Some Basic Knowledge before You Try Onsen
Hot springs are waters heated by geothermal energy and, in Japan, they’re practically everywhere. The country is reputed to have over 2,500 onsen; some gush to the surface, while others are reached by tapping subterranean sources more than 1,000 meters underground. Hot spring temperatures vary widely, from nearly 100ºC (211ºF) to as cool as 20ºC (68ºF). Everywhere in Japan, visitors will find hotels and traditional inns or day spas with onsen for their enjoyment.
The foremost benefits of hot springs bathing are that they warm the body and impart physical and mental relaxation. Bathing in waters just the right temperature activates the body’s various systems and is said to stimulate circulation and speed up the metabolism. Many onsen also contain certain dissolved minerals, which are said to help heal illness or injuries. Learning about the benefits of each hot spring you visit is one of the added pleasures of the experience.
Japanese people have been enthusiastic onsen bathers since ancient times. In the Edo period (1603–1868), especially, the habit of bathing at onsen spread rapidly among the general public and it soon became popular to spend weeks at a time at places with hot springs for rest and recuperation. This practice continues today, mainly in the Tohoku region in the northeastern part of the country.
Hot springs also frequently appear in literary works. For example, Niigata’s Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen is where the story takes place in Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and the setting for Botchan, by Soseki Natsume, is Ehime’s Dogo Onsen.
Seasonal Delights Add Enjoyment
Japan’s hot springs are often found in natural settings, among mountains, along the seashore or in narrow valleys, which add appeal to the bathing experience. The scenery reflecting the passing of the seasons—cherry blossoms in spring, the vibrant green of new leaves in summer, colorful autumn foliage, snowscapes in winter—is all the more enjoyable when viewed from a warm, relaxing bath. And open-air baths—roten-buro—offer possibly the greatest experience of all hot spring bathing, with nothing coming between you and the sunrise, sunset or dark night skies dotted with countless twinkling stars. Gunma’s Shiriyaki Onsen features a hand-dug open-air bath on a riverbank, an unusual opportunity to get truly close to nature.
And it isn’t just humans who are attracted to open-air bathing. At Jigokudani Onsen in Nagano, Japanese macaques can be observed taking a dip in the open-air baths, their facial expressions vividly conveying just how relaxed they feel. This unusual sight draws many visitors, but the baths here are reserved for the wildlife.
In the best-known onsen resort areas, little towns with restaurants, souvenir shops and tourist attractions have sprung up around the main hot springs facilities and feature a distinctive atmosphere. Among the most famous spa resorts are Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa and Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, which are very popular for relaxation and sightseeing among Japanese and overseas visitors alike.
In spa resorts, it’s customary for overnight guests to don the yukata (cotton kimono) and geta (traditional clogs) provided by their hotel or inn for a stroll around the town—try that for an authentic hot spring experience! And your visit won’t be complete unless you sample the hard-boiled eggs (boiled in the hot spring waters) or the manju (bean paste dumplings) sold at shops along your walk. Some spa resorts also offer hand or foot spas, which can be a good first encounter with an onsen since they don’t require complete disrobing.
Benefits from Mineral Composition of Onsen
There are 11 different categories of hot springs in Japan, which are classified according to their mineral composition. The most widespread is the sulphur hot spring, which can be recognized by its distinctive odor. Sulphur hot springs are common in mountain regions and can be considered the typical type of hot spring in Japan. Sulphur hot springs such as those at Shiobara Onsen in Tochigi and Unzen Onsen in Nagasaki soften the skin and are said to help bring relief for skin ailments and rashes, although the waters can irritate, so people with delicate skin should use caution. At Kinugawa Onsen in Tochigi, Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa and Dogo Onsen in Ehime, the onsen are simple springs with colorless, odorless waters ideal for beginners. They are also soft and gentle to the skin. These waters are said to be good for neuralgia and back pain.
Alkaline soda hot springs, like Hokkaido’s Noboribetsu Onsen and Saga’s Ureshino Onsen, are recommended for women, as they supposedly beautify the skin. Hydrogen carbonate hot springs, rich in carbonation, are characterized by the fine bubbles that form on bathers’ skin; one of these is Tamagawa Onsen in Akita. This type of hot spring supposedly dilates the capillaries, helping lower blood pressure.
The waters of iron hot springs, rich in iron, are rust-colored; the best-known iron hot springs are Naruko Onsen, in Miyagi, and Yoshino Onsen, in Nara. Recommended for those with anemia, but if you dip a white towel in the water, it will turn red.
Chloride hot springs like those at Jozankei Onsen in Hokkaido and Yugawara Onsen in Kanagawa, are effective for warming the body and good for those who suffer from cold hands and feet, gynecological disorders, and so on.
