Ahhhhh.... I experienced my first Japanese onsen (hot spring bath) last weekend in Noboribetsu. We went to Dai-ichi hotel which had 29 different kinds of tubs including jacuzzis, an outdoor tub (i found the pic on the left of the women's outdoor tub i went in), a cypress-wood bath and then a communal swimming pool complete with waterslide and fun animals to play on!
For those of you who have never experienced a Japanese onsen I'll give ya the dirt on what goes on... After taking off your shoes and entering you pay and then are given two towels. One is a large bathing towel which you keep in the changing room for the end. The other is a small 'modesty' towel which you can use to cover whichever bits you choose once you enter the onsen.
Before you enter into the pools you have to clean yourself off. At the onsen we went to they had nice rows of sit down showers with soaps, shampoos and scrubs. Here's a picture I found online of something a bit similar... but ours didn't have the dividers.
Once your scrubbed clean then you can proceed to enter into one of the dozens of volcanic geothermal tubs... (ooooooh.... aaaaahhh) They all ranged in temperature from icy cold to scalding hot. But supposedly they all have different healing powers.
You have to enter the pools completely naked... no bathing suits or other towels allowed (although the men and women are separated in different areas) Most people keep their modesty towels folded up on top of their head. This was no biggie for me since I've done a bunch of Turkish baths in Turkey and have been to the beaches in Italy... but there was one other poor foriegner who was feeling VERY out of place and uncomfortable. I went up to her and tried to help her out... She was trying to stretch the tiny modesty towel to cover every private bit she had.... so she was kind of hunched over hobbling around the pools. hahaha.... The first thing she said to me was: "this was not at all what i expected!" in a very nervous and frightened whisper. i tried to calm her down and liberate her by telling her to just let it all go and enjoy - but I don't think my message prevailed.
There were some families of women together chatting in the outdoor pool... I went out and had a good chat with them and also with another elderly woman in the cypress pool... The onsens had a gorgeous view out over Hell's Valley... it was so relaxing.
After soaking for a good 2 hours in the various pools I finished up with a huge single streamed waterfall on my back, showered off and then put on my bathing suit to go into the mixed swimming pool.
Olivia (a 2nd year JET) and I shot down the waterslide a few dozen times, swam laps with kickboards while the fathers stared... The swimming pool and kiddie area had loads of fun animals for children to play on. In the middle of the kiddie area was a huge rainbow spiral staircase which led up to the 2nd floor. We ran up to thinking there would be another fun world up there - but oh no!!!!!!!! When we got to the top - Olivia was the first to realize we ventured into the MENS ONSEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!! dozens of naked japanese men turned to see 2 blondes in their bathing suits shocked and screaming before we made a jolt back down the stairs beet red!!!!!! We received the DAME (NO NO) hand signal from the families downstairs (which is a big X with your arms). WHOOOOOOOPS. But seriously... there was NO sign, NO warning and it was in the middle of the kids play area on a huge rainbow spiral staircase!!!!!!!!!!!!
Soooo.... my first onsen experience was unforgettable I'd have to say!!! haha.... Truely relaxing (despite our little mix up) and was perfect after our long hike in Hell's Valley! Can't wait to go again.