Gliding into a steaming bath of mineral waters in a dim and comforting room can melt away tension — and some say cure disease.

But getting to that spot can be tricky for the inexperienced.

Even knowing where to put your shoes isn’t always obvious in a Japanese onsen, or hot springs bath. But with a little information, Westerners can enjoy one of Japan’s best natural treasures.

Among the biggest surprises for foreigners is nudity. Most onsen are nude and many are mixed sex.

“Most of them are nude,” said Linda Hayashi, with Outdoor Recreation and Local Tours at Camp Zama, Japan. “Some of the people were kind of surprised.”

Camp Zama’s outdoor recreation department recently held its first trip to the Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, a themed onsen and entertainment complex built last year in Tokyo.

Hayashi suggests people call ahead to find out if an onsen is nude or bathing suit optional. Many outdoor recreation departments, MWR offices and local base tours can recommend an onsen and provide information about them. Others have guided tours.

The Zama group visited Oedo-Onsen at night to take advantage of evening discounts, which many onsens offer, Hayashi said.

All onsen have similar basic rules: visitors should store shoes in a cubby or locker at the entrance, then proceed to the counter for admission, then to the locker room to disrobe and finally into the bath area.

The onsen may provide a yukata, a thin Japanese robe, and towels, usually one big and one small.

According to employees at Oedo-Onsen, Westerners often mistakenly bring their towel into the bath area. Instead, drop the large towel — and your inhibitions — in the locker room. Bring the small towel into the bath to clean off with, mop sweat from your brow or to use as a small modesty cover.

The wrong towel hardly merits disgust, but Westerners have done the unthinkable in the past: not bathed before entering the bath. Onsen are not so much a bath as a communal hot tub; visitors should be squeaky clean before getting in.

Employees at Oedo-Onsen say it’s personal preference whether to wash the hair, but everyone should wash themselves at the small nozzles on the side of the bath area using soap and scrubbing with the small towel. Use a bucket, if provided, to splash water over your body.

Oedo-Onsen provides soaps, shampoos, conditioners and other toiletries at each washing nozzle, which are separated by dividers. Whether an onsen provides soap and lotions might be obvious from the price. If it’s cheap — somewhere around 1,000 to 1,500 yen — assume you need to bring soap and shampoo.

Many onsens also have hair dryers in the locker room.

Once in the bath, simply enjoy. There are usually more than one, and they might have different temperatures, so test them out before choosing. Hayashi said Westerners have found some of the baths too warm. Different tubs might also have different mineral properties, but that information is seldom in English. None are harmful.

Health experts recommend people avoid sitting in the water for more than 10 or 15 minutes without a break. Children especially are at risk of overheating.

Above all, the experience is meant to be fun and relaxing. If you aren’t sure how to use a locker or where to put goods, often someone — an employee or bystander — will come to your aid, Hayashi said.

“For the most part, people will try to help you out,” she said. “Even if they don’t speak English they try to help.”

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