TOKYO • While staying at the Sui Suwako hotel in Nagano Prefecture, visitors can enjoy open-air bathing on the rooftop area overlooking Lake Suwa.
However, when you arrive at the entrance of the mixed-bathing area, you would come across this notice: "You are not allowed to bathe naked here."
Instead, Sui Suwako offers guests a free "yuami-gi", or bathing garment, since opening last year.
The inn is among an increasing number of hot spring resorts in Japan that allow guests to wear a garment while bathing.
This is because Japanese people are increasingly finding it embarrassing to be naked when both sexes share the same bathing space.
At the same time, a growing number of foreign visitors are not used to the traditional requirement that bathers be naked at these facilities.
"Our rooftop open-air bath is vast, enabling guests to enjoy a panoramic view of Lake Suwa," said Ms Naoko Okamoto, a Sui Suwako employee 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."
Guests at the open-air bath are asked to wash their bodies in their rooms before using it.
"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 female visitor.
Meanwhile, Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku, an inn in 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 the 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.
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 that 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.
Still, the agency 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.
"You should first ask the facility whether (yuami-gi are) allowed," said onsen critic Michio Ishikawa.
Onsen visitors should also ask whether bathing attire is provided. Some operators do not allow users to wear their own bathing garment for hygiene reasons, preferring to sell or lend them items instead.
YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK