Onsen: The Complete Guide to Japanese Hot Springs

Onsen: The Complete Guide to Japanese Hot Springs

One of the many marvels to see in Japan is the magic they call Onsen. Beautiful hot springs out in the picturesque countryside  where the Japanese love to sit, relax, and be one with nature. In the nude. Yes, there’s that.

Onsen is more than hanging around with locals in the nude. It’s about Japan’s value on relaxation, health and utilizing nature. Most Japanese people don’t think that foreigners can handle this cultural differentiation, but more and more are traveling to Japan seeking this cultural experience.

Again, it’s not just a bath, there is an etiquette to go about this and if you do it right you will get the most out of the experience without making a complete fool out of yourself as well.

Here’s a complete guide on “How To Onsen” like a native!

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Illustration: Yummy Japan

History of Onsen

First, a quick history lesson!

Japan has been using the nearly thousand mineral springs it houses since ancient times. The earliest documented bathhouse is Dogo onsen which is estimated to be whopping 3000 years old! It has had a connection to both religious and therapeutic practices. During the 6th century Buddhist monks began the practice of spiritual cleansing within the hot springs.

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Dogo Onsen, Japan’s oldest bath house. Source: Wikipedia

During the mid 8th century, to show the people how benevolent she was, Empress Kōmyō created charity bathing and vowed to wash 1000 beggars by hand in a temple bath in Nara. By the Kamakura period it became a ceremony to honor the departed as well. The devotee would offer free baths to anyone regardless of sex, age, or relationship. Along with the rich sponsoring baths for the poor in order to gain a finer afterlife onsen became all the rage! The opportunity for all to bathe resulted in the love for it.

Gifts from Deities

Hot springs were considered gifts from animals, gods or buddhist deities. There are a lot of mythology that surrounds onsens that are still believed till this day. One legend is of an injured white heron that found Dogo onsen and flew to the springs every day until it’s ailing leg was cured. Due to its curative properties the onsen industry saw success during the Muromachi period. It even got strangely specific during the early nineteenth century. Spring of Yakushi apparently cured eye disease and Spring of Colds removed excess water from the body.

onsen japan
Source: Japanese Gallery

Onsen in fact, used to be less water-dipping and more steam-bathing. The hot water from the onsen was used in the homes, but special establishments made for communal dipping only became popular after the Muromachi Period. Like everything does with the arrival of pop culture, the onsen especially boomed during the Edo Period.

In recent times, Onsen is popular for therapeutics which is spa treatments including drinking and usage of hot waters, from varying hot mud and sand baths. There are different types of hot spring classification. The most common one is simple spring which the therapeutic value comes from hot temperatures such as the Dogo and Beppu onsen. There are also carbonic acid springs, sulphate springs, and even RADIOACTIVE springs!

Onsen at a Traditional Japanese Inn

Source: Ryokan
Source: Ryokan

There are now, as of 2017, 27,367 onsen available for public access (Source: http://www.onsen-r.co.jp/data/)! You can stay overnight at 15,558 of them, and the rest of them are day-spas which run nice and cheap for the causal dipper. When choosing which one will best suit you, consider prices, meal plan and types of baths offered at the onsen.

A common place to onsen is at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn and is the perfect opportunity to experience Japanese customs and hospitality. Elements that are different from typical western hotels are the tatami mat (straw mats), futon beds (traditional Japanese beds), local cuisine and bath house of course. In a ryokan you have to take off your shoes and change your clothes for a yukata (a casual version of a kimono) and slippers.

You can order a meal plan that will include Kaiseki dinner (multi course) and traditional breakfast. Whereas in a hotel you would have to get room service. The staff will come into your room in a ryokan quite often to explain and present food. If you enjoy being left alone, you might prefer a hotel.

Why Choose an Inn?

onsen guide
A traditional Japanese inn

One of the top reasons you want to onsen at a Ryokan is for the food! Particularly Kaiseki- Ryori which is a traditional, multi-course meal that was originally served during tea ceremonies but became more intricate and readily available over time. The term is derived from the techniques that allow the preparation of traditional Japanese meals. There is an order to Kaiseki dishes which is started with Shokuzen-shu (local alcohol) and appetizers which is served on a Hassun (24 cm dish).

