For centuries, Japanese men and women bathed together in a shared space, known as mixed-gender onsens. In Japan, this concept is called konyoku. Records of the konyoku onsen have dated as far back as the 9th century, but many scholars believed it existed even way before.
It was not until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when konyoku began segregating the baths of men and women. As Japan opened its ports to the rest of the world, mixed-gender onsens have been receiving a critical eye.
Since then, the traditional concept of konyoku has evolved to meet foreign perceptions. For instance, the ancient konyoku strictly forbade men and women bathing to wear a towel or swimsuit to protect their modesty. Now, women are provided towels to cover their bodies while men bathe fully undressed.
Today, mixed-gender onsens are no longer a common sight, with places like Tokyo banning such establishments. Keita Oguro, a veteran onsen photographer, has unravelled the dwindling figures of mixed-gender onsens.
According to Oguro, over the past 20 years, he saw a 40 per cent decline in these baths. By 2013, there were only less than 700. Within three years, he concluded another 30 per cent drop. In 2016, there appeared to be less than 500 of these onsens left.
Why are mixed-gender onsens disappearing at such a rapid pace?
When Japan eased their foreign restrictions in the mid-19th century, some were aghast at what they saw. Mixed-gender onsens were categorised as “shameless” or “promiscuous”.
This striked political controversy among the Westerners and the Japanese. During this time, the rest of the world was just starting to embrace nudism.
For example, in the United States, people were still warming up to the idea of mixed sea bathing—with swimsuits.
The concept of men and women who bathed in the same facility was deemed unconventional.
As a result, the Western perspectives prompted the ban of mixed Japanese onsens. Public bathhouses were prohibited in Tokyo, and it soon spread to other major cities.
Another prevalent issue which drove these mixed baths out of business lies in the bad manners among bathers. They are known as wani, or crocodiles.
Wani refers to a group of men or sometimes even women, who lurk in the water for hours, waiting for a glimpse of bare skin. These unwelcome nuisances would stare as they prey on other bathers.
Small but supportive communities
These Japanese communities comprise people who are adamant in preserving mixed-gender onsens in their areas. Thankfully, these communal bathhouses are here to stay because of such efforts.
Take the 300-year-old Sukayu Onsen in Aomori, Japan, for example.
Dubbed as the sen-nin buro, or thousand-person bath, this co-ed bathhouse has unfortunately seen an increase in wanis, who ogle at other bathers. This has sadly resulted in numerous complaints from other patrons.
As of October 2016, 18,218 members have affirmed their support to prevent this historic bathhouse from shutting down. Despite this, the Aomori community is still looking to recruit members who are keen on preserving their traditional customs—mixed-gender onsens.
Places in Japan where mixed-gender onsens still exist
Takaragawa Onsen, Gunma
Nestled alongside the Tone River, this hot spring receives most of its traffic during the autumn season. Nevertheless, it is still stunning all year round.
With three outdoor baths for both genders and one women’s-only bath, take your pick as you bask in this outdoor oasis.
Admission: ¥1,500 day pass, ryokan (Japanese inn) option available
Address: 1899 Fujiwara, Minakami, Tone District, Gunma 379-1721
Spa World, Osaka Prefecture
A massive public bathhouse with an amusement park feel. Though most of these baths are separated by gender, the eighth floor offers a mixed-gender bath, where friends, families, and couples can bathe together with swimsuits on.
This would be the perfect place for shy individuals who are uncomfortable to bathe nude in a public bathhouse.
Admission: ¥1,300 – ¥2,700 (3-hour pass), ¥1,500 – ¥3,000 (all-day pass)
Address: 3-4-24 Ebisuhigashi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture 556-0002
Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, Kagoshima
This is the place where nature lovers and adventurous souls go for an unforgettable dip. Surround yourself in the salty seawater and beautiful black rocks, as you watch the breathtaking sunset.
The bath is only open during low tide though, so you might want to plan before visiting. In order to submerge in the full, authentic Japanese experience, swimsuits are not allowed.
Address: Hirauchi, Yakushima, Kumage District, Kagoshima Prefecture 891-4406
Above all, our Sento onsen-style bath allows you to experience the Japanese communal bathing experience first-hand.
Our Onsen Baths use real hinoki, Japan’s most prized cypress wood, for the ultimate Japanese royalty experience. This precious wood releases mineral oils with soothing scents and anti-bacterial properties to lull you into a state of relaxation.