I was going to write this post on the Kagoshima Aquarium, bit frankly, it wasn’t all that awesome of a site and I’ve already written up far better aquariums in Japan. So after a trip to the local sento (public bathhouse) this past weekend with a VERY enthusiastic three-year-old, I thought I’d write a bit about visiting an onsen (hot spring bath) with kids.
Many people feel (or think they’ll feel) uncomfortable at an onsen. There is that whole taking ones clothes off in front of strangers aspect, I’ll grant you that. If you DO go that route (and there are many MANY lovely onsen out there, so please don’t be afraid), I guarantee that if anyone stares, it will be to “ooh” and “awww” over your kid, with nary a thought for you.
If you are a mom traveling with a young boy, or a dad who wants to give mom a break and take daughter to the onsen, go right ahead. Up until the age of 6 or 7, you’ll find children in an onsen with their parent of the opposite sex. For very young kids, the general rule is that they must be potty trained (or at least on their way) to use the public onsen. They do have special swimmer diapers here in Japan (and I assume in other countries as well) but I’ve never seen anyone actually wearing one. I took my daughter into an onsen for the first time at 29 months and we hadn’t quite gotten around to potty training yet, but I had the confidence (thankfully, rightly so) that if she didn’t pee in the tub at home, she wouldn’t do it in the onsen either.
Public onsen and ryokan baths are often a bit too hot for little ones. In larger establishments, you may find pools of various temperatures (the Oedo Onsen Monogatari complex in Tokyo has a fabulous range of both indoor and outdoor baths at different temps) but this is not always the case. A better bet is to head for the baths outside – if there are any – as the air temperature will make the water feel a tad more bearable.
If you’re visiting a ryokan that is either quite large or caters often to foreigners, there’s a good chance that there is a “family bath” available. This is most likely an indoor onsen bath, drawing on that same lovely natural hot spring water but usually lacking the lovely views. This is an excellent opportunity for a family with multiple kids, a very young baby, a semi potty trained toddler or simply a couple who wants to enjoy some time alone (public baths are nearly always segregated). You might have to pay an additional fee to use this bath and even schedule your bath time when you first check-in.
If you’re not staying at a ryokan but you still want to visit an onsen with your kid, there are numerous stand-alone bathhouses around Japan in both large cities and out-of-the-way rural locations. Here in Kumamoto, the bathhouse Ikkyu sits practically at the entrance to the Kyushu expressway but is the epitome of serenity inside. I can’t speak to the public side of the sento, but they have a “family” wing that offers at least a dozen private baths. These baths are pricey (from ¥2600 to ¥4000 per hour) but they are plush – at least one, sometimes two cedar or stone baths; beautiful silent waterfalls and bamboo in the yard; TVs and plus couches in the changing area and – of course – a place to wash off. Places like this often have bath toys for sale as well. We now are the proud owners of at least three colored elephant “watering cans”. I’ve also found the temperatures at these baths to be perfect for our three-year-old.
Family bathing might seem odd to those of us who grew up somewhere else, but in Japan, it’s a very common occurrence. And onsen are one of Japan’s most enjoyable pleasures. Both you and your kids will probably have a ball.