testing the waters on holiday in japan

japan monkey bathing in hot springsBathing in an outdoor onsen (hot spring bath) on holiday in Japan is one of those very memorable real life experiences. But mustering the courage to shed your inhibitions could end up a travel blooper rather than a holiday highlight, so David Atkinson helps us take the plunge…

“Bath time had never been so tricky. Here I was, tackle out and goose bumps spreading like a bad rash, prancing between the centuries-old dipping pools of a pristine hot springs resort in Japan. Set against a serene backdrop of mountain scenery, autumnal forests and tiny shrines, the resort oozed a sense of almost Zen-like calm. But inside I was stricken with fear. I mean, what’s the etiquette when getting naked with a bunch of total strangers?

Bathing etiquette is one of the big danger areas where unknowing travellers may find themselves – quite literally – in hot water in Japan. Get it wrong and you might as well relieve yourself in the koi carp pond.

In fact, getting to grips with the local etiquette is a crucial part of the journey regardless of the holiday destination. In the Asian culture, for example, something as simple as an errant gesture can be a major cause of offence: crooking your finger to call somebody is considered impolite, pointing with your foot, or putting your feet up on the furniture is a major no-no and touching a person on the head, the symbolic high point, is a serious faux pas.

According to Roger E. Axtell, an expert on non-verbal communication, there are up to 70,000 different physical signs globally. And just to confuse you, some have different meanings across different cultures.

In the Arab world, for example, the left hand is considered unclean, so the right hand should be used to accept gifts and to greet people. While the ‘thumbs up’ sign is considered welcome in Europe, it is one guaranteed way to cause offence in some parts of Africa. And in France, the number of kisses in a greeting varies between regions from two in Paris, four in Lyon and, bizarrely, three in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Swot on up your etiquette before you leave to go on holiday, or ask your tour leader for a few tips on blending in with the locals, and local people will respect you for making the effort to respect their culture. Ignore the social mores, however, and the result could be anything from bad service in a restaurant to provoking a minor diplomatic incident.

Back under the mineral-rich waters of the onsen, I’d discarded the mental tape measure and dispensed with the impromptu field research into the endowment of my fellow bathers. Instead, I was close to achieving the state of soaking nirvana known as ‘yude-dako’ or ‘the boiled octopus’.

Thankfully a Japanese friend had been on hand to give me the skinny on skinny-dipping Japanese style, namely the bath is for soaking not scrubbing and hot springs are a belly flop-free zone.

As the sun set, I reached for my ‘modesty’ towel (no bigger than the average handkerchief) and placed it over my head for that essential grandpa-on-holiday look. It would have looked a bit weird down my local pool back home but, in the wilds of Japan, I blended in like a local.”

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* photo by Jonathon Ng – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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