Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

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 doing the Hakone Free Pass journey (involving a 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 very last train back to Tokyo wondering whether we had enough time 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 that would go to the onsen wasn’t 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 up to the onsen. 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). Then he offered us to sell us some towels(bathers are allowed to bring their own towel). 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 friend and I agreed on a meeting time 45 minutes later (in order to give us plenty of time to get back to Tokyo) 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 on me into it. Then 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.
Pages from the Tenzan brochure that we were given at the reception desk. 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. The photo at the bottom left of the second page shows a pool that looks like the women's indoor pool.
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 the little stool, and showered off using the showerhead, soap, shampoo and conditioner provided. There was a little lever that turned the showerhead on, but strangely the showerhead would only operate for about 30 seconds each time the lever was pushed. I assume that there was a reason for this. There was also a little bucket that I think I was supposed to fill with water and use to rinse off.

It would have been helpful to watch the other bathers to see how it is 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 30 seconds or so to keep the water flowing. When I was through, I walked toward the daylight shining out from under the roof of the covered indoor onsen next to the shower room.

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. Among them was a popular pool with milky blue water. The water in the other pools was crystal clear. Women, a few accompanied by their toddlers, lined the edge of the milky pool, their bodies partially hidden by the water. The rim of that pool looked fairly full, and so I chose an inviting looking pool with only a few bathers. The water was hot, but no less scalding than a typical hot tub. 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.

I let the hot water envelope me for a few minutes. Feeling more comfortable and relaxed, I climbed over a rocky divider into the next pool and slipped into the empty little cave attached to it. Entering the cave felt a little like entering a sauna. 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, although I’m not sure whether I was supposed to. 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 45 minutes had come to an end.

I found my friend in the coed lounging area and we compared notes as we headed out to the bus stop to go back to Hakone-Yumato Station (One of the men at the reception area had informed us of the bus time schedule.). 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.
Me after my onsen experience 

I did this in 2013 in Hakone, Japan.

Jen (California, USA)

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