By Nao Yako / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterWhile staying at Sui Suwako in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, visitors can enjoy open-air bathing on the inn's rooftop area while overlooking Lake Suwa. However, when you arrive at the entrance of the mixed-bathing area, you come across a notice: "You are not allowed to bathe naked here."
Instead, Sui Suwako offers guests a free "yuami-gi," or bathing garment — a practice it has employed since opening last year.
The inn is among an increasing number of hot spring resorts that allow guests to wear a garment while bathing, not only because more and more Japanese find it embarrassing to be naked when men and women can use the same bathing space, but also because of the growing number of foreign visitors who are not used to the traditional requirement that bathers be naked at these facilities.
Courtesy of Iwate prefectural government
An Iwate prefectural government-made poster calls for understanding toward those who use bathing wear to hide scars.
Courtesy of Onsenhyakkaten online shopping site
Yuami-gi vary in design, such as a loincloth type for men, left, and a one-piece type for women.
"Our rooftop open-air bath is vast, enabling guests to enjoy a panoramic view of Lake Suwa," said Naoko Okamoto, a Sui Suwako employee who is in charge of the bathing area. "However, we have only one bath here, so we’ve worked out [the idea of requiring guests to wear a yuami-gi] so even those who don’t like mixed bathing naked can enjoy this place."
Users of the open-air bath are asked to wash their bodies beforehand in bathrooms in their rooms at the inn.
"I don’t want to take a bath naked with men, but there’s no problem if I wear a yuami-gi," said a 31-year-old woman who was visiting.
Meanwhile, Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku, an inn in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, lends bathing attire to guests for free — a service that has become known mostly via the internet. The hotel attracts about 10,000 foreign tourists a year.
"Our service is popular among non-Japanese guests who don’t use bathtubs like Japanese do but want to experience a Japanese onsen," President Yoshio Ono said.
The Japan Tourism Agency in March last year compiled guidelines — for onsen inns and other bathing facilities — on how to handle various cases involving foreign visitors, under which operators, for example, are encouraged to ask bathers with tattoos to cover the parts in question by putting on proper bathing garments or using tape.
The Public Bath Houses Law and the Inns and Hotels Law stipulate prefectural governments and ordinance-designated cities establish specific ordinances on morals and hygiene at onsen and public bathhouses open to the general public. However, there are no uniform regulations on bathing attire, leaving this issue up to each operator.
The agency, nevertheless, calls for operators to allow guests to use bathing wear. It also states that non-Japanese are currently often rejected simply because operators have no idea how to deal with those with different lifestyles and cultural backgrounds.
Bathing attire is also welcomed by those who want to hide scars from operations or injuries.
The Iwate prefectural government last year distributed posters it generated to help the public better understand those who use bathing garments for this purpose. An increasing number of other local governments are taking similar measures.
"You should first ask the facility in advance whether [yuami-gi are] allowed," said Michio Ishikawa, an onsen critic and chair of the Regional Science Association of Spa, Japan.
You should also ask the facility whether it provides bathing attire to visitors; if not, bring your own. According to Ishikawa, some operators do not allow users to wear their own garments while bathing for hygienic reasons and instead have them use items they sell or lend.
You can also buy bathing attire online, allowing you to choose your favorite materials — such as quick-drying garments — and designs, which can range from short pants and loincloth types to one-piece types.