Gero is considered to be one of the three major hot spring hot spots in Japan and as it is well connected with Kyoto we thought we’d take up the opportunity to stay a few nights and try out a traditional Japanese Onsen.
An Onsen is the Japanese version of a public hot spring with bathing facilities. Some Japanese will use the Onsen as their main washing facility. Unlike public hot springs in the majority of other countries, bathing rules state that you must be naked and hence ladies and gentlemen have separate areas. The fact that you have to walk around and bathe with your Donkey Kong on show may put off many Westerners. But actually it’s bleeding marvelous as we found out…
Once we had decided that going to an Onsen was one of our must dos we set out some minimum requirements:
- Has to be a traditional Japanese Ryokan (Inn) where we would stay the night
- Had to have outdoor hot spring baths
- Had to allow guests free and night time access to the hot springs
- Had to be traditional i.e. nakedness!
- Had to be decent price (we expected to pay a premium but some of the ones recommended by other blogs were crazy prices, real crazy!)
After much looking around on the internet we found Gero Onsen Bosenkan. This place ticked all the above, included traditional delicious breakfast and gave us traditional Japanese yukatas to wear along with free flip-flop socks, traditional geta which are the offspring of a pair of clogs and a pair of flip-flops and a hand towel 👍🍾. Result!
Anyway…after a quick check-in our priority was getting in the Onsen and let the hot baths ease away our aches from the excessive walking we had been doing over the last couple of weeks. So on our Yukatas went (thanks to Louise’s advice that we should wear them down to the springs) and off we went.
Now, before I go on there is strict Japanese etiquette to follow in an Onsen (like everywhere else in Japan) and of this etiquette I knew about the fact that:
- you must be naked
- it is very bad form to take your towel in the bathing area (considered unclean)
- before you go in the bathing area you must use the shower and wash yourself thoroughly
- no tattoos – keeps out the Yakuza and other riffraff apparently (we’ll ignore this rule as we are both tattoo free 😀)
Ok, so Louise and I headed off to our separate areas and, reciting the etiquette rules I started to make my way to the changing area.
Rule number one – get naked. Easy. I whipped off my Yukata and boxers in the changing room that was practically empty albeit for a small group of Japanese lads.
Rule number two – leave your towel behind in the changing room. Easy. Although, hang on a minute…all of the aforementioned lads started heading into the bathing area holding a small white towel covering up their sushi and peas.
Oh shit. That’s when I realised that the small free hand towel in our room was actually a modesty protector. Should I go back and get it? I couldn’t really be arsed with that and what if the lads are doing it wrong?! In the end I thought if all the rumours about different nationalities manhood sizes are true then I should have nothing to worry about. So f#&k it. In I walked absolutely bollock-o trying to give off an air of nonchalance.
That left me with just rule number three. Ok, so where are these shower cubicles…hmmm…oh I see. There are no cubicles, just a mirrored wall with individual showers tightly packed at waist height and little stools to sit on. So I sit down on one of the stools between the lads from before and a hairy ape of a man who judging by his elaborate arm movements was giving his balls a good old deep clean.
All the rituals done it was finally time to get in the hot spring. I headed straight for the outside one finding a quiet spot to sit on my own. And wow, it was amazing. The water was fantastically hot and utterly relaxing. And it really was a beautiful spot; you could hear the Hida river flowing, you were overlooked by the Japanese Alps and a picturesque railway bridge crossing the gorge. Bliss.
And being naked wasn’t too bad. In fact it was pretty good. Everyone else did have their modesty protectors but I’d didn’t care as once in the water your cares float away. We all chilled out, naked together.
As the water was fantastically hot it was nice to get out and cool off in the shower before heading back in. After doing this a couple of times I was getting fully comfortable with this naked business. Or so I thought…
Just as I was preparing myself to get out the Onsen for the final time an old man enters and sits on the steps that lead out the pool. Without a modesty protecting towel this means I’d have to walk passed him with my crotch at the same height as his face with only about 15cm of gap. That can’t be good etiquette for either of us!
So I wait. I get really hot. I wait some more. I’m suffering. The heat intensity increases. I’ve got to get out before I faint. He’s beaten me; I stand up. It’s at that moment that a train makes its way over the picturesque bridge in view of me full frontal naked for all passengers on this side to see. Oh God! Should I sit back down and hide under the protection of the water?! Should I run inside all embarrassed?! Still playing the role of confident Westerner I think not! For some reason I think the only thing for it is to make out like it’s the train at fault, not me. So I angrily wave a fist at the train, let it pass and then scuttle past the old man on the steps to the safety of inside. Afterwards I console myself that this was indeed the correct British approach as I realise that Basil Fawlty would have done the same.
After a final shower I meet back up with Louise and we exchange stories. She tells me there were no old lady predators on the stairs however, the train track above the ladies Onsen was occupied by workmen carrying out maintenance work…I don’t imagaine that train track ever goes long without repair.
Over the course of our two night stay we spent the majority of our time in the Onsen enjoying the hot springs whilst taking short walks around the quaint little town and enjoying awesome food at small independent restaurants. There are apparently some great mountain walks to do in Gero so if we go back this is something we’d definitely look to do, but this time it was all about the Onsen.
The Onsen experience was absolutely fantastic, leaving our skin incredibly soft and our muscles relaxed. Whilst culturally it is very different way that westerners would enjoy hot springs it turned out to be one of our favourite experiences in Japan; something we’ll never forget and something we’d love to do again – although preferably without the train. It just goes to show that embracing local cultures, rituals and etiquette with your skin flute out is definitely something that you shouldn’t shy away from – obviously only if it’s all above board and kosher. Stay safe peeps 👍