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23 November 2016

Onsen: The Japanese Hot Springs Tradition

Img source: Stefan Powell, via Wikimedia Commons

We recently wrote an article about the Japanese Macaque, a monkey that has a bit of a penchant for luxuriating in the hot springs of Japan. Well, the good news is that you don’t have to be a monkey to enjoy them, with the long tradition of the Japanese hot spring, or “onsen” meaning that there are plenty that you can visit all over the country. There’s really not many better ways to keep naturally warm.

The term onsen refers to the hot springs that occur naturally all over the volcanic islands of Japan, as well as the facilities and hotels that have sprung up around them. And Japan is really volcanically active, with thousands of natural hot springs dotted up and down the country. There are many different types, outdoor and indoor, public and private. You can tell when there’s an onsen about as the symbol ♨, the kanji for hot water, (yu), or the hiragana for the sound yu will be hanging from the doorway.

Img source: Kusuyama

The onsen were traditionally used as public bathing amenities, but now a much larger proportion of their traffic and revenue comes from the tourism industry. They are usually out in the countryside, although there still remain several in some of the major cities. The onsen tourism industry is a big deal in Japan, with couples, families, or groups of businesspeople using them as a getaway and a chance to relax and recuperate. Often, this involves staying in the traditional Japanese ryokan hotels that are attached to the onsen, and there is a phrase dedicated to the ritual of "naked communion" (裸の付き合い- hadaka no tsukiai), referring to conversations in the intimate and homely ambience of the bath.

Onsen are traditionally situated outside, although some now have indoor bathhouses constructed around them, and the term onsen applies only to the baths that use naturally occurring hot spring water, rather than the artificial equivalents. The legal definition is even more stringent, requiring that the water contain at least one of 19 different chemical elements, such as minerals like iron or sulphur, and be 25°C or warmer before being reheated. These minerals are part of what customarily gives the onsen waters their healing powers, although little medical evidence exists as testament to their restorative potential.

Img source: Markmark28, via Wikimedia Commons

The hot springs used to be mixed gender, but are now separated into men and women’s baths. This may be a good thing for the shier amongst you, as visitors to the onsens are expected to enter completely naked. After all, it is “naked communion.” This stripping down also entails a thorough, soapy wash before entering, to make sure that the water of the baths is kept clean. The only shred of modesty you can bring with you into the bath is a small towel that can be used as a washcloth. However, you must make sure this doesn’t get in the water as that’s also unclean, so you can leave it by the side, or fold it up and balance it on your head.

One thing to note is the tattoo taboo in Japan, given their association with the yakuza. If you have obvious tattoos you may not be allowed into the baths, at least if you don’t cover them up somehow.

So with the background covered, let’s take a look at some of the best onsen across Japan, if you’re thinking about planning a trip:

Noboribetsu


Noboribetsu onsen is the most famous hot spring resort on the snowy northern island of Hokkaido, and one of the most acclaimed in all of Japan. Most of the hot spring water rises up from the spectacular jigokudani “Hell’s Valley” above the town. It’s particularly cosy sitting in the outdoor bath set in the snowy surrounds of Hokkaido in winter.

Hakone

Perhaps the most famous hot springs resort in all of Japan, having been established centuries ago, Hakone is relatively close to to Tokyo, about 90 minutes by car or train. Made even more picturesque by the spectacular vistas of nearby Mount Fuji, the town has a large number of hot springs scattered all over it.

Mount Fuji seen from Hakone - Img source: 木更津乃風, via Wikimedia Commons


Yufuin


At the base of Mount Yufudake in Oita, Yufuin is often voted the top hot springs resort in Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. It is an especially popular onsen amongst young women, and the hot springs are in a rural setting that emphasises the country break tradition.

Beppu

Also in Kyushu, Beppu is the largest onsen in Japan by number of hot springs and sheer volume of water. The most famous excursion in Beppu is the hot springs tour, where you try out a variety of hot springs, such as Sea Hell, Blood pond Hell, White pond Hell and Tornado Hell. I promise they’re all better than they sound. And don’t forget to try a Beppu specialty, a boiled egg made in the volcanic onsen water. Just don’t try and cook one in the normal baths, that is definitely frowned upon.



So I hope this article, ahem, wet your appetite. If so, you should be ready to strip off and enjoy the healing powers of some naked communion. A dip in the Japanese onsen really is one of the best natural ways to keep you warm!


Sam Franklin

With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés.