Onsen Study: Stats and Facts from the Perspective of Foreign Tourists

Hot springs in Beppu of Japan

Summary

A survey was conducted in September 2020 on a population sample of 119 from individuals who have participated in the cultural experience in 2019 at Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya Kyoto where respondents were asked to rate how comfortable they were with trying or entering a public bath naked, and a yes or no question on whether they or any family members had a tattoo. The purpose of this is to gauge their opinions and whether or not they would find any difficulties or hindrances when it comes to trying communal onsen baths. 
The results showed that 41.7% of the respondents expressed that they are comfortable with going into public baths naked, while the remaining 58.3% noted varying degrees of discomfort on the exposure. On the second part of the September 2020 survey, 33.3 % of the respondents noted that they, their partners, or family members have a tattoo.
An open-ended portion was also included in the surveys to determine whether or not visitors can distinguish or are confused between an onsen and an ofuro, which does not use hot spring waters. The response came back with 87.5% of the answers stating that they were unaware of the difference.
In October and November 2020, a separate multiple-choice survey was conducted on a sample size of 367, where the respondents were to select all the cultural activities that piqued their interest. The top choice selected by 67% was onsen or hot springs experience, followed by sumo wrestling (49%), cooking (44%), and geisha experience (30%).

 

Introduction

An “onsen” is the Japanese term used for hot springs or hot spring baths, usually found in volcanic areas and resort towns. These pools of water are utilized for their therapeutic properties and to further tourism in the area. 
The significance of onsen culture in Japan is easily pinpointed just by the number of public and private hot spring baths around the country. This practice is so common and widely accepted that bathhouses and ryokans in some areas, such as Kyoto and Tokyo, that have no naturally occurring hot spring water resources go through the lengths of acquiring the waters from miles away or creating their own.
Bathing in an onsen is not only seen as a tourist activity but a way for Japanese locals to relax or socialize in communal areas. This practice, however, proves to be uncomfortable for most Western tourists or those unfamiliar with onsens as most baths require stripping down and soaking in the nude around strangers.
This study examines the outlooks and experiences of foreign travelers on onsens and its traditional customs and practices, limited to the individuals who have participated in the cultural experience in Japan in the year 2019 and visitors to Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya Kyoto and the Samurai & Ninja Museum in 2020. Specifically, the purpose of this is to gauge the impression of onsens and onsen culture on foreign tourists and the access or limitations thereof to onsens and public baths.

 

