Possibly the greatest thing about camper car travel is that you ‘must’ use hot springs!
In this article you can find:
how you manage with no or a very limited bathroom in your camper
how you use and enjoy hot springs on your trip instead
how much you pay for that privilege
what to do when there is no hot spring around..
What?! No bathroom in my camper..
Most camper cars in Japan do not have a in-car-bathroom as you know it from other countries. A shower is not there, mostly no tab either, if indeed your camper has a dedicated cubicle at all! That might come as a shock if you don’t know, but not to worry anymore, now you know! And the solution is both brilliant and simple. Brilliant; use a public facility outside, a hot spring! And simple; reevaluate your priorities.. Is a daily rainforest-shower a must, or is a camper about enjoying life closer to nature? 😉
In the old Japan, not even that long ago, hot springs were necessities. No convenient bathroom in your house, not even hot water from the tab, meant that hot springs were bathhouses, community bathrooms. And like waterholes in dry countries and back to Roman times, these hot water holes were not just about cleaning. The social function was important too. Relaxing, meeting neighbours and friends, doing business, looking for your soul mate. Enforce relations or ‘skinship,’ the word the Japanese created for this.
Onsen business and etiquette
Now this is all history, and while a few people still use onsen or sento out of necessity, mostly it is just recreational these days. Onsen-tourism is big business and ‘being a hot spring-town’ is sure to attract many local visitors. Ryokan, or Japanese inns, surround the public springs and mostly have their own inhouse. Actually, even if you don’t stay there, you can often use these for a fee.
Do take note that enjoying an onsen is somewhat of a ritual. There are a few simple rules to follow. Like a hot spring is not a pool to splash around in but a relaxing place to sit and enjoy calmly. That goes for kids too. So read about onsen-etiquette before you strip down.
Campers love hot springs
I love onsen and especially onsen-towns. Their whole atmosphere is so authentic, so Japanese and so relaxing to me, even on crowded days. The charm of the old, dark wooden ryokan with bamboo fences, narrow streets, traditional gardens and stone lanterns. And the locations; hot springs are found mostly in mountain areas so it is nature all around.
Riding your camper you have the biggest advantage of all; you can enjoy all of this in the hours of peace and quiet; after the day trippers have left, and before new ones arrive. Feeling the true spirit of these ancient places is so much easier when all is quiet. And, you don’t spend a fortune to sleep in the ryokan; just park somewhere for free. Find out more in how to.. overnight
Onsen or Sento?
You will come across these 2 terms, ‘onsen (温泉)’ and ‘sento (銭湯).’ For your purpose, both are great as both are bathing houses. The difference is that in Onsen hot, naturally heated water flows while a Sento offers hot but ordinary water. Sento are therefore mostly found outside the mountains, in cities and are often cheaper, more simple facilities. Both are great for picking up local flavor, as the Japanese still see bathing houses as an XXL-sized version of their own bathroom and like to use them.
Public onsen or private Ryokan
There are two types of hot spring facilities; public and private. The public baths are usually great and perfectly fine to enjoy. Private baths are located inside Japanese Inns, or Ryokan. They are often the personification of old charm; dark wood, sliding paper doors and staff in kimono. If you stay here you will usually take your bath at the end of the day, or evening. Some people enjoy another bath in the morning. If you do not stay you are often welcome to use the facilities as a day visitor. Which is a fantastic way for a camperers to sample the atmosphere without breaking the bank. See below for price indications.
Men, women or mixed
Most hot springs are separated by gender. Sometimes however you find a mixed facility (混浴 konyoku) or a bath house that offers this at certain times only. Young children can join either mum or dad.
Especially in ryokan the male and female department might each have a different style or view. As one good example of equal treatment of both genders, it often happens that a certain time the locations are switched. So be aware of the signs and colors at the entrance or you and the fellow visitors will be in for a surprise!
The men one will have a blue curtain with usually the kanji “男” on it (also written in hiragana as おとこ). The women one will have a red curtain with the kanji “女” on it (also written in hiragana as おんな). Easiest is to remember your color 😉
Inside or outside
Extra special to me are ‘rotenburo’ or outside baths. As hot springs are usually in the beautiful mountains, you can imagine how it is to soak right in the middle of nature. Sometimes there is only outside, usually both. In winter it is cold to undress but once you are washing yourself it gets nice And after the bath you will be so hot, getting dressed again is no problem at all!
To tattoo or not to tattoo
It is a bit of a hyped subject, that ‘in Japanese hot springs it is not allowed to show any tattoo.’ And officially this is true, as in Japanese culture such ‘marks of anti-social groups’ are frowned upon. They are considered signs of for example the Japanese mafia and therefore the wearer is not welcome. It is best to simply avoid confrontation, after all you are a guest in Japan and avoiding confrontation is the thing to do in many Asian cultures anyway. So either cover up a small tattoo with a waterproof bandage, or use a private room where available.
Cost of onsen
As a rule, public onsen are cheaper than baths in private ryokan, Japanese inns. And sento are even cheaper. Sometimes it is worth paying more for the ryokan, especially when you plan to take more time that day so you can experience the ‘old charm’ of these often beautiful buildings. And they are not always much more expensive. Quite a few onsen are even completely free. Check it at the local tourist office, they will also be able to inform you which inn will allow day visitors on that day. And as a go Camper Japan-Member you can often find out from the details in our member information.
So costs range from free up to over 1,000¥ per person. If you bring your towel, toiletries and a small towel or cloth to use inside the bath you pay nothing extra. Otherwise you can rent these. In fancier places the toiletries like shampoo and moisturiser, and use of hair dryers will be included.
Onsen are great to feel local!
Enjoying hot springs are high on my list of real local things I love. It is fun and relaxing but it is also easy. Once you get the hang of it you go about the ritual as ‘cool’ and confident as the next Japanese. And it is great feeling to blend in like that, especially when you see your kids going about it just like it is something they have been doing for ages. And to make it easy, just read all about onsen-etiquette before you enter.
What if there is no hot spring around?
Of course there is not a hot spring in every corner of Japan. And you might not even want to soak in one every day, simply to save some ¥en. Most parkings where I like to stop for the night have public bathrooms. Clean toilets and clean tap water to wash and mostly even drink. Sometimes even warm water, great on those chilly winter mornings.
Bringing water to wash and drink
Where to fill up your water tanks on the road? Also for this public toilets facilities are suitable. Washing obviously, drinking water mostly. What to do with the ‘mostly?’ Just stick to the rule that remote taps might be connected to another source and might not be potable. Be safe, fill up at a less remote spot. Actually they always have a sign warning you, mostly in English too. or be even saver and buy bottled water.
Read my post about drinking Japanese tap water or not, it has all the facts.
Create your own unique trip! Go Camper Japan!
More practical information for your trip:
all information on finding a parking for a good night’s sleep in how to.. overnight.
all ins and outs of Japanese toilets in how to.. use Japanese toilets
cooking and shopping on the road in how to.. wine and dine in your camper trip
finding your way by GPS in how to.. navigate Japanese roads
and much, much more in How to..