For foreigners living in Japan, the appeal of visiting an onsen (hot spring) is high. Not only is it a fun cultural experience that many foreigners will not have tried in their home countries, but there are also several health benefits of visiting an onsen, such as stress relief, the relieving of muscle pains and of beautifying the skin. However, if used incorrectly, going to the onsen can give you a painful headache.
Here are some handy hints to help you use the onsen without this problem occurring.
If you know that you will be going to the onsen later in the day, make sure you stay hydrated and avoid both alcohol and too many caffeinated drinks. This is especially important during the hot summer months when the weather is warmer.
As you know, it’s important to have a thorough shower before you get into the onsen, to make sure your body is clean. I recommend that for your pre-onsen shower, you choose to use hot water to get your body ready for the heat it’s about to experience.
Onsens are all different temperatures, and many public onsens have different pools ranging from very hot to cool or even cold. If it’s your first time, I recommend you use a cooler pool first rather than jumping straight into the hottest one! As you get into the water, the initial shock of how hot it is can make you hold your breath to deal with the mild pain. If you hold your breath, you are much more likely to get a headache, so do your best to just breathe through it. Once you’re in, the pain stops quite quickly. It’s a good idea to ease yourself in slowly – just sit on the edge and put your feet in first.
You can overheat really quickly in an onsen, especially if you’re not used to it. A good way to keep cool is to take plenty of cold showers. Public onsens usually have several different pools to try out (with different temperatures, massage jets or nice-smelling added minerals) so you can take a cold shower each time you get out to use a new pool. If you are using a small, private bath, I recommend taking a cold shower every 5 minutes or so to avoid getting a headache. Be careful when you get out not to stand up too quickly as this can make you dizzy. Stand up slowly, and when you shower, do it Japanese style – you are far less likely to get dizzy if you are sitting down.
When you are in an onsen, your body is sweating pretty much non-stop. You need to replace those liquids lost or you’ll end up with a massive headache. During a 40-60 minute session at the onsen, I drink roughly 1 litre of cold liquids.
Both public and private onsens are equipped with little plastic basins to use when washing your body, but people also use them to carry things around with them in the onsen, such as their towels, and you can also use them to carry drinks in. I recommend one 500 ml bottle of cool water, and one 500 ml bottle of something sugary to keep your energy levels high – but avoid things with caffeine in. Be very careful not to spill your drink into the public onsens – it won’t make you any friends! When I use a private onsen, I fill one of the small plastic basins with cold water, and have it next to the pool to dip my hands in and splash some cold water on my face to cool down.
Take a nice long shower when you’re finished (a cold one is recommended) and don’t move around too quickly, just take it easy. When you get dressed, try not to bend over so that your head is upside down (this can cause a headache to strike very quickly) but rather bend at the knees to retrieve things from the floor. Continue drinking cold liquids or treat yourself to a sugary snack – ice-cream is a top choice! Many onsens have a lounging area where you can relax after bathing, so grab yourself a drink from the vending machine and relax with a book or just stare at the TV which will invariably be blaring some amusing Japanese comedy. If you want to be super sure about avoiding a headache, you can use various ice-pack products (available from 100Yen stores) to cool you down, such as an ice-pack headband.
All these precautions may make it seem like it’s not really worth going to an onsen, but as I said there are many health benefits of using a hot spring, as well as for the enjoyment of a fun, relaxing activity. Most of the time, I think onsen-induced headaches are down to people not being used to the water, and even following these hints is not a surefire way of completely avoiding a headache, but it’s likely to reduce it significantly. After using the onsen a few times, you will be used to the heat and the headaches are likely to disappear. I still get mild headaches after going to the onsen, but for me, it’s worth it.