Among the many other types are acid springs and sulfate springs, supposedly effective for healing wounds (Zao Onsen in Yamagata, Minakami Onsen in Gunma,Atami Onsen in Shizuoka, etc.), radium springs for relief of rheumatism and digestive tract ailments (Yamanashi’s Masutomi Onsen, etc.) and boric acid springs (Minoo Onsen in Osaka), which are reportedly good for eye diseases.
Please note that hot springs are “purported” to have efficacy but that their effectiveness has not been medically proven.
Some hot spring waters can also be drunk. You can tell when this is the case from the drinking cups placed near the taps from which the waters flow.
Colorful Onsen Waters
Black, white, green, red, brown…hot spring waters in Japan come in many different colors. Black hot springs are common in Tokyo and Chiba.
The dark color, which always surprises at first glance, comes from organic plant material. White hot springs are also quite common. In this case, clear waters develop cloudiness due to ingredients that have dissolved and become suspended in the water. Nyuto Onsen in Akita is popular for its white hot spring open-air bath.
Nagano’s Kumanoyu Onsen and Iwate’s Kunimi Onsen feature bright green waters, which supposedly occur due to components from sulfur and other substances. And Beppu Onsen in Oita is famous for its “Blood Pond Hell,” whose blood-red waters bubble vigorously and certainly do remind visitors of hell. Other hot springs—Ikaho Onsen in Gunma and Arima Onsen in Hyogo—are famous for brown waters, which come from the waters’ high iron content. Also of note is Nagano’s Goshiki Onsen, which means “waters of five colors,” a fascinating place where the color of the water changes depending on the temperature and the weather.
These colorful hot springs are miracles of nature—to enrich your travels, experience them for yourself.
Some Pointers for Enjoying Your Onsen Experience
Hot spring baths are used by large numbers of people, and certain rules for bathing are in place to maximize the enjoyment of all users. Those unfamiliar with public bathing in Japan may find the rules hard to accept, but as the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” That will make onsen more enjoyable, relaxing and safe for you and for everybody else.
First and foremost, bathers must disrobe completely. Generally speaking, wrapping a large towel around the body or wearing a swimsuit to bathe is not allowed. If you find the idea of appearing naked in front of others too uncomfortable, private baths are available for a fee.
Everyone shares the bathwater, and to keep it clean, it’s important to wash and rinse yourself thoroughly before getting into the bath. Jumping in, swimming, or talking in a loud voice are frowned upon and should be avoided so as not to cause trouble for other bathers.
And when you leave the bathroom to return to the changing room, don’t forget to towel off excess water. Dripping water onto the changing room floor makes it slippery and dangerous. Other recommended practices are to avoid bathing after drinking alcohol, after sports where a lot of energy has been expended, or immediately before or after eating. It’s also best not to bathe more than three times in one day. One 30-minute bath supposedly consumes the same amount of energy as running 1,000 meters at full speed, and bathers are advised to rest sufficiently and replenish fluids after bathing.
But most of all, be open to social interaction with other bathers. Don’t just keep to yourself or your small group: the best benefit of onsen bathing is the chance to chat with local people who are there to relax and enjoy themselves too.
This is all you need to know to be a hot springs connoisseur, and you can share your knowledge with others too. All you need now is to actually go to an onsen and enjoy yourself to your heart’s content.
My Onsen Experience
Why I’m Just Crazy about Onsen
I remember the wonderful experience of my first hot springs visit as clearly as though it were yesterday.
I had been to Japan many times on business, but had never been to an onsen. That all changed one winter five years ago when a Japanese friend said to me, “you’re really missing out if you visit Japan without going to a hot spring resort.” Of course I knew about onsen and had heard great things about them, but I’d never had the chance to go to one before. The idea of sharing a bath with strangers had also made me a little hesitant.
My friend was determined that I shouldn’t miss out on a typical Japanese experience, so she made arrangements for us to stay overnight at a well-known hot springs resort near Tokyo. Just an hour from Tokyo by train, the resort nestled in quiet natural surroundings.
Arriving at our inn, a typical ryokan, in late afternoon, we changed into the yukata cotton kimono provided and headed straight for the steaming roten-buro, the open-air bath. I remember thinking that I had never seen such a large and imposing bath before. Nodding briefly to other bathers already in the water, I sank into the bath and immediately felt the warmth seeping into my bones. Americans being used to bathing in rather tepid water, it took a bit of courage on my part to get into water that felt really hot to me, but I quickly got used to the temperature and realized that soaking in a hot bath melts fatigue away.
As I relaxed and felt the tension leave my body, my friend said, “Look up at the sky, Leslie,” and I tilted my head back to take the countless stars twinkling in the night.
That first visit taught that the hot springs experience is pure relaxation, and I’ve been a dedicated onsen-goer ever since.