Background

Onsen

Onsen baths are long-believed to possess healing and cleansing properties since their discovery as a natural pool over one thousand years ago, the earliest record dating back to the Japanese book of chronicles, “Kojiki” or the “Furukotofumi” in the 8th century. The roots of onsen culture, however, are traceable to Shinto and Buddhist beliefs where cleansing in hot water is observed in religious rituals.
The oldest natural onsen recorded in the country is Dogo Onsen, located on the island of Shikoku. The oldest onsen ryokan or a traditional Japanese inn with hot spring baths in recorded history is the 1300-year-old Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, the current Guinness World Record holder.
Onsens have also gained some popularity from its appearances in various pop-culture media such as the beloved award-winning animated movie “Spirited Away” by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
Hot spring waters were found to have traces of natural elements such as sodium bicarbonate and calcium that are absorbed through the skin during bathing. The components found in the water varies from the source but some of the most common types of onsens according to the distinct chemicals and minerals in the water are:
  • Sulur
  • Sodium Chloride
  • Hydrogen Carbonate
  • Iron; and
  • The simple onsen
There are many forms that onsens take in Japan, from indoor baths called uchiyu, and outdoor baths called rotenburo, which is what they traditionally were at the beginning. These two types of baths can go hand in hand in one facility and be managed by a private business or a town as a public communal bath. 
In ancient Japan, before Western influence started affecting the practices in the country, men and women would bathe together at onsens and public baths called sento, which is a different type of public bath that does not use hot spring water.
Onsen Manners & Etiquette
Just like most traditional Japanese practices such as the tea ceremony, bathing at an onsen and any public or shared bath comes with a set of rules and etiquette that are strictly followed. 
The most common rule is to strip down and wash or rinse before bathing. Some exceptions to this rule are onsens that have mixed-gender baths, allow children, or are theme park-like such as the famous Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo.
Basic bath necessities and accessories such as towels and washcloths are kept out of the onsen waters but are widely used during rinsing and to keep a form of modest covering outside the baths. There are exceptions, once again, where bathers would be allowed to use the towels as a cover in the waters.
One of the most important rules to follow before stepping into the onsen is hygiene. All guests at public and shared baths are expected to thoroughly wash and rinse before entering the hot waters. Toiletries are often provided for this at designated shower areas. Any traces of soap on the body cannot enter the bath waters as it will contaminate the rest of the pool.
Although tattoos have become accepted at onsens, the majority of these facilities at about 56% still enforce a no tattoo policy in public and shared baths, according to the data collected in 2015. This banning stemmed from the belief that anyone who bears this mark on their bodies is considered a gang member or an undesirable guest.
Tattoo-friendly places exist, however, as a way to accommodate foreign visitors. In the 2015 study by the Japan National Tourism Organization, 30% of onsen managements accept tattooed individuals for bathing while 13% provide access under conditions of having the tattoos be covered up or anything of the same nature.
These strict regulations are not only applied to guests but onsen facilities, before being declared as an onsen, go through rigorous testing to meet the standards and criteria implemented by the Hot Springs Act in 1948 in Japan. The criteria in this law regulate not only the average temperature of the onsen waters which is at least 25°C but also the mineral composition. Because of this regulation and testing, the Ministry of Health and Welfare in Japan has given recognition to 64 hot spring resorts as being capable of providing medical treatment.
Bathing at an onsen is observed as a social habit, especially at communal and public baths. It is custom at Japanese onsens for one to strip off their clothes to avoid fabric contamination in the mineral-rich waters. This practice is seen as improper or inappropriate in Western countries, its relevance coming up in the expression of discomfort for foreign tourists who have not experienced an onsen in Japan. Another hindrance for tourists when it comes to onsens is the “no-tattoo” policy, although many places offer private baths for this situation.

Kimono Tea Ceremony Kyoto Maikoya and Samurai & Ninja Museum Kyoto

Maikoya is one of Japan’s leading cultural experience providers with branches in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. The company specializes in cultural and traditional activities such as tea ceremony, sushi and other cooking classes, calligraphy, flower arrangement, taiko drumming, and the like.
Maikoya accommodates sessions in English, Chinese, and Japanese. The activities are designed to accommodate groups for school trips, company trips, international conferences, vacationers, and other miscellaneous companies.
The Samurai & Ninja Museum Kyoto is a leading samurai museum in Japan that offers a variety of experiences that inform and educate visitors on the history and relevance of samurais and ninjas in Japan. Some of these experiences will range from sword cutting, historical tours in Kyoto, and a crash course on ninja training.

 

Methodology

In 2019, people who joined a cultural experience at the Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya Kyoto were given a survey one year later on September 2020. A total of 119 participants gave their answers two the two questions:
“Do you feel comfortable entering a public bath naked (without any clothes and swim trunk)?; and,
"Do you, your spouse or any of your family members have a tattoo?" 
The first question requires the respondents to select from “very uncomfortable” to being “OK” with participating in the custom in varying degrees, while the second question is a simple yes or no survey.
An additional open-ended section was added, having the respondents describe an onsen experience that they had. This, however, was not concrete as there were responses that described an onsen experience in downtown Kyoto and Tokyo, where there are no naturally occurring hot springs, with a few exceptions. Due to this error, a follow-up yes or no question was added to determine whether or not the respondents were aware of what an onsen is.
A month after the first distribution, a survey form containing inquiries in relation to the Japanese tea ceremony was sent to approximately 3000 visitors of the Samurai Museum in Kyoto in October 2020.
In November 2020, another survey was initiated and travelers who made a reservation at Kimono Tea Ceremony Kyoto Maikoya were sent an online survey.
The statements in the survey were to be rated whether respondents agree or disagree, according to their experience. An optional portion was added at the end of the surveys for guests to describe their experience and opinions on the tea ceremony.
Participants of the surveys were informed of the collection of data for the purpose of using them in a study. No individual identifying information was collected to ensure the confidentiality of the results.

