My parents, The Penpal, and her parents were all spending a night at a ryokan in Izu. One of the big attractions for a ryokan is a giant, beautifully landscaped onsen (hot spring). After an amazing dinner, my parents were excited for their first onsen experience.
We returned to our rooms and changed into the yukatas that were provided. A yukata works like a standard bathrobe, but it’s less casual. I had worn a yukata before, my mom figured hers out without any issues, but my dad couldn’t quite get the hang of things. His yukata kept coming open and exposing his chest.
The Penpal and her family, now wearing their yukatas, came into our room to have tea and talk about the hot springs. They all sat on one side of the table, sitting with legs carefully folded, yukatas perfectly fastened, looking very dignified. My dad was not quite able to get comfortable on the floor cushions, and his yukata kept opening. He was inadvertently rocking a greasy, 70’s disco guy look. My mom and I couldn’t stop laughing, especially with the Penpal’s family looking so proper on the other side of the table.
Onsens are segregated by sex – the plan was for the women and the men to separate and enjoy a nice soak in incredibly hot water. During our discussion we learned that my mom was developing an allergic reaction to the fish she ate at dinner, The Penpal had fallen to the communists, and The Penpal’s mother didn’t want to go by herself. The women decided to hang out in the room.
The men were still good to go, and as we gathered our towels my dad asked when he should put on his bathing suit. Apparently he thought I was joking when I told him that no clothing was allowed in the onsen. When he realized I was serious, he decided to have another beer before we left.
In Japan, going to the onsen with family is a normal part of the culture. As a Canadian, I can’t think of too many things I’d like to do less than getting naked with my father and future father in law. I had another beer too.
The Penpal made sure to carefully explain the procedure for using the onsen in English in case I had translation problems with her father. It seemed simple enough: get naked, wash carefully with the shower, rinse off all soap, get into the water. We got into the change room, and after one more assurance that we really did have to remove ALL clothes, we all sat down on the little buckets in front of the shower station and proceeded to clean up for our bath. After a few minutes of showering, scrubbing, and doing our best to make sure we weren’t going to get yelled at by anyone, we got up and walked to the onsen.
To say the water was “hot” would be doing a disservice to the word hot. I now understand how it feels to be soup.
The Penpal’s father, used to sitting in incredibly hot water, easily adjusted to the temperature. My dad and I quickly turned lobster red, and there was a point I thought one (or both) of us would have a heart attack. After getting used to being slowly cooked, we actually enjoyed the experience. The onsen was beautiful and relaxing.
I probably lasted less than 10 minutes, apologizing to my dad for leaving him without a translator. He stayed in for a few more minutes before getting out. The Penpal’s father stayed a few minutes beyond that, but I’m sure he could have been in there for at least another half hour, seemingly impervious to the heat.
Overall it was an interesting experience, and I had a fantastic sleep afterwards. If you can stand the heat, a nice soak in the onsen would be a great way to end a day.