Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Phobia of Onsens and Japanese-style Baths

Call me stupid, or spoiled and lazy, but I have serious issues with water. With standing water. And especially with standing water that has been used by someone else.

Swimming pools give me long lasting trauma. While I can be forced to enter one, I will scrub myself afterwards with harsh chemicals for much longer than it’s commonly considered safe by most human beings.

Yes, swimming pool water is chlorinated, but that’s of small comfort to me. After all, somebody could have peed (or spat in it, or had a runny nose) in the pool. I don’t care how diluted those bodily fluids might be, I just don’t want them on me. Or in me, if I’m accidentally going to get splashed in my face. Plain and simple.

My paranoia was easily concealed in the West. I simply didn’t frequent swimming pools.

Now, that I’m living in the country of onsens and standing bath water that is used by more than one person for more than one day*, my mental anguish has reached truly massive proportions.


Hot and steaming outdoor "onsen"

Japanese onsens are hot springs. Those it seems that these days any hotel that has a communal hot tub calls it “onsen”. Those fake onsens are rather like big communal baths, except that you don’t actually use them to clean yourself. You just sit in hot water and relax. You clean yourself before getting into the bath.

That in theory you’re supposed to be freshly scrubbed before entering the tub means nothing to me. I know at least a half dozen Japanese for whom a shower consists of just several splashes of hot water, with or without soap, as the bathroom might be too cold for an actual proper scrubbing session (no central heating here, remember?). And then it’s off to the tub. No thanks, I’ll pass. I don't want to use the same water that dissolved your mucopurulent discharge or smegma just a second ago. The same water that might have been used yesterday by some other people. Yeah, it might have been “purified” but to satisfy my idea of “pure” there’s simply not enough chlorine in the world.

And if I see some hair floating in the water, my day is done. You’d be lucky not to clean my vomit from the floor (or water).


Japanese style bath - water stays in for a couple of days and that thing you can see on the right is used to cover the tub.

Home baths aren’t of much comfort to me either. While I can share my bathwater with Dr. Trouble (my germs are his germs, and vice versa), the thought of using the same water the next day makes me gag.

When we lived with relatives, our designated bath order was clear – first mom and pop, and then us, lowly freeloaders. Needless to say, I took zero baths at that house.

I was reluctant to share my fear of Japanese baths with my Japanese friends. After all, this is their culture, and I didn’t want to offend their fragile sensibilities (Japanese sensibilities are fragile by definition). So imagine my shock when I heard (from the horse’s mouth, so to speak) that not all Japanese people like their baths the Japanese way. To some a dip in onsen is a source of profound psychological suffering.

The Japanese women who openly admitted to sharing my onsen phobia say they feel like traitors to their own culture and tradition. In their homes, they change the bath water daily and in order to be able to take a bath at all, they have to go first.

To them, a bath is not a relaxing experience, but something that must be painfully endured. And they have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a public onsen.


Hotel "onsen" with an underwater illumination in the tub.

The fact that there are Japanese who feel the same way does give me some comfort. I might be a freak, but I’m not alone in my freakishness. And besides, there are a lot more serious afflictions in this world.

In the great scheme of things, fear of shared bath water ranks somewhere between the missing sock conspiracy and the inability of many people (including some self-claimed travel writers) to spell the name “Chiang Mai” correctly.

*) Yes, that’s how Japanese baths work – the same water will be reheated and used the following day. How many days it can go on – that depends on the homeowner.

Onsens (Japanese hot springs, common hotel baths, etc.) are regulated by a set of very strict rules, but personally, there aren’t enough strict rules in the universe to make the idea of previously used bath water (by strangers, no less) even remotely palatable to me.


  1. Agreed, and don't even get me started on the spitting. Granted, it's nowhere near the spitting hell of China and Korea, but still, it's a lot more than I can comfortable handle. (Don't know how it is in Tokyo, but here in the boondocks, spitting is normal).
    PS> I'm always very reluctant to post stories like this one, because there's usually a bunch of people who start sending me hatemail saying I don't know the first thing about this country. Oh, well...

  2. Well...I'm an onsen Geek and I share your disdain for people who snort and spit! Standing onsen or stagnant water is never good, that's why I sit in very hot onsen and count the number of people who get in and out.

  3. What bothers me even more than snorting and spitting is how superficial the washing before getting into the onsen is. I don't know how it is for guys, but the women, well... how to put it nicely... They don't shave their jungles and they consider a brief shower splash down there as sufficient. I'm a woman, I know it takes a lot more than wetting the pubes to get the crotch clean.

  4. Hi Billy,
    yeah, that's pretty much how I look at it, too. :-)


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