Even in the west, we have heard crazy stories about the Japanese work ethic. Well, unfortunately some of these are not stereotypes but facts for many working in Japan. The Japan Times wrote an article in October of 2016 reporting that 1 in 4 Japanese companies admitted that their workers put in 80+ hours of overtime per month. The term karoshi refers to “death by overwork,” and actually happens. In 2015 the Japanese government recognized 96 strokes and heart attacks as work related. In the same year, the National Police Agency reported 2,159 suicides that were at least partly related to work stress.
But alongside this intense work environment lives deep seeded traditions of relaxation, one of the most prevalent being bath culture. The vast majority of Japanese people prefer bathing (generally at night) compared to Westerners who more often prefer showers. Visiting a traditional onsen (hot springs bath) is very popular vacation plan and there are many rules and customs surrounding this experience. During my time abroad I was lucky enough to experience this tradition when I visited Gero Onsen in Gifu prefecture.
Located two hours by car north of Nagoya, the journey through the mountains to Gero gives the impression that you are entering a different world and leaving behind the worries of your daily life. Gero Onsen consists of many hot springs in a certain area of the mountains around which an onsen town eventually formed. Many consider this location one of the three best in all of Japan, an idea given credence by the fact that the emperor of Japan visited. People often take this opportunity to stay in ryokan (traditional style Japanese inns) and wander around the town in yukata (traditional robes). The rooms have tatami mat floors, low tables, and futons to sleep on. The ryokan often includes some traditional style meals as part of the room fee. I felt like the foreign clothes and accommodations aided the illusion that this place was not connected to the world of my daily life.
The onsen themselves are separated by gender and must be used nude. This practice aids in relaxation and develops bonds between friends who “can no longer hide behind their clothes.” This practice also keeps the water as clean as possible, an important factor considering many people share the same water. This practice was nerve wracking at first, but quickly made me feel very free and comfortable. Before entering the water, everyone must strip, thoroughly wash their bodies in a shared shower space, and tie up any loose hair. People with tattoos are traditionally banned to avoid attracting the “wrong crowd” because tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia. While in the onsen water you cannot wear a towel, drink the water, scrub yourself, splash, swim, or be too loud. The point of the experience is to sit and relax the mind and body. Some people even enter a sleep-like meditative state.
Some of these onsen are indoors and might have glass looking out onto nature, like the one featured below. Others, like the Yunoshimakan Ryokan onsen featured in at the beginning of the article, are outdoors and surrounded by rocks and trees for privacy and atmosphere. If you go to a fancier hotel, you can even have access to you own private onsen bath. The third photo featured below depicts the onsen at our ryokan, which was surround by the building itself for privacy and had a small garden space. In any kind of onsen, integration with nature is a big part of the experience.
During my stay day and half stay in Gero, I took four baths and three foot baths at various places around town and ended the experience feeling clean and refreshed. It was like I was living in another world where time moved slower and worries of my daily life didn’t apply. Hopefully you can also experience this one day.
Take a look at my short vlog video for more about my experience in Gero.
NOTE: photos of the onsen were taken professionally by staff and posted on the ryokan’s website. Please do not take pictures inside of an onsen for the sake of privacy.