The main courses is organized by how it is prepared; soup (suimono), sashimi (Otsukuri), Boiled Dish (Nimono), Grilled Dish (Yakimono), Deep fried Dish (Agemono), Seamed dish (Mushimono), Vinegared dish (sunomono). Shokuji is served towards the end and the set consists of rice, miso soup and pickles (Tsukemono) along with a light dessert. Kaiseki- Ryori may feature treats which are local to the prefecture of the onsen you’re visiting. Some people categorise their favourite type of onsen by either Yama (mountain) or Umi (ocean) depending on the type of meal they prefer.

Bathing Options

There are a few unique options you might want to consider!

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Illustration: Yummy Japan

Rotenburo 露天風呂 is an outdoor onsen and apart of the experience is connecting with nature. An ideal Rotenburo would have a beautiful view, natural surroundings, and fresh air. The best time to experience this is during the snow! A natural Rotenburo will just be a hole in the ground but remember to ask locals if it is safe. Some can become too hot!

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Illustration: Yummy Japan

Kashikiriburo 貸切風呂 or kazokuburo 家族風呂 are private baths if you are a little shy for public bathing. It is perfect for couples seeking romance or if you want to have a bathing experience with just the family! They do cost a little bit more and not all onsens offer Kashikiri so remember to check ahead.

hinokiburo
Illustration: Yummy Japan

Hinokiburo 檜風呂 is a traditional wooden bathtub that comes in various sizes and shapes. They are made of the aromatic Japanese cypress which contains essential antibacterial oils. Soaking in it for thirty minutes is rejuvenating and therapeutic.

Types of Onsen & Its Benefits

And if you thought onsen was just hot water, you are wrong! There come in all sorts of forms including radioactive ones!

  • Chloride Spring “Enka Butsusen”
    Three types: Salt, Calcium and magnesium
    Health Benefits: Cuts, burns, chronic skin disorder, chronic gynecological disorders, muscle and joint pains.
    For example: Sukayu Onsen Ryokan in Aomori Prefecture
  • Sodium Bicarbonate Saline Springs “ Tansan Suiso Ensen”
    Contains Alkaline properties
    Health Benefits: Beautiful skin, cuts, burns, chronic skin disease
    For example: Tokigawa Onsen in Saitama Prefecture
    Liyama Onsen in Kanagawa Prefecture
  • Sulphate Spring “Ryusan Sen” aka Water for cuts and bruises
    Three types: Calcium Sulphate, Sodium Sulphate, and Magnesium Sulphate
    Health Benefits: Cuts, burns, chronic skin disorder, Arteriosclerosis, chronic constipation (when drunk)
    For example: Tsurumaki Onsen in Saitama Prefecture
    Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture

  • Ferruginous Spring “Gantetsu Sen”
    Iron rich
    Two types: Carbonated Iron Spring and Melanterite Spring
    Oxidization causes brown water
    Health benefits: Replenishes the body’s iron, menstrual disorders, Anemia
    For example: Ikaho Onsen in Gunma Prefecture
  • Sulphur Spring “Io Sen”
    Smells like rotten eggs.
    Health benefits: Chronic bronchitis, cuts, diabetes, chronic skin disease, high blood pressure, joint paints.
    For example: Noribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido prefecture
  • Acidic Spring “Sansei Sen”
    Antibacterial effects
    Chronic skin disease, chronic gynecological disorders
    For example: Tamagawa Onsen in Akita Prefecture
    Higashi Onsen in Kagoshima Prefecture 
  • Carbon Dioxide Spring “Nisanka Tanso Ensen”
    Health Benefits: Expands blood vessels and lowers blood pressure, Rheumatism
    For example: Nagayu Onsen in Oita Prefecture
  • Simple Thermal Spring “Tanjun Onsen”
    Most common and doesn’t contain a lot of minerals
    Health Benefits: Heat therapy
    For example: Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture
  • Radioactive Spring “Hoshano Sen”
    Tiny amounts of radioactive minerals
    Health Benefits: Lowers blood pressure, helps body produce Uric acid, Gout, Circulatory disease, Rheumatism
    Misasa Onsen in Tottori Prefecture 

Tattoo Prohibition At Onsen

Unfortunately, experiencing onsen if you have a tattoo may be difficult as most places don’t permit them. The reason for Japan’s distaste for body art is because it has been long associated with the yakuza and law breakers. Tattoos are quite common with westerners these days and with the increase of tourism in Japan the government is asking onsen establishments to ease on tattoo restrictions.

