The Art of Onsen- Hot Spring Bathing in Japan

Bubbling up throughout the Japanese Archipelago, hot spring pools pepper the landscape. Join Japan Centre, as we submerge ourselves into the steamy world of Japanese onsen.

We love a bath. There’s nothing quite like stewing in a hot pool of water until your fingers inexplicably wrinkle up, with a cheeky bit of Dido blasting out of the speakers. Just us? Ahem, moving on. If you’re a bath fan too, you’ll adore onsen. With Japan being a vigorously volcanic country, the geography lends itself to the emergence of magma heated hot spring pools that occur naturally from the far reaches of the North to the sunny slopes of the South. These natural phenomena have been utilised by Japanese for millennia, in various different guises. Simultaneously medicinal pools of life, tourist hot spots, relaxation stations and to some, a way of life, onsen are arguably at the very core of Japanese culture. Ready to dive in? Remember that true onsen bathing is communal and utterly naked.

Health

In Japan, onsen are regularly used as treatment for a variety of ailments, with particular types of onsen treating particular problems. Onsen have been used for centuries in this way. In the busy and frantic world of urban life in Japan, many Japanese dream of a retreating to an onsen to replenish body and soul. Why not consider your own onsen holiday this winter?

For a comprehensive list of the different kinds of onsen and corresponding treatments, see here.

Onsen Animals

Onsen Bird
It seems animals are still drawn to the healing power of the onsen.

Legend has it that the first onsen were discovered by hunters tracing wounded animals through the wilderness. These creatures were privy to the healing benefits of hot springs, where they would recuperate until their wounds healed. Some animals were thought to be messengers of the Gods in Japanese spiritual folklore, potentially due to their ability to sniff out a bath so wonderful that it puts the radox ads to shame. If you ever find yourself relaxing in an onsen and notice a statue of a bear or a heron towering over you, don’t be alarmed! This is a reference to these early days where the beasts bathed their pains away. Although if they begin dancing suggestively and singing the ‘bare necessities’ then do be alarmed. The heat has made you go insane.

 

Onsen Etiquette

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So you’ve made it to the Land of the Rising Sun, and you’re keen to embrace the local culture and try your hand at onsen bathing. But hark! Don’t just rip off your garbs and bellyflop straight into the nearest tepid puddle. There are some things to remember if you don’t want to offend the locals.

1) EMBRACE NUDITY – If you’re going to have an authentic onsen experience, you’re going to have to hurl your modesty out the condensation clouded window. No swimmers, trunks, wet suits and certainly no mankinis. This means taking off all your clothes (yes, even your socks) and usually popping them in a locker. Don’t worry though, everybody else will be naked too. In fact, Hadaka no Tsukiai (裸の付き合い) means “naked communication” in Japanese, in every sense of the word. Onsen is a popular activity with families, colleagues and friends alike, and represents an area of sheer relaxation where communication can be free and easy. So whip off those briefs and get chatting!

2) CLEAN CLEAN CLEAN – Before that though, you’ll be needing a proper good scrub down. Keep in mind that onsen are never for washing, but for leisure and healing, so refrain from cannonballing in there caked in mud. Many onsen have rows of individual showers and buckets, where one can squat down and thoroughly cleanse the hair and body. You’re almost ready to submerge!

3) TALK OF THE TOWEL – Most onsen will provide you with a petit ‘modesty towel’ for covering your essentials on the way in and out of the healing pool and cleaning yourself when showering. Never dunk this in the water! It’s associated with cleaning the body and thus polluted. Instead, place it at the side of the water, or if it takes your fancy, you can fold it up and balance it delicately on top of your head.

4) ENJOY- Once you ease into the onsen (making sure not to jump, dive or cartwheel in) you’ll feel brand new levels of relaxation. This is the time to contemplate life, ponder on the meaning of it all and let your troubles melt away into the sacred waters. Refrain from splashing about or engaging in horseplay, rather like the swimming pool in your local leisure centre. Remember that if you’re sporting a tattoo, you may want to try and hide it in one way or another. Tattoos carry connotations of the Yakuza (who have their own special bathhouses) and you may be denied entry for your ink.

Notable Onsen

You never have to go far in Japan to find an onsen. Landmarked by an easily recognised icon, onsen dot the entire country. Here’s a smattering of stand out onsen:

Dogo Onsen
Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest in Japan, and now a prime domestic tourist spot. Legend has it that a wounded heron dipped its leg in here thousands of years ago, thus healing its ailments. Dogo Onsen served as inspiration for the bathhouse scene in the amazing Spirited Away.
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Fancy sharing your bathing experience with some monkey mates? Head to Jigokudani national park near Nagano, where chilly monkeys chill out in the hot spring baths. And we don’t blame these samuii simians! Nagano receives some of the heaviest snowfall in Honshu. Brrrr!
Yufuin onsen
This stunning forested onsen is located in Yufuin, Beppu prefecture.
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This beautiful blue onsen is in the hot spring blessed town of Beppu, on the island of Kyushu
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One of several stunning onsen in the town of Kurokawa in central Kyushu. A traditional town used as a retreat for its multiple ryokan and hot spring baths, visitors can purchase an onsen pass that allows them to experience multiple onsen throughout the day.


Remember, many natural onsen are nestled away far in the countryside, amidst snowy mountains or lush forests. These may not have been regulated by the authorities, so like the ancient hunters of old, you’ll have to seek them out. There’s little more rewarding than uncovering an isolated pool deep in the Japanese countryside.

Onsen Eats

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Oden hot pot

As with all aspects of Japanese culture, food has a large part of play. Many onsen have attached restaurants that make use of the natural resources at their disposal to prepare exquisite dishes. Stewed dishes like oden and nabe are particular popular at onsen.

Onsen Ryokan Food Aomori
Ryokan cuisine, perfect after an epic relaxation session.

Traditional Japanese Inns, known as Ryokan, often incorporate an onsen. Ranging from simple, humble affairs to elaborate institutions of decadence, staying at a Ryokan means eating well and relaxation. Here, dining on exquisite traditional dishes and replenishing the body using natural hot springs goes hand in hand.

Beppu steam cooker
Onsen eggs and vegetables being thoroughly steamed.

Legendary throughout Japan, onsen tamago (onsen eggs) are eggs cooked to perfection using the onsen. Try onsen tamago with our very own recipe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relaxing in a steamy onsen is one of the greatest winter activities. But even if you don’t have a hot spring around the corner, Japan Centre has all the Japanese delights you could need to keep you full and happy this winter.

Visited Japan? Have a favourite onsen? We’d love to hear from you. Blog. Twitter. Facebook.

 

Thanks to lemon hats-rules at flickr for the image of the snow monkeys in Nagano
Thanks to nagaremono at flickr for the Beppu onsen image
Thanks to Katsu44 for the Ryokan food image
Thanks to Ida yo at flickr for the Dogo Onsen image
Thanks to Terao Kainonin at flickr for the Beppu town image
Thanks to Matthew Bednarik at flickr for the Yakushima onsen image
Thanks to Francois Chenier at flickr for the bird at the onsen image
Thanks to EB Tokyo at flickr for the Yufuin image