 

Findings

The first survey conducted in September 2020 with a sample size of 119 about their comfort level when in a public bath came back with 41.70% being comfortable to complete exposure amongst strangers while the majority at 58.30% expressed different levels of discomfort at the idea and experience. 
The second part, on whether or not the respondent or a close relation had a tattoo, came back with 66.70% of the answers stating that they, nor anyone in relation with them, had any tattoos.
Table 1: Do you feel comfortable entering a public bath naked (without any clothes and swim trunk)?
I am OK with that 41.70%
I would feel somewhat uncomfortable 37.50%
I would feel uncomfortable 12.50%
I would feel very uncomfortable 8.30%

 


Table 2: “Do you, your spouse, or any of your family members have a tattoo?"
Yes 33.30%
No 66.70%

 


The open-ended response section in the September 2020 survey found that respondents confused ofuro with onsens or hot springs, prompting the question on whether they were aware of the difference. The results were overwhelming, with 87.5% of the replies coming back as a no, signifying that the foreigners who participated in the survey did not know the difference.
Table 3: "Do you know the difference between onsen and ofuro?"
No 87.50%
Yes 12.50%

 


From the responses, word clout has been created, using the common words used by the respondents in the discussion portion on their onsen experience and outlook. Majority of the answers talked about the relaxing experience that a good number of respondents would be willing to try or repeat. Concerns were raised, however, about the privacy and nudity in onsen culture, as well as the prohibition against tattoos.
Illustration 1: Word Clout

 


Example responses:
Onsens are very relaxing. I went to Kurama Onsen in winter and it was great for relaxing my body. Also, since I could not use technology, books or other forms of entertainment, it allowed me to spend time appreciating nature and talking with my family.
I have seen so many of these in tv shows and animes. I want to be outside and look at the stars while enjoying the beautiful nature Japan has to offer.
In the survey conducted in October 2020 on the visitors of the Samurai & Ninja Museum Kyoto received a 15% response rate out of the 3000 distributed forms, at 367 respondents. While in November 2020, travelers who made a reservation at Kimono Tea Ceremony Kyoto Maikoya came back with a 16% response rate, at 72 responses out of 450. The total number of respondents who provided their feedback was 367.
The 367 respondents were asked to select one or multiple cultural experiences in Japan that they were interested in, and came back with 67% or about 246 selecting onsens, along with sumo wrestling coming in second at 49% or about 180.
Table 4: “What kind of cultural experiences are you interested in?”
Hot Springs (Onsen) 67%
Sumo Wrestling Experience 49%
Cooking Experience 44%
Geisha Experience 30%

 

Analysis

 


Foreigners, especially Western tourists, were not used to the amount of exposure in onsens and public baths, although some were willing to try.

 


More than half of the respondents felt a level of discomfort with the nudity and exposure in the onsen and Japanese bathhouse culture in general, as is expected. This general discomfort or hesitation when it comes to public exposure, even in same-sex or gender-segregated baths may have stemmed from early Christian influence wherein nudity and exposure were considered immoral. 
The same Christian influence is not as prevalent in Japan as it is in the West, with at most 1.5% of Japanese claiming to be practicing the religion or having an affiliation. This influence or lack thereof possibly plays an indirect role in the bathing culture in onsens, sentos, and public baths in general. The practice of mixed bathing was not even considered taboo or immoral until later when the Japanese opened their doors to Westernization. This prompted the ban on mixed-gender baths in major areas like Tokyo and Kyoto.
Although the majority of the respondents said they, nor anyone closely related, do not have any tattoos, a large percentage of the sample population may still have difficulty experiencing an onsen.