It doesn’t seem like acceptance will come easy for understandable negative associations that the Japanese have with tattoos. If your tattoo is small you can get away with covering it up with a bandaid or there is the kashikiri buro option. And for those tattoo clad bodies that want the complete onsen experience, there are a few places that allow inked bodies:

  1. Yawaragi no Sato Hoheikyo Onsen (Hokkaido)
  2. Ikaho Ishidan no Yu (Gunma)
  3. Sekizenkan (Gunma)
  4. Sai no Kawahara Rotenburo (Gunma)
  5. Yamato no Yu (Chiba)
  6. Nippori Saitoyu (Tokyo)
  7. Tsuru no Yu (Tokyo)
  8. Hottarakashi no Onsen (Yamanashi)

Source: Tsunagu Japan

Okay, now that you’ve chosen your Onsen, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, the bubbles, boobs and butts.

Communal Mixed Bathing

There was a time when both male and female were able to bathe together communally dating back to the Kamakura period (1185–1333). It was often a dark room with no windows, customers would receive their ration of hot water and cleared their throats to signal their position to others. It became prohibited after a visit from Commodore Perry in 1853 who saw this practise as being scandalous.

Japanese religions did not have precepts that prohibited nakedness like the western world did. So gradually the unisex baths faded away, so that co-ed friends and family groups can now only rarely enjoy the waters together.  If you are looking for unisex bathing, you have two options:

* Get a “kashikiriburo,” mentioned above. Large groups should look for large rooms, since most rooms only fit 3 or 4 people.

* Look for a “konyoku” onsen which is communal mixed bathing. They’re not as awkward as it sounds as people tend to stay in their own quiet corner and are respectful of others. It is quite common for couples to go to konyoku. It is not available in Tokyo anymore due to the GHQ breathing down the back of Japanese culture after the war, but they are still around in the countryside.

Places in Japan which are famous for onsen will always have a couple.

Some of the more popular onsen spots are Dogo onsen which is a historical marvel with it’s mystical legends and the Yushinden which is a bathroom for the imperial family. Kusatsu onsen in Gunma is claimed to be blessed with hot spring water that can cure any ailment. And there is Beppu onsen with its wide variety of baths from sand baths, steam baths and mud baths.

Onsen Etiquette

But most places will have you diverge into male and female areas. This can be distinguished from the Noren (Japanese fabric dividers with a slit in the middle) on the doorway and uses the kanji 女湯 for women and 男湯 for men.

noren
Illustration: Yummy Japan

If you can’t read the kanji, remember blue is for males and red for female!

Beware when you enter them – some onsen switch sides depending on the time of day (so that both onsen views are available to a patron). These will always be clearly marked, so as long as you’re not entering in a drunk stupor (in which you wouldn’t care what side you were in anyway), you’ll be fine.

Once you enter, you’ll remove your clothes and put them into a cubby-hole or locker.

clothes
Illustration: Yummy Japan

You will have been given two towels – don’t forget to bring them. (There aren’t always extras available in the bath rooms.) The larger towel is for drying off when you come out, so put that in the cubby hole.  You may be given a yukata to wear as well if you are staying at a ryokan. Below our steps on how to wear one.

How To Wear Yukata

  1. Put Yukata over underwear. Slip in arms into sleeves. At Waist level, fold right hand underneath the left side and hold it in place.
  2. Fold left hand underneath the right side and hold it in place.
  3. Secure everything in place with the obi by wrapping it around waist. Begin in front and wrap around your back.
  4. Cross the belt around yourself and tie it in front. For men it should be low and women it is tied at the waist.
  5. Adjust the length of the belt ends so they hang evenly. Then adjust the knot so it lies on your right hip.

The smaller towel, you take with you and use in lieu of a washcloth. (This towel is usually complementary, that is, you get to take it home with you. So hang it out to dry when you get back to your room!)

serviette
Illustration: Yummy Japan

It is proper etiquette to tie up hair that is long enough to get into the water. It is considered unhygienic and nobody wants to take a bath with bits of hair floating around. And it is also quite dangerous for high temperature waters to get near your head.

Proceed to one of the shower areas. You’ll see them. Little stools sat in front of a mirror, with a long shower head, a bucket and lots of amenities to choose from. There is shampoo and soap, and most of these items are often made from local materials and sold in the gift shop if you like them. Use them as you please, and rinse off with the shower head.

