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I got naked at an onsen!

A post-onsen photo
On the second to last evening of my 14-day trip to Japan, after a full afternoon spent doing the Hakone Free Pass journey (a self-guided tour of Hakone involving transportation via bus, boat, ropeway, cable car, and single-track train), my friend and I stood at the Bus H bus stop just outside Hakone-Yumato train station with just three hours left before the last train back to Tokyo. We wondered whether we had enough time to carry out my plan to visit Tenzan onsen, a traditional Japanese bathhouse in Hakone.

I’d done a lot of research before our trip to Japan, and it sounded like Tenzan was the best onsen in Hakone, and possibly one of the best in all of Japan. When my exhausted friend suggested to sleep-deprived me, “We could always skip the onsen,” my answer was immediate, “No way!”

The next bus to the onsen wasn’t scheduled to arrive for almost an hour, and so we jumped in a nearby taxi, along with a businessman from France who was also heading to Tenzan. We agreed to split the fare of 960 Yen. After a few minutes riding along narrow winding roads, we were dropped off.
Sign for Tenzan onsen on the main road. Down the hill from this sign, through a parking lot, was the onsen.
Main entrance to Tenzan onsen. The reception area and the shoe lockers were just inside the curtains.
We were greeted by a vending machine that seemed to be selling onsen tickets. The Frenchman deposited his Yen and obtained a ticket. My friend and I headed directly to the onsen, hoping to buy our tickets there. At the reception desk, a helpful man directed us to place our socks and shoes in a locker and pull out the key. Then he helped us buy our onsen tickets from a vending machine in the locker area. Because we had the Hakone Free Pass, our tickets were 1100 Yen each (a discount of 100 Yen off the regular price of 1200 Yen). The man then offered to sell us towels (bathers are allowed to bring their own towels from home, but we hadn't known this). My friend and I purchased white hand-towel-sized towels printed with the name of the onsen for 200 Yen each.

Since Tenzan, like most onsen in Japan, has separate bathing areas for men and women, my (male) friend and I agreed on a meeting time forty-five minutes later (in order to give us plenty of time to make our way back to the train station before the final Tokyo-bound train of the night) and parted ways. I walked past some curtains and into the women’s locker room. A few women were there, in various stages of undress. I chose a locker and stuffed my small daypack and every bit of clothing that I had been wearing into it. Then, naked, I slipped the band attached to locker key around my wrist and headed off with the hand towel that I had purchased at the reception desk.
Two pages from the Tenzan brochure. The photo in the top left of the first page shows the first pool that I tried. The lit cave is seen in the background.
Before using the onsen, bathers are required to take a full shower. I found a bathing station in the attractive shower room that, like the rest of the onsen, had dark wood walls. I sat on a little stool, and I showered using the soap, shampoo, and conditioner provided. There was a lever that turned the showerhead on. The showerhead operated for about thirty seconds each time the lever was pushed. There was also a small bucket that I think I was supposed to fill with water and use to rinse off. It would have been helpful to watch other bathers to see how the process is supposed to be done, but sitting there naked on my tiny stool felt weird enough without staring at showering strangers, and so I washed off using the showerhead, pushing the lever every thirty seconds or so to keep the water flowing. When I was through, I walked toward the daylight peering out from under the roof.

It felt strange to be walking around outside “in public” completely naked, but I tried not to think about it as I meandered along the cement path that connected the bathing pools. The most populated pool was somewhat small with milky blue water, while the water in the other pools was crystal clear. I chose one of the larger pools with only a few bathers. As I eased myself down onto the rocky rim of the pool, my foot slipped, slightly splashing three women, who sat like mermaids on some rocks that divided this pool from the next one. They seemed unfazed.

The water felt like it was about the temperature of a typical hot tub. I let the water envelop me until I felt a bit more comfortable and relaxed, then I climbed over a rocky divider into the next pool. This pool had a little cave attached to it. There was no one inside the cave, and so I decided to check it out. Entering the cave felt a little like entering a sauna, very hot and humid. In the far end of the cave, a small statue sat on a rocky prominence. I admired the statue and then headed back out of the cave.

Although it felt like time had slowed down ever since I dipped into the first pool, my limited time was ticking away and the evening sky was darkening into night. I walked from pool to pool, feeling a lot less self-conscious than I had just a few minutes before. There were three outdoor hot pools, one cold pool and that popular milky-blue pool. I wanted to see why it was so popular and so, when two bathers climbed out, I found a spot along the edge of the pool and carefully stepped into the opaque water. It was heavenly! The temperature wasn’t too hot or too cold; it was just right. I spent the rest of my time at the onsen letting the water melt over my sore muscles and tired body. My eyes drifted up to the wooden lattice draped in vines above me and then closed.

When my waterproof watch showed that it was time to go, I emerged feeling remarkably refreshed. I rinsed off in the shower room, then I dried off with my hand towel and pulled back on my clothes. I quickly explored the rest of the women-only area. There was a vanity area with hair driers next to the locker room. Upstairs, there was a lounge area with a few massaging chairs. It looked like a pleasant place to unwind, but my forty-five minutes had come to an end. It was time to meet up with my friend, so we could head back to Tokyo.

I found my friend in the coed lounging area. We compared notes as we headed to the bus stop to wait for the bus back to Hakone-Yumato Station. Our conclusion? We were glad we’d made the trip to the Tenzan onsen. Although we would have liked to have spent a few hours there, and maybe even had dinner at their on-site restaurant or stayed the night in one of their hotel guest rooms, the onsen experience had been a highlight of our trip.
Jen from mydreamcametrue.com after her onsen experience 

I did this in 2013 in Hakone, Japan.

~ Jen (California, USA)


Jen is also known as J.W. Lynne, a best selling author of twelve novels.
Check out her books on Amazon:

THE UNKNOWN: Eight kids learn the shocking reason why they were kidnapped.

ABOVE THE SKY: A girl lives in a world where touching her soulmate is forbidden.

WHAT HE DIDN'T TELL ME: A traumatized girl meets a boy with a horrible secret.

IF I TELL: A teen wonders if her father is a serial killer.

: A teen is locked in a bunker to take a simulated trip to the moon.

WILD ANIMAL SCHOOL: A girl falls in love with a boy at an exotic animal ranch.

KID DOCS: An experimental program turns kids into doctors.

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Besides reading books and dreaming up stories to write, Jen's favorite activities are singing along to musical theater soundtracks and hiking in California's beautiful parks.

Find more reviews of Jen's adventures in Japan here.