“Take one tired body, wash thoroughly, marinate for two hours in sudorific, brackish water, rinse, dry and put to bed for eight hours.”
Paul Murray writing for the TravelDish website on Japanese Onsen Culture & Etiquette
When I was stationed in Japan in the early 70s, my Japanese pen-pal from grade school (whom I never stopped corresponding with) convinced me to join him on a trip to an onsen or hot spring in the central volcanic mountains of Japan. Our first attempt was at the Komaki Spa in Misawa, where I was stationed. Komaki is a huge rock pool where hundreds of soakers can take a bath at the same time. It was noisy, bustling and crowded with naked humanity.
My second trip to an Onsen came about because I was dating a Japanese girl in Hachinohe and her family disapproved. Her name was Michiko; her friends, where she worked as a tour bus guide, called her Chico. We were getting pretty serious about each other and yet nothing would happen without her family’s approval, which wasn’t coming. Only her older brother, who was much more cosmopolitan and Westernized, understood. It was suggested that I meet him. That meeting was prearranged at an old Ryokan inn on the side of a mountain that paid host to some of the most serene and tranquil hot springs I will ever see in my lifetime. I won’t bore you with the details of that aborted love story. The point is that the culture of the hot spring (onsen) is important and needs to be respected.
The ritual of the bath strips titles and status symbols. One never knows if the individual soaking nearby is rich or poor; whether that individual has the power to shape economies or is barely scraping by. It doesn’t matter. In the bath, all are equal . . . lord and serf alike. I met my girlfriends’ brother on the sacred neutral ground of the Japanese onsen. That is pretty much how I approach natural hot springs thirty years later as I rediscover the joys of soaking. The hot spring, like the onsen, is a sacred place; expectant of rituals and respect. Out of the Japanese rituals come the common-sense rules of conduct, or etiquette, for the Hot Spring. So on to the rules . . .
Rule # 1
Respect for others. We go to the springs to escape the stresses and pressures of a crowded, urban existence. We go to relax and enjoy the therapeutic joys of mineral-rich hot waters. It is not unlike soaking in your bathtub at home, locking out the days distractions and letting your mind empty of problems. The byword of hot springs is tranquility and you should endeavor not to disturb the tranquility of fellow soakers. Interaction in the pool should be low-key . . . not high-energy.
Rowdiness and partying are out of place in the pools. So is the boom-box and loud music. We want to hear the flutter of birds in the nearby trees . . . we want to ‘hear’ the quiet with our minds. That is why we drove miles from the city to escape the pressures and noise of modern civilization.
First-time visitors are often taken aback at the easy-going, clothing-optional nature of remote, natural hot springs. That’s fair. After all, we all have our hangups and public nudity is just one of many. If you think about it though (ritual and culture aside) slipping into the hot pools au’ natural makes a lot of practical sense . . . particularly if you have made a long, hard hike just to reach the springs.
Rule # 2
The Hot Springs are not baths. They are not places in which to wash yourself off. They are places of relaxation. In Japan, upon entering the onsen, you disrobe and with a small towel (usually draped on the head), you go to a soaping area outside to pools. Often you sit on a small wooden stool and completely soap yourself up from head to toes to cleanse your body. Then your douse yourself with water from a large ladle. Only then can you properly enter the pools and enjoy your soak. You respect the hot spring by entering clean. The towel is not for modesty but is rather to help cool the head through evaporation as you soak in those superheated waters. They also are used to cover ones face and direct contemplation inwards as you soak.
In practical terms it makes sense. Why do we shower before getting into a hot tub? Why do they ask us to shower prior to using a public swimming pool? The water in the springs is communal . . . shared . . . and you must do everything you can to keep it clean. Soaping is not practical at informal natural hot springs nor is it environmentally proper. However, we can rinse ourselves off before we step into the pool. Often there are containers set aside for just this purpose. As most natural hot springs are located in the wilderness and require the effort of a hike to get there, we should not pollute the beneficial powers of the springs with our sweat, sunscreen oils and insect repellents. Dip a jug into the water and douse yourself before getting in. Pay particular attention to the dirt you may bring in with your feet.
Rule # 3
Expect Nudity Communal bathing is a common practice in much of the rest of the world. Part of the reason is because bathtubs are a luxury in all but the most affluent countries. Japan is a prime example of communal bathing and the extension of that ritual to soaking at the numerous ‘onsens’ or natural hot springs dotting the volcanic backbone of that country.
Sharing a bath is a delightful custom and although a normally prudish North American might disdain the naturist or nudist lifestyles as unacceptable for them, attitudes often quickly change when presented with an inviting natural hot spring and a clothing-optional custom. Very often, these same prudish individuals will disrobe in front of perfect strangers and slide into the relaxing waters with them. Your reaction will determine how a new arrival behaves. If you are accepting, non-judgemental and respectful, you will find that you are treated the same. Gawking is taboo because you add an unwelcome and unexpected element to the experience that is often perceived as sexual.
