How not to onsen

by Joanne Ellor

This story is part of our 'Funny Spa Stories' series, featuring tales from luxury hotel guests which were sent in for our travel writing competition.

Photo by Vera46.


This year, my boyfriend Mark and I had the amazing opportunity to visit Japan, an absolutely incredible country which we shall never forget. As part of our trip we visited the wonderful city of Kyoto, where we stayed in a modern hotel close to the station. Kyoto has a vast range of similar accommodation on offer– but the lure of this particular hotel had been its top floor Onsen Spa. Onsens are hugely popular in Japan, they are a ‘hot spring’ naturally filled with mineral-rich geothermal heated water; a by-product of the country’s high volcanic activity. They have a long-standing tradition in Japan, once used as a place for public bathing they are now seen as an ideal place for relaxation.

After a long day visiting the beautiful temples of Kyoto, Mark headed off for his first Onsen experience. As with most things in Japan, use of the Onsens come with a number of traditional practices and strict rules of etiquette which must be adhered to; such as ensuring cleanliness through washing first and the bather being completely naked except for a face-cloth sized towel whilst walking around. Whilst researching our trip, I had read about these in detail. Unfortunately Mark had not, leading to a less than relaxing spa experience...

At the spa entrance was a stand of slip on shoes. Unfortunately Mark did not recognise these as the hotel slippers provided in our room (supplied for the strict Japanese custom of removing outdoor footwear before entering the home) and assumed them to be shoes for ‘walking around the spa’. Donning his new shoes he entered the changing area and put on his knee-length swimming shorts, after a quick rinse he kicked off his shoes and headed into his first Onsen. At first he was alone in the water until a Japanese man entered the spa – he took one look at Mark, tutted in disgust and chose another spa bath. It took the entrance of another naked gentleman before Mark realised that he shouldn’t be wearing the shorts. Unfortunately it was too late, and both (stark naked) Japanese men stood up and started to shout at him in Japanese, bits wobbling everywhere – they were pointing at the shorts and the towel followed by a sign written in Japanese script on the wall.

Humiliated, Mark ran out to get changed. As he did so, one of the gentlemen came out and grabbed his robe before leaving the spa. Relieved that there had been no further altercation, he headed towards the door to return the ‘spa shoes’ and locate his trainers. At the doorway the robed man was still at the shoe rack searching for his shoes. As Mark returned the dripping wet slippers the gentleman removed them again, with a look of absolute disgust he shook the shoes, placed them on his feet and off he squelched.

Mark’s summary of the experience on returning to the room was simply "I couldn’t have got that any more wrong".

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