How to Bathe Like a Local In Japan – Onsen History and Basics
A Guide to Japanese Ofuro (Baths) and Japanese Onsen (Hot Springs)
– Part I – Background and Basics
Onsen, as Japan hot springs are known, have been soothing the Japanese body and spirit for over two thousand years. Endowed with over 3000 known hot spring areas, Japan has every type of hot spring bath from large modern resorts with huge baths, to hidden rock pools in the mountains. Yet they all share a purpose – to soothe your aches and pain, to restore, and to relax your mind and body.
Originally used by injured warriors to heal their wounds, the Japanese hot springs soon became popular to the because of the importance of cleanliness in Japanese culture. In medieval times they were visited by samurai, feudal lords and their retinues, and inns were constructed. For rural residents, visiting an onsen became the closest to going on vacation they could hope for. As Japan opened to the outside world at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868) and Japan began to industrialize, onsen attracted people from the expanding cities, and hotels were built in western styles. 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.
Japan’s hot springs are different from hot springs in most 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 fragrant cypress (hinoki).
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.
Don’t let the differences deter you! Visiting an onsen is a must on any visit to Japan, there is simply nothing like it! 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).
Onsen in Japan 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; so again, do check.
Hot springs can be found in every part of Japan, but 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.
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 typically 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 day use visitors to bathe for a fee, typically 200-800 yen. 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. 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. One famous onsen is built into a cliff overlooking the sea and another onsen has small ski gondolas fitted with baths.
Many onsen now are part of large modern hotels, with hundreds of rooms, and many large baths. Though less traditional, 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 some locations people move stones in the shallow river to channel the hot spring water, allowing them to soak in the river bed. Onsen can also have other uses like in Nozawa Onsen in Nagano, where 90c plus water is used to cook eggs by the villagers. 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. A very natural and very relaxing spa treatment.
In sum, there is an onsen for everyone to experience when you visit Japan.