Written by Ririen Fina Richdayanti
Just like any other Japanese words, at first the word onsen sounded foreign to me. I began to hear it just couple of months before my departure to the country which well-known as a country with a strong work ethic and proven technology, Japan. Later on, I found out that this country is the Mecca of onsen, which translated into English as hot springs. According to the Law of Hot Springs that dates back to 1948, in the article written by Hendry and Raveri, Japanese describe onsen as [constituted by] any spring of water gushing out from the underground as warm water, mineral water, vapors or gas with an average temperature of 25 degree Celsius or more. It must also possess at least one of a set specified minerals…at a given percentage (From Curing and Playing, to Leisure: Two Japanese Hot Springs: Arima and Kinosaki Onsen, in Japan at Play: The Ludic and Logic of Power. London: Rutledge. 2002. p. 246).
To understand the historical and cultural of onsen in Japanese society become important for me, because I enjoy to work amongst senior people in tourism and hospitality business back in my home country, Indonesia. And I am aware that the numbers of Japanese senior people are growing significantly in the country, which they are actually need places in a moderate climate such my tropical country, to elude themselves from the extreme winter and summer season every year in their home country. In order to provide and develop living and leisure arrangements which fit to the expectancies of Japanese senior people in Indonesia, I need to understand and learn their way of life and preferences. Definitely onsen is one of the arrangements which I strongly need to consider in developing it, for the Japanese senior people who visit or stay longer in leisure arrangement in Indonesia.
Yet, when I believe I needed to experience in bathing communally either in onsen, sentou or ofuro, at first, I felt foreign to the concept of totally stripping off my clothes in front of others’ eyes and bathing communally with them. Although each of the arrangement I visited, which I enjoyed, they separate their communal bath facilities, and where women bath facilities separates from the male ones. Both as Muslim woman and Javanese (one of the tribes in Indonesia) woman, I’ve been taught to cover my body with clothes in front of others. It is part of the muslim women roles in the society to lower their opposite sex (men) gaze, by applying a modest dress which is not revealing to them, that may bring feelings of unwanted and inappropriate arrousal. Islamic upbringing also teaches us to cover all muslim women bodies, even down to our whole hair for the same objective, lowering males gaze who do not have blood relation as biological father, biological male siblings, and relation by marriage (husband).
Yet, the comprehension and the level of muslim understanding themselves on the Islamic upbringing are different from one to another. So that, we can see some muslim women choose not to wear head cover and not wearing hijab/jilbab, the cloth which cover entire of muslim women bodies, which left their hands and face only to be seen in public. Still when it comes to bath in communal circumstances, actually most of us prefer to stay with clothes such as bathing suits on. And for some non-Japanese nationals, regardless their religions and nationalities that I know and ever tried to bath in onsen, they find it foreign also, to bath in totally naked in public or communal bath situation. So that, I totally understand if some of Muslim women, will never consider to experience bathing in communal facilities, if it has to cost them to be totally naked in front of strangers to experience it, even if the public I refer here are all women also.
To my case, beside the interest of comprehending the Japanese senior people preferences toward hot springs facilities, what strengthen my will to experience the onsen, sentou and ofuro are also because basically, I enjoy warm water shower or lying down in warm water in bath-tub before I call it a day, to wash away fatigue and tiredness, Japanese also believe onsen, sentou and ofuro have the advantage to heal them. Onsen also well-known as having efficacy in developing and preserving the beauty of the skin and its smoothness, and just like any other women, this efficacy which advertised never fails me, to conquer the strange feeling I had in being totally stripped off in the women bathing communally environment, and I decided to experience it.
Hyotan onsen in Kannawa, Beppu-shi is the first onsen I went to with some of my lady friends. Before Hyotan, I went to the ofuro in the dormitory where I reside in Japan, and perhaps what the Japanese called sentou in two hotel arrangements in the city of Beppu, in Oita Prefecture. In one of the article I read about Japanese bathing culture, wrote by Adam M. Merry, called More Than a Bath: An Examination of Japanese Bathing Culture, he tried to differ between onsen, sentou and ofuro. The differentiation which some of the Japanese whom I know, they actually cannot differentiate between those three facilities. Yet, what I can understand from Mr. Merry’s writing article when he tried to differentiate onsen, sentou and ofuro, it’s the water which onsen has are naturally heated by the Earth’s springs, while sentou and ofuro’s are not, instead, their sourced of water are coming from municipal taps. Also, while onsen develops as public arrangements right in the place where the hot springs manifested in the area, sentou and ofuro usually develop around the area where settlement are develop.
Relate to the healing and therapy ideas that onsen offers, those what brought me to the Hyotan onsen and I was enjoying the variety of the material of the pools, they are stones, ceramics and woods, I am not sure whether the woods were coming from the aromatic hinoki or Japanese cypress wood, which is considered sacred or not. Those are the indoor’s type of onsen that Hyotan has, it has sand bath and outdoor’s onsen also. I was enjoying the waterfalls where we can sit or stand up below the falls and felt the water gives us a natural massages over our back and other body parts. It worked for me. Hyotan onsen also well-known by its jigoku-mushi dishes, which is all steam dishes steamed by the natural onsen heat, starts from the steamed eggs, down to varied dishes such steamed veggies, and even, steamed seafood, which I had a chance to enjoy it.
As a closure, what I wrote here based on my comprehension of Islamic upbringing and as a muslim woman toward onsen arrangement. Yet, my writing shall not represent all the perspective of muslim toward onsen in Japan, because amongs muslim also have differences in comprehending and applying the Islamic upbringing in our life style. What I can suggest to be considered by the onsen or hot-springs management and operational in Japan, if they want to attract muslim people in particular, or even, non-Japanese nationals regardless their religions and beliefs, are:
- Allow the guests to wear piece of clothes to cover their intimate body parts, if they do not comfortable to be totally naked when they want to enjoy onsen.
- Develop smaller and private onsen ponds more, to target muslim audience who prefer bathing in private or with their spouse only.
- Arrange halal certification and preparation for the steamed onsen dishes which will be more appealing to muslim visitor.
- Advertise more of the efficacy/benefits of onsen based on the heritage of Japanese culture on it, in English, because some Japanese language barrier which some of the muslim people still have.
- Develop the skin care products and brands of Hyotan onsen, with halal ingredients and certification.
Merry, A.M. (2013). More Than a Bath: An Examination of Japanese Bathing Culture.
California, US: Claremont CMC Senior Theses, 665.
Hendry, J. & Raveri, M. (2002). “From Curing and Playing, to Leisure: Two Japanese Hot Springs: Arima and Kinosaki Onsen” in Japan at Play: The Ludic and Logic of Power.
London: Routledge, 246.