Onsen, as Japan hot spring are known, have been soothing the Japanese body and soul for at least two thousand years. Blessed with over 3000 named hot springs,the Japanese archipelago has every type of hot spring bath from large modern resort complexes with huge baths, to out of the way rock pools in the mountains. Yet they all have a common purpose - to soothe away your aches and pain, and to relax your mind.
First used by injured warriors to heal their wounds, the hot springs soon became important to the Japanese because
Today, onsen still attract a large percentage of all domestic tourists in Japan, who come on short weekend packages to soak in the baths and enjoy the local cuisine.
Onsen are different from most hot springs in other countries in several respects. First, the water is usually fairly hot, around 37- 42 degrees celsius is average. The baths where you soak normally can accommodate between 10 - 20 people, though there are many smaller hot springs, and many larger. Baths are often made from stone, or sometimes hinoki - cypress - wood.
The other big difference is that clothing is not allowed; you are supposed to be naked. Until the early part of the 20th century most onsen were mixed, but gradually the number of mixed onsen has declined under pressure from foreign missionaries. Now, perhaps 5 or 10% are mixed, and they tend to be the more remote and secluded ones.
Visiting an onsen is a must on any visit to Japan, there is simply nothing like it, and most people become addicted! Even for foreign visitors who may be shy about being naked in public, it is well worth trying. You can start out by going at an 'off-peak' time (ask your host when the bath is likely to have fewer people).
All onsen must by law display their mineral content and temperature, so check before going in, or just dip your toe in the bath! Some onsen are not suitable for those with heart conditions or high blood pressure; again check.
While onsen can be found in every part of Japan, there are certain regions, because of their volcanic activity, where they are more abundant. Each hot spring will its own unique mineral qualities, for which it will be known. Often, a hot spring source may be piped to several inns, and in larger hot spring towns there may be many sources.
Usually when you see the name of an onsen on a map in Japan, it is referring to the collection of inns that use that source, not an individual inn. So, for example, Nyuto Onsen in northern Japan refers to the spring and its attached group of inns, and Tsuru-no-yu refers to one of these inns. People choose Nyuto Onsen as it is famous for its milky-white water.
The simplest onsen are rock pools in the mountains where hot spring water seeps out, undeveloped and free for anyone to use. Next, are local village onsen, run by the village primarily for the residents, but anyone can go. Usually indoors, they are similar to sento (Japanese public baths in the towns and cities), and provide a meeting place for local residents. There will be an entry charge of a few hundred yen, and you can stay as long as you want.
The most common onsen are in ryokan or minshuku, often grouped together and using one source. They may be for exclusive use of the guests, but more commonly they will allow higaeri (daytrip) visitors to bathe for a small fee.
They will often have both indoor and outdoor baths, large changing areas with showers, shampoo and soap, towels and vending machines selling cold drinks for after the bath. One ryokan may have many different baths, some of which require reservation to be used. Kazoku-buro (family baths) can booked and then used by one family for more privacy.
Some ryokan will have a bath in a spectacular location (such as next to a river or on the roof), and you may have to walk a short way. Among the more unique are a famous onsen in western Japan with an onsen bath built into a cliff overlooking the sea, and an onsen on Hokkaido which as small ski gondolas fitted with baths.
The newest type are large modern hotels, with hundreds of rooms, and many large baths. Though less traditionally Japanese, they can be great fun and are a good place to see the Japanese at play.
As well as conventional baths, hot spring water also seeps into rivers. At Kawayu Onsen in Wakayama prefecture, people move stones in the shallow river to channel the hot spring water, allowing them to soak in the river bed. Perhaps the hottest hot spring is in Nozawa Onsen in Nagano, where the 90c plus water is used to cook eggs by the villagers.
South of Kagoshima, on the southern island of Kyushu, hot water bubbles up on the black volcanic sand beach. This hot sand is then mixed to the right temperature and bathers lie on the sand and are then covered up to their necks!
If you are not a guest at the ryokan or are visiting an onsen not attached to a ryokan, you will need to pay first. Enter the reception. Many onsen will require you to take off your shoes at the entrance, where shoe lockers are usually provided. Pay your entrance fee.
You may be given a free (very) small white towel, which is yours to keep.
Men and women's bathing areas are usually marked with blue and red (or purple) curtains over the doors. Look for lockers or shelves with baskets, and take one. Disrobe completely, and put all your clothes in the basket or locker. Valuables should be left in lockers or ask at reception.
Take only your small white towel (bath towels are not allowed in the washing area). This is used to wash yourself with the provided soap and shampoo. It is acceptable for men to take in razors to shave while in the washing area.
Once disrobed, move to the washing area. Look for a row of shower fixtures, and take a small stool and plastic bucket. Sit on the stool, and use the bucket to pour water on yourself and mix the right temperature from the hot and cold taps. When using the shower attachment, make sure not to splash your neighbour!
Use the liquid soap and shampoo, and wash yourself. Make sure to rinse off afterwards, as soap in the bath will earn the ire of your fellow bathers.
Once you are rinsed off, move to the bath. You can go straight to the rotenburo (ourside) bath first if you prefer, but it's always nice to try both.
Test the temperature with a finger or toe, and slip slowly into the water. Smaller onsen may have a cold water tap which you can use to add cool water to the bath if it is too hot. But use this carefully as fellow bathers may still want it to be fairly hot.
The water will probably be hotter than most baths you are used to, but get in slowly and sit still and you will soon feel the soothing action of the hot water.
You can get out and take a break, or wash again, and bathe afterwards.
7 Golden rules of the onsen
1. Do not wear any clothing, including a swimsuit, in the bath
2. Remove jewelry as it may become discoloured in the mineral water
3. Wash and rinse thoroughly before getting into the bath
4. Do not run and jump into the baths
5. Avoid swimming or splashing in the baths
6. Do not pull out the plug!
7. Keep your small towel out of the water
We visit onsen on all of our tours.