Boys will be boys. Last week I was soaking up at Scenic. In the pool with us was a stunningly attractive young lady on only her second ever trip to a hot springs. She had come up accompanied by her boyfriend. She was hesitant at first but eventually disrobed and joined us all in the pool at which moment all thoughts of her nudity nudged back and we engaged in nice conversation. Later on a group of young men came over the trail, headed for the springs. They spotted us . . . and then the lady in the pool with us. They stalled on the trail above the pool, some turning back to the others. Eventually they came down with our friendly gestures to join in.
We call the newly-annointed female soakers ‘goddesses’ and accord them special place at the springs. Just a custom particular to Scenic that helps bond the regulars and makes them welcome. Our newly-appointed goddess and those in the pool exchanged knowing glances but kept straight faces because we knew what to expect. First the gawking . . . at her, not us. Then the uncomfortable milling about, delaying. We made room, invited them to join us. Eventually they began to disrobe . . . very slowly and at a distance with backs to us. To underwear and then into the pool as we made way for them.
Boys will be boys and they had to situate themselves where they could see our goddess (who, I have to admit, was eating this all up). If the water didn’t turn them beet-red, their discomfiture certainly would (and did). And one thing you cannot hide under briefs is an erection. They never did fully shed the last of their clothes the whole time we were up there, and I imagine they hiked all the way back down wearing wet underwear.
The point? They equated nudity with a sexual connotation and reacted accordingly. I admit that on occasion I have gotten aroused because of some gesture or look of a lady but I accept that and go on, neither hiding nor displaying what she has provoked (and by provoked, I mean that appreciatively). Nudists and nude soakers are neither celibate nor neutered, but we do approach soaking with a respectful acceptance of others.
Scenic has been traditionally clothing-optional and since it is relatively obscure and difficult to reach, those who do come up are aware of the custom. Not all hot springs are like this and you must be considerate of those already there. Ask first if the pool is full of people wearing shorts. Usually, they will not object but if they do, respect that statement. Often, it only takes one person to get everyone else shedding their clothes as well and really enjoying the soak as it was meant to be. I always carry a pair of shorts with me just in case my fellow soakers are uncomfortable with the idea of nudity. Once in the pool and bonded with my fellow soakers (the threat is gone), a casual and friendly observation about soaking au’ natural is usually enough to change objections. Remember . . . respect others first.
Be extremely respectful of couples and family groups. The protective urge comes to fore when an unaccompanied male appears, strips and slips into a pool with young children or wives and girlfriends. Again, ask. Or seek another pool if possible.
Keep sexual innuendo, sexual banter, gawking and displays to a minimum and everyone can relax and enjoy.
Rule # 4
Do Not Trash the Site Natural hot springs are often in remote areas with few, if any amenities. So it is up to us, the users, to keep the site in as pristine a condition as possible. Despite the custom of serene soaking, there will be parties and happy gatherings, and that is fine as long as it does not disturb the enjoyment of others.
Do Not Bring Glass Anywhere Near the Springs. Period! The reason is obvious. One accident and you have to drain the pool before someone seriously injures them self.
Pack Out What You Bring In Better yet, pack out just a little more. Don’t assume that because it is forest or wilderness that you can just toss that beer can down the slope and it wouldn’t matter. It does and those beer cans quickly add up. When I go to a hot springs, I take a 33 gal trash bag with me. While I soak, my pack and clothes sit safe inside the sack protected from moisture. When I’m done for the day that same sack can carry down a lot of garbage that invariably accumulates around every hot spring by those less considerate.
Use sanitary facilities if possible and if not available, go into the tree-line well away from the springs to relieve yourself. The general Forest Service guidelines are 100ft from any open source of water. Since hot springs often spontaneously emerge out of the ground, I would add “and not above the springs” to prevent contamination of the springs.
Carry a small roll of toilet paper with you and something to dig a cat-hole no more than six to eight inches deep to take advantage of the soils natural ability to decompose human waste. Make sure you completely cover everything up with soil. When you return to the pools, do us all a favor and rinse yourself off before getting back in the pool. Think about what would affect you and behave accordingly. Obviously, don’t piss in the pool.
Become a Steward of the Springs Teach through example. Natural hot springs are often unmaintained or at the best by a few people who take an interest in keeping the site functional and open. Someone cleans those pools. Someones repairs the rock walls or liners, constructs the trails, builds little amenities to make the experience a little better. Learn from these people and pitch in a hand occasionally.