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Illustration: Yummy Japan

A Word on Bath Culture

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Source: Japan Baths Info

Bath culture in Japan is important on a daily basis. It is typical for one to wash and rinse the body before getting into the tub. Unlike the west, the water is not drained after being used but kept warm using bathtub lids and/or an electric system. Electricity and water seems like a dangerous mix but I assure you the technology has been tested by the millions of people in Japan. It uses low level electric currents. This heated water is used by everyone else in the household even guests!

The bucket is there to fill with water (there is probably a faucet in addition to the shower head) and rinse yourself with when you are finished.

You are now squeaky clean. Those of you who have long hair have been smart and put it up, right? Good.

Entering the bath

Choose your onsen bath. There may be quite a few, and there might be some outside. There might also be steam baths – take a good look around as you go.

That mini towel they gave you? If you’re of the modest type, you can hold it in front of your bits and pieces, but it’ll look strange if you look like you’re guarding the crown jewels there, so let it hang loose as you do so.

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Illustration: Yummy Japan

As you step into the onsen, do so carefully so as not to splash anyone. If you see a pail with a long handle near the steps, use it to rinse your feet before entering. Then, choose your corner and soak it all in. Don’t put your small towel inside the bath, instead you can put it on top of your head!

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Illustration: Yummy Japan

Different Baths, More Fun!

The vaguely eggy smell of the natural springs, the crisp air, the nature and the humanity. Think of a haiku or two. Pretend you’re a samurai in ancient Japan. And sure, talk to the locals. The Japanese don’t ogle, but they will probably talk to you, especially if you go to an onsen in the countryside.

You can change baths as you please, enjoy them all, and talk to everyone like one of those fantasy video games. You might find a local gem or two in the form of a good izakaya nearby, or a ”dagashiya,” a snack shop which may offer games and prizes meant to feel nostalgic to those who frequented onsen “in the old days.”

After making the onsen rounds, you may lightly shower off, and return to the changing rooms. Use the creams and amenities as you please, dry your hair and whatnot, and put back on your yukata. Don’t forget your towels as you go.

Risks

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Illustration: Yummy Japan

Keep in mind the medical risks of onsen is heat over exposure so no more than 3 times a day, and get up slowly as the heat can leave you dizzy and you don’t want to faint. If you are on your period, it would be best to avoid onsen as it would be inconsiderate to other people.

After Onsen

It’s a tradition for Japanese to drink either beer or coffee-milk (in glass jars! So cute!) while resting on the tatami after a dip in the onsen. This is a good place to meet up with those friends of yours which might have gone in the areas of the opposite sex. A lot establishments will offer relaxing rooms with tvs and reclining chairs or even massage chairs and real massages.

If you’ve reserved a meal, look forward to it and be sure to drink the locally-made sake. Visit the gift-shop on your way out, and pick up what are called “onsen-manju,” a little sweet bun filled with rich anko paste. The debate of koshi-an (smooth anko paste) and tsubu-an (chunky anko paste) will be a delightful topic as you head back into town.

There are a handful of onsen that shrugged off the “no drinking” rule in onsens and have something called a floating sake (oke).   There is a Japanese fantasy of wrapping up a ceramic jug of hot sake in the onsen towers, and floating it on the water of the onsen to be passed around to your friends. This is especially romantic with an evening sky above and surrounded by snow.

Nudeless Options

If you really, really can’t stomach the thought of baring it all to potential oogly-eyes and shrinkage, there are in fact onsen which provide bathing suit options for the shy gaijin. But keep in mind this does take away from an authentic cultural experience!

* Kawayu Onsen (Wakayama) http://www.hongu.jp/en/onsen/kawayu/

* Kinugawa Nioson (Tochigi) http://www.niousonplaza.com/hotspring/

* Suginoi Hotel Beppu (Oita) http://www.suginoi-hotel.com/english/index.html

* Ooedo Onsen Monogatari (Odaiba, Tokyo) http://daiba.ooedoonsen.jp/en/

These are just a few. By the way, that Ooedo Onsen Monogatari was built specifically to cater to foreign tourists, so everything is in English and they have live shows every day. It’s a great place if you want to know more about the orientalist Japan of samurai geisha sushi and onsen, but don’t want to do as the Romans do while in Japan.

More Onsen Info

If you need more information about hot-springs and bath house etiquette in Japan, Stu from the YouTube channel Where’s Stu made a video about how to have the best naked onsen experience in Japan.

 

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