history that is often overlooked. Believe it or not, records of konyoku onsen go back as far as the 9th century, with many scholars believing that its history goes back even further than that. It wasn’t until Japan opened its ports to the world that the concept of mixed-gender bathing started to receive a critical eye. When those from the West experienced it, they found the behavior to be lewd and vulgar.
Post-World War II, Japan sought to rid itself of these establishments that tainted the developing country’s image by passing various laws that made it impossible for new konyoku onsen to spring up. Since then, many establishments have been slipping away into history without much notice.
Many citizens believe that one of the reasons why konyoku onsen are dwindling is that onsen goers do not respect the rules and manners of such establishments anymore. Women do not feel comfortable being ogled by surrounding patrons and foreign tourists do not respect the traditional policies. To prevent the continuation of these awful onsen offenses, here are some do’s and don’ts should you decide to relax at a mixed-gender hot spring.
Do’s of konyoku onsen
- Follow the lead. Though all onsen have a few general rules, some establishments may have different traditions. Without staring — more on that later — observe what everyone else is doing around you with their towels. Get a feel for how those around you are settling into the baths and be a part of the relaxing environment.
- Obey the coverage rules. Some konyoku onsen will require you to go fully au naturale while others require women to wear a towel. If you aren’t sure — ask an onsen employee.
Tip: If you see that there is a towel wrap rental option at the bath, assume that women should rent a towel. Men can use a small hand towel to cover themselves.
- Ask questions. Nobody expects you to know everything, so when in doubt — ask! Employees at konyoku onsen would rather you ask how things are done rather than be told what you are doing is wrong. By asking questions, you will be guaranteed the correct answer while connecting with the community.
Tip: Though many konyoku onsen are OK with tattoos, some have strict tattoo policies. Be sure to call and inquire ahead of time. If you have small tattoos, covering them with bandages is a quick fix.
- Keep your towel in the water. If you are at a konyoku onsen that calls for, or suggests, that you cover yourself with a towel, please do so. Also keep in mind that these are the only kind of hot spring that allows towels in the water. Regular onsen require customers to keep their wash cloths out of the baths.
- Tie your hair up. This isn’t a rule specific to konyoku onsen, but this policy is often violated. If your hair is long enough to touch the water while you are soaking, it should be tied up. This applies to everyone so be sure to keep some hair ties on hand.
Don’ts of konyoku onsen
- Don’t assume that swimsuits are OK. Though some establishments allow the use of swimwear, like Hama-no-yu in Oshima, it’s very rare and most prohibit it. Always ask beforehand to protect the tradition — and to keep from getting kicked out.
- Don’t stare. This may sound obvious, but this is a major complaint within the konyoku onsen community. The word wani, or crocodile, is a term coined by onsen goers for someone who waits and watches for any flash of bare skin. Don’t be a wani!
- Don’t converse loudly. Again, this is a rule that doesn’t apply strictly to onsen. In Japan, bathing is seen as a means of relaxation and cleansing the soul of stress and fatigue. Try not to ruin other patrons’ experience by talking loudly with your friends.
20-plus locales to enjoy konyoku
Every konyoku onsen is different, so I cannot stress enough how important it is to research and ask questions about the specific hot spring you will be visiting. Now that you know the tips and tricks of relaxing natural spas, here are more than 20 recommendations for some beautiful spots to enjoy konyoku in the Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu regions.
Do you have any konyoku onsen stories or tips? ♨ Let us know in the comments below.