Hotel onsen in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, photo by Roméo A.

Contrary to rumors, it is not true that you can fart with your hearts’ content in the onsen, hoping that the hot, sulfurous waters would mask the smell from your hot, sulfurous ass. Yeah, the water may be bubbling and churning in 44 degrees heat, and sometimes the smell of sulfur may pervade the air, but farting involves three steps that you can never hide, even in the onsen.

First, tilt your body to one side, then send those ghastly bubbles gushing to the surface with one “umph!” and lastly, flash that sinister grin.

Japan boasts thousands of hot springs (onsens), with as much as 1,800 of these developed within trendy traditional inns (called ryokan) nationwide. Legends have it that samurai warriors would often soak in them after battle to heal their wounds and refresh their spirits. A major tourist destination, onsens attract busloads of businessmen, pensioners, and students who swarm to them each year.

However, gaijins (foreigners) from the more conservative Asian countries shun the onsen, fearing probably that somebody might examine their “equipment” and snicker. But surely, this happens least in the onsen, where one goes to find peace and tranquility, return to the age of innocence, and be free from the taboos and restraints of modern Japanese life. This is where businessmen close deals, students discuss mathematical problems, women chatter about their kids, and retirees talk about stock market trends.

I went to an onsen recently during a study trip to Hakone. Of course, this wasn’t my first time, but this was my first to enter a really crowded onsen. I had never seen so many naked men washing and cleaning themselves and then dipping in the soothing, sulfuric waters. The heat was just right, and I felt the water stripping away all my stresses and strains from the previous, hectic week. My mind raced to the sumptuous dinner and cold beer that awaited us at the dining hall. Ah, it was heaven, and I could just stare dreamily at the stars from the rotenburo (outdoor onsen), savoring the good life.

And then came the fart, and everything just shattered. Sound travels in water, and from where it came from sat this fat, bald man and his sinister grin. Perfect!

Two years ago in Otaru, Hokkaido, foreigners, especially Russian sailors, were banned from onsens because of their habit of boozing in the baths. The owners reasoned that letting the gaijins in repelled their Japanese patrons, and thus became a matter of life and death for their business. Other gaijins reasoned that this stereotyping is uncalled for and could be dangerous. I just don’t know which is more repelling, the boozing or the farting.

Nonetheless, the onsen’s therapeutic effects do rid you of pungent intestinal gas. According to an onsen brochure, these sulfuric waters help cure “gastrointestinal and nervous diseases.” Some claim easing arthritic and rheumatic pain, attracting the elderly, while other onsens boast curing “gynecological problems.” I just wonder what these are.

In ryokans where there is no real onsen, there is often a public bath that offers hot, steaming water. Naive gaijins have sometimes caused horror by emptying the tubs after use, hence, a sign often seen in these places that read: “Foreigners are requested not to pull cock in Japanese bath.” Foreign guests are sometimes given written instructions that say: “Do not enter bath with soap bubbling body.” Hmmmm…

Ah, but how I wish onsens were mixed. After all, lewdness and licentiousness only begin in the mind. Decades ago, mixed onsens were the norm, and nobody really minded each other. Then came these stiff missionaries whose first edict was to divide them, initially with a rope, and then finally, with total segregation. Whether they wanted to protect themselves from beautiful Japanese women, that I do not know.

A foreigner once wrote in 1859: “As a people, they (the Japanese) are most virtuous, individually and collectively, of any nation extant. A contrary report has gained ground, owing to their habit of promiscuous bathing, male and female in the one bath, and in puris naturalibus. But it must be understood that they recognize no harm in doing so–that no harm has ever come of it, and that the practice is continued because their ancestors for ages did so before them. There is no lack of practical morality amongst them, and there is no country in the world where the ties of marriage are held more scared than in Japan; while the virgins are equally chaste, and perfectly correct in their interaction with strangers.” Don’t forget, that was in 1859!

Well, some of that may still be true now, but the number of mixed onsens has dropped drastically. And most of these are quite remote, signifying their detachment from the “civilized” world. Their waters are often very hot and too sulfuric, and sometimes whitish in color. No fun, indeed.

Despite this apartheid-like segregation in most public onsens, the lucky person in the counter can see in both sides. If there’s an English-speaking onsen owner reading this, with a vacancy for “bath counter clerk,” please don’t ever forget the email address below.

You can send feedback to tbutch@technologist.com.

Originally published in Philippines Today.