A hot spring pool should be completely emptied and scrubbed clean at least once every three days otherwise microorganisms and algae will grow. The only way to combat this growth in the wild is to scrub those pools clean and then completely drain them. If you are a frequent visitor to a spring, learn how to do this and offer to help. Do not use any chemicals or bleach or detergent in the pools as they will contaminate the runoff below . . . kill fish . . . and get the place shut down real fast.
Rule # 5
Soak Safely and make soaking for others safe. If you have to hike into a natural hot springs area then you are probably in reasonably good health. However, there are some important considerations for healthy and safe soaking.
The communal waters of hots springs are not chlorinated and maintenance on the pools is often hit-and-miss. Growth of microorganisms like algae, protozoa and bacteria are a real concern. Despite the good intentions of the volunteers that try to maintain the springs under primative and rustic conditions, contamination can and does happen. The hot water has taken a trip deep into the earth and is probably as clean as any artesian well, but it must make its’ way into the pools and that is where contamination can happen from animal and human waste.
Soakers often revel in the wildlife and get into the bad habit of feeding the chipmunks and birds without consideration of the consequences. Yes . . . they are cute. But where do these animals live? Where do they make their droppings? Hot spring waters are ground waters, sometimes traveling very shallowly below the surface. An abundance of ‘tamed’ wildlife has an adverse effect on the bacterial levels in hot spring pools. Please do not feed the wildlife!
Since natural springs are not regularly maintained, there will be some growth of algae in the pools. Volunteers get into the habit of scrubbing the pools every couple of days or so, and then completely draining the pools if feasible. The turn-over rate of water has an effect on how often this is necessary. However, you cannot rely on finding a pristine, clean pool. The rocks may be extremely slippery . . . the waters less than clear. You must be prepared and decide: is it safe? Just a note: the high mineral content of many springs will also often make surfaces slippery.
Don’t become a Typoid Mary. Do not slide into a communal pool with open cuts or sores. If you have a communicable disease . . . stay out! Do not compromise or infect others . . . that is an assault!
Take heat seriously. Pool temperatures range from tepid to scalding hot and you can easily be mislead about your tolerance for the heating effect on your body. It is not unsual for a soaker to stand up and then promptly faint from ‘head rush’. It happens all the time and to the most unlikely people. Learn your tolerance and don’t overdo it. In the hotter pools the temperatures often reach 110 to 120 degrees F. That is heating your body to that temperature over time and 104 degrees F in the brain is heat stroke, a serious medical emergency. Learn the symptoms of too much heat.
Heat exhaustion is due to a lack of water, as funny as that sounds. You sweat and start to dehydrate yourself as the hot spring waters heat you up. You get a little chill, maybe a slight headache. As heat exhaustion progresses, your blood electrolytes drop and the blood thickens. Your skin make get pale and cramps begin. These are warning signs and you need to take action. Soak and cool. Drink plenty of water.
When the core body temperature reaches somewhere around 104 degrees F, you start to shut down and go into heat stroke. You skin is red-hot, no perspiration. Your body has given up and this is a serious life and death emergency. Your blood pressure will pulmet and you will probably pass out right there in the pool. Treatment is cooling as rapidly as possible and then getting medical help.
I mention heat problems because they are very common; especially among neophyte soakers. Alcohol needs to be mentioned because it is common to have a drink or two or three at the special nature of hot springs. But alcohol can make heat problems worse but masking some of the symptoms . . . or hastening them along. Treat drinking and soaking much the same as drinking and driving. Have someone stay responsible to watch out for problems as they may develop. You are in wilderness, often a very long way from emergency help should something happen.
Rule # 6
Respect the Property Owners Rights and Rules Whether it be private property or public lands, there are expectations.
One, you don’t own the property and you are there at the owners pleasure. Most private property owners don’t mind people enjoying the springs if they are respectful of just about everything I’ve outlined above. Some will post their property but imply the use of the springs is okay. The property owner is responsible and liable for what happens on his or her property and posting is one way to limit that liability should something happen. Get a feel for what’s allowed before heading off onto someones’ private property.
Don’t go around making ‘improvements’ to the springs. Nothing torques the property owner more than finding vast deck construction in violation of building codes. That is what closed Scenic Hot Springs, arguably one of the best hot springs in the area. You jeopardize the owner and you will get access removed real quick for everyone.
On public lands the restrictions are often more severe. Building pools (no matter how rudimentary) around naturally-occurring hot springs in Wilderness Areas and National Parks is a felony and can get you jailed. If you are going to insist on those activities you must keep them as low key as possible. Rangers might cast their attention aside if it remains in consonance with the surrounding but don’t push your luck.
Many other activities are restricted or controlled as well. Camping overnight is often not allowed except with permission. Fires are almost always forbidden. The short of it is: you are on the property owners land at his or hers sufferance. Respect that!