 


Although only 33.3% of the September respondents claim to have or know someone with a tattoo, this may prove difficult for them and said persons to be able to experience onsen culture. The stigmatization of tattoos in Japan is traceable to gang activity or outlaws in the Meiji Era; People with tattoos are viewed as members of anti-social forces. 
This, however, does not fully inhibit any tattooed visitors from going to an onsen and taking baths as the number of more modern onsens are increasing, most of which are accommodating foreign tourists. Tattoos are seen in this day as a form of body art, meaning anyone who wishes to get one may do so, unrelated to being a part of any gang activity.
Onsens are a unique experience for anyone traveling in Japan and is something that the majority of the respondents have a positive experience or outlook on.

 


Despite the hesitation among tourists unfamiliar with bathing culture in Japan, onsens are still one of the most popular tourist activities according to the results. This curiosity is possibly influenced by the common opinion about how onsen bathing is seen as a unique and relaxing activity.
Some media and pop culture appearances such as in movies like Spirited Away and multiple mangas and animes also played a role as mentioned in some of the responses:
“It was something we [have] seen in mangas and anime. We knew it's very relaxing and we [liked] thermal springs in France. We were impressed by the size, organization, and cleanliness of [the] Japanese Onsen. Being naked was strange at the beginning but great once we got habituated. We regretted being separated because of sex because we like to share our experience.”
“I did it. My enjoyment was minimal, I'm [self-conscious] about the nakedness and I wore a towel because of this. I tried it because I've heard all about it and wanted to try it. I wanted to see if it was anything similar to how it is portrayed in anime [as well]. “
“I have seen so many of these in tv shows and animes. I want to be outside and look at the stars while enjoying the beautiful nature Japan has to offer.”
The distinction between onsens and ofuro is unclear amongst tourists and those who do not have a deep understanding of the bathing culture in Japan.

 


With an 87.5% result of foreign tourists and travelers stating that they do not know the differences in baths in Japan, particularly onsens and ofuro, which can greatly affect the opinions on their experiences in a true onsen or hot springs bath, as compared to regular warm baths.

 

Conclusion

The cultural differences and practices in bathing between Japan and other countries, especially Western and Western-influenced areas play a big role in any tourists’ experience and willingness to try something considered controversial or unusual such as bathing in the nude with strangers. The influence of religion on these practices cannot be denied. As communal bathing and onsen culture stems from the Shinto and Buddhist beliefs that bathing is a meditative and spiritual activity as well as hygienic, while Western and Christian-influenced beliefs brand exposure as immoral and a form of temptation. Seeing as Christianity is a minority religion in Japan, this belief plays little to no role in reforming the age-old tradition and customs in bathing.
This concern with exposure, however, can be easily resolved with private onsen baths that are available in almost every place and establishment that has a communal bath, such as bathhouses and traditional Japanese inns called ryokan.
Similarly, most onsens have hesitations with tattooed customers or bathers, because of their historical affiliation with gangs like the Yakuza. There are tattoo-friendly places available especially in tourist spots like Kyoto and Tokyo where foreigners are most likely to visit.
Just as with the solution to the discomfort of soaking in baths with strangers, ryokans and bathhouses provide service to tattooed individuals provided that they use the private baths, where the rest of the onsen patrons cannot see them and be ostracized among the crowd. Some onsens are a little more open, providing policies that tattoos can simply be covered up in the communal baths instead.
As with the confusion between hot spring baths and regular warm baths, it is highly likely caused by the almost interchangeable use of onsens and ofuros among foreigners, and the singular term of bathhouse serving as an umbrella category for both. For clarification, ofuro simply refers to a private bath or bathroom with a bathtub, one which does not necessarily use hot spring waters such as an onsen. A sento is a communal bathhouse that uses heated water in its baths. An onsen is another type of bath, be it found in a bathhouse with communal or private baths that uses water that is specifically sourced from a hot spring, as explained in the background section of this study.
The results of this study on the interest and experience among tourists when it comes to onsens is optimistic as the concerns are easily rectified with modern onsens and policies that makes it easier for foreign tourists to adjust and enjoy a hot springs bath without the restrictions of a traditional bath or working around them.

 

References

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  • Maikoya, 2020. "What is an Onsen?" https://mai-ko.com/travel/japan/onsen/what-is-an-onsen/