Lifestyle

Onsen While On Your Period: Cultural Taboo Or Well-Prepared Totally OK Experience?

There are articles all over the internet on period sex, but what about period onsen? How many Japanese and foreign women have tried it? Are the only reasons to refrain simply social taboos, or are there legitimate medical issues? And if you are taking the plunge, what products will serve you best? After being curious about it for way too long on my own, and after discovering that many other women are asking the same questions, I decided it was about time to plunge in and get some answers.

Attitudes about period onsen in Japan

Like in many countries, the Japanese attitude to menstruation seems complex and contradictory. Although the practice has mostly died out, traditionally a girl’s first period was a rite of passage in many areas of Japan, celebrated with food (typically, red beans rice) and rituals. Japan today is also one of the only countries in the world where women are legally entitled to menstruation leave — though whether they actually feel comfortable taking it is another matter.

Yet, during my stay in Japan, I’ve come across multiple signs at onsen telling me not to use the baths during menstruation. According to a 2017 MyNavi Women survey asking 176 women, the vast majority — 73.3 percent — said that they believe period onsen was unacceptable, with most of them stating lack of hygiene and consideration toward other people as their prime reasons.

To the contrary, the 26.7 percent who were not against it, said that “it should be okay as long as one washes well before entering the onsen,” and “as long as one is using a tampon, it shouldn’t be an issue.”

But then again — are we talking simply about public concerns and principles? What if there’s no one else in the onsen with you? Would it be safe for you to enter?

The shortest answer to this, based on research on medical publications and articles in Japanese, doctors would in general not encourage you to go into an onsen while on your period. The most common reasons are that:  

  1. It’s unsanitary and disrespectful toward other people 
  2. Some women may experience dizziness in the onsen during the heavy flow days and bathing can put them at risk of fainting. (Due to a major loss of blood while on their periods, many women tend to experience temporary anemia and dehydration.) 
  3. There’s a risk of infection due to water entering the cervical opening. (When women are on their periods, the vaginal opening is looser than usual, therefore it’s easier for outside dirt and germs to enter the uterus.) 

I didn’t care much about reason No. 1, but arguments two and three require serious consideration.

In regards to reason No. 2, you know your body best and if you know that you suffer from dizziness or nausea on your heavy flow days then, you should avoid submerging yourself in 42C water during that time. Regarding No. 3, as a sufferer of pelvic pain I think vaginal infections are extremely dangerous. Having said this however, there are many ways to protect yourself in the onsen to reduce the risk.

Tools and tips for the painters

If pads and tampons were all there was out there, avoiding period onsen would be understandable. But there are alternatives that might provide a better solution. For the uninitiated, menstrual cups are reusable feminine hygiene products that are inserted to the vagina during menstruation. They are made out of rubber or silicone, shaped like a plunger, and most work with a “fold and pop” — you fold the cup to get it up there, and then it pops open inside you and does its job for up to 12 hours. Menstrual cup brands claim to be more hygienic and eco-friendly than tampons, as well as better for swimming: unlike tampons, they do not absorb fluid and so they won’t absorb any dirt that could be in the water. This is a plus for anyone using one in the onsen because there is less risk of infection. Also, no string, so no one can tell you’re on your period even though you’re naked.

In Japanese, menstrual cup is 月経カップ, gekkei kappu. The most popular brands appear to be Mooncup, MeLuna and Rosecup. I reached out to these companies and asked them whether their product was safe to use in the onsen. Meluna’s PR representative responded with,

“Yes, if it’s in the correct position, the device is fully open, and there is no leakage, then you can go into the onsen.” Voila!

For those opting for tampons, make sure that the string is not clearly visible and change it as soon as you leave the onsen. Wash yourself well and refrain from using another tampon right away — give yourself enough time to cool down first.

Surfing the crimson wave across borders: What people say

When it comes to your body, looking at the tools, the pros and cons only take you so far. Ultimately, what you feel comfortable doing depends on your personality, cultural upbringing, and all the wonderful idiosyncrasies you bring to the table, which is why I asked women from a variety of nationalities about their thoughts on period onsen.

A Chinese Tokyo resident was not on board.
“No onsen during period, I think it’s not allowed. Plus I don’t think it’s very clean. Also right before the period is not a great time to go into the onsen either because… I dunno, I was told so.”

A bicultural Japanese girl encountered resistance from her Japanese mother.
“Personally, I think it’s perfectly fine to go to an onsen while on my period with a tampon, of course. Maybe not on my heavy flow days, just to be extra careful, but other than that, I think it’s fine. Although I’ve definitely gotten hesitations from my mother for suggesting going to an onsen while on my period. She would ask me, “Will it be okay?” as if the blood would gush out soon as I enter the bath. And I would have to reassure her that it would be fine.”

A Japanese onsen fan’s only concern was discovery.
“I normally go to the onsen even if I have my period. I use a tampon but it’s hard to hide the string. But otherwise totally worth it.”

A woman in her 20s from Indonesia supports other women who want to engage in period onsen but feels uncomfortable doing so herself.
“Personally, I think the issue of going to the onsen most of the time is more about how comfortable the women are. Nowadays there are so many ways to prevent the blood from leaking but I would be simply overthinking it instead.”

As for myself, if I was using a tampon, I would only go in on my light flow days. If I was using a menstrual cup I see no logical reason why I can’t go in at any point during my period.

As seen above, though doctors and onsen owners would recommend you to stay away from the waters while on your period, there is no concrete yes or no that you should. Nevertheless, as our bodies are more prone toward infection during our periods, it is of crucial to get inside the onsen well prepared and guarded. And, of course, be considerate toward your fellow onsen neighbors.

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