We had a few days off this week from school due to various holidays, and in their stead the OSS planned a trip to Kusatsu. On our way there, we stopped in Nagano to look at some snow monkeys, which you might recognize for bathing in onsens. For those that don’t know what onsens are, they are natural hot springs that are relatively high in acidity. They serve many purposes, and are very good for your skin and circulation. Though there wasn’t much snow left in Nagano where we visited the monkeys, some of them still sought out the onsens for warmth. They were surprisingly accustomed to tourists; they comfortably walked very close around us and even held a few peoples’ hands. Personally, I’m not really a big fan of monkeys, but some of them were pretty cute and they were interesting to watch.
After we had hung out with the monkeys for some time, we made our way to Kusatsu, which is a town famous for its onsens. The town was actually created around its popular, natural onsens and is home to the largest onsen in Japan, which I had the opportunity to bathe in. People have visited Kusatsu for hundreds of years, and the center of the town makes sure to boast some of the more famous figures that have done so. The center features what I understand to be the largest spring in Kusatsu. You quickly become accustomed to the smell of sulfur throughout the town (for, if I understand correctly, it is one of the minerals in the onsens), but at first it’s pretty strong.
Bathing in onsens is a significant part of Japanese culture, so it comes with its own customs. Only within the past 100 years were their separate onsens for men and women – before that time, men and women all bathed in the same one – which happened as a result of Westernization. You do not wear clothes or bathing suits, so as everyone is naked guests with tattoos are occasionally not permitted to enter. I, having a small tattoo, did not run into any issues in the ones that I went to but did receive some looks from some older women as tattoos are sometimes considered a taboo in Japan. Furthermore, it is expected that one completely wash before bathing, so there are either showers to wash in or water to rinse off with before entering an onsen. From there, the temperature of the water can be very hot, but very enjoyable at the same time. It’s an interesting, fun experience and a must-do for anyone who visits Japan. After the long bus rides, the onsens were extremely relaxing and often left me really sleepy afterwards.