To Find My Chill, I Flew All the Way to Japan to Soak in Traditional Communal Baths

Photo: Stocksy/Trinette Reed
I’ve never been a bath person. The thought of soaking in my own dirt and dead skin, alone with my thoughts, isn’t exactly my idea of “relaxing.” And the itty-bitty bathrooms I had in all my NYC apartments? Let's just say they never really felt bath-friendly.

But recently, after a few really stressful months, I was willing to do anything to find my Zen. I had been drowning in work and self-inflicted pressure, and my regular chill-out routine featuring the voice of a British guy on the Headpace app just wasn’t cutting it. So I decided to take a trip to a traditional Japanese “onsen” (hot spring where group bathing takes place) to see if it would help.

"Bathing is a huge part of Japanese culture and has been since ancient times," says Françoise Decatrel,
founder of Japanese bathing product brand Amayori. "With roots in Shintoism and Buddhism, water and bathing have long been associated with purifying the soul. This spiritual element still holds strong today."

The point of an onsen isn’t to soak with rose petals or get wrapped in seaweed; The intention is just to *be.*

The point of an onsen isn’t to soak with rose petals or get wrapped in seaweed; the intention is just to be. As Decatrel puts it, stepping into an onsen should feel like a “return to self,” which is exactly what I needed. The water in the Japanese hot springs boasts physical benefits in addition to mental and emotional ones. In fact, Decatrel tells me that "doctors prescribe certain onsens to their patients to heal wide-ranging ailments."

The different types vary depending on their mineral content, with a few known for their effect on the skin. "Some of the most renowned ones for the skin are the sodium bicarbonate onsens, these are also known as "beauty waters" as they make the skin silky smooth," says Decatrel. "Magnesium sulfate onsens soothe and tighten the skin and my personal favorite are the sulfur hot springs. Sulfur detoxifies and softens the skin and it's also fantastic for eczema and dermatitis. The water of sulfur hot springs is an ethereal, milky white color and it feels as if you are floating on a cloud.”

The onsen I visited was at Ten-Yu hotel in Japan's Hakone region. The entire facility is decorated in the traditional ryokan style and my room was beautifully bare-boned and set on tatami mats with a low bed and a table that required you to sit on the ground to eat. The moment I stepped inside, I parted with my shoes and street clothes in favor of wooden sandals and a yukata, the casual, cotton version of a traditional kimono. According to Decatrel, the yukata symbolizes relaxation and ease, which I was already beginning to feel.

I’ll admit that I was a bit hesitant about the onsen because traditionally the bathing is done in the nude. As someone who covers up at least a little bit in the SoulCycle locker room, it felt boundary-pushing to drop my yukata and walk around totally naked. I kept trying to cover myself with my hands, but quickly realized that I… didn’t have enough hands.

As someone who covers up at least a little bit in the SoulCycle locker room, it felt boundary-pushing to walk around nude.

Decatrel told me it was common for a first-timer from the West to feel this way. "Communal bathing has deep roots in Japanese history and has always been viewed to strengthen community ties and foster bonding. Sometimes Westerners are a bit shocked by this, but the attitude towards nudity at an onsen is very different than what we are used to,” she explains. "It’s fantastic—there is no need to be self-conscious. Other bathers are simply enjoying their baths. No one is comparing bodies. It’s a chance to let go of your perceptions of your body and truly enjoy yourself."

Once I went with it, I truly committed to the experience. The first step is to clean yourself using a hinoki bucket filled with the mineral water. It’s considered a faux-pas to skip this part, as the bath itself isn’t meant to actually get you clean—it’s rather all about relaxation. I then proceeded to head to the outdoor onsen known as an"Rotenburo,”  or “bath amid the dew under the open sky.” It was set on the top of a mountain, overlooking the incredible hills of Hakone with Mount Fuji in the distance.

I sat alongside four other women, my nerves palpable. The air was cold, the water was really hot. The general stress of my life didn’t magically disappear the minute I submerged myself the way I’d hoped it would, but I forced myself to stick out the discomfort.

I am so glad that I did. As I sat and waited, the magic started to happen. After a few minutes, my body and mind turned to jello. I was more relaxed than I had been in months, and when I got out of the bath 15 minutes later I didn’t even think to worry about the fact that I was totally naked—I was too chilled out to care.

After a few minutes, my body and mind turned to jello. I was more relaxed than I had been in months.

"Japan is a hardworking culture and onsens are a place where everyone unwinds and lets their hair down a bit,” says Decatrel. "This is where the magic happens. There is something so special about the sensorial experience of hot water, scent, views, the surroundings. The experience captures the spirit of Japan like nothing else.”

Afterwards, I legit felt like a new person; I believed I'd been through something mind blowing and special. "Bathing in the Japanese manner is life changing and is a tool to a more mindful, calm, happy life,” says Decatrel, who notes that the practice can be incorporated into your daily routine even if you don’t have access to your own personal hillside hot spring. "These ancient Japanese bathing rituals translate to our modern times just as does yoga and meditation," she says. "They will bring a sense of ease and calmness into your life that you never thought possible.” One thing's for sure: I'm definitely a "bath person" now.

To up your bath game without having to fly over the Pacific, try one of these high-vibe crystal bath bombs. Or, try the Japanese art of ofuro, which is a totally solo and uber meditative bathing experience. 

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