Soak it all in at a Japanese onsen
Imagine soaking outdoors in a steaming hot pool made of natural rocks. You take a deep breath as you survey the panoramic mountain scenery and all your stress just melts away. It can be pretty liberating.
We Japanese love “onsen,” or natural hot springs. Especially during the coldest time of the year. In winter, many people go to onsen for a full day, or even two, to enjoy the gift of Mother Nature’s warmth. It‘s definite must for your bucket list of things to do in Japan.
Because Japan is in one of the most geothermally active places on earth, natural hot springs are everywhere. There are more than 3,000 onsen areas and over 22,000 onsen facilities nationwide, including Okinawa, according to Nihon Onsen Research Institute.
Some of the famous onsen areas include Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture, Beppu in Oita Prefecture, Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture or Dougo in Ehime Prefecture. In these areas, entire towns are designed as onsen attractions and have drawn tourists for decades or even centuries.
Facilities range from old traditional Japanese inns to modern Western-style hotels with souvenir shops, entertainment venues and restaurants. They can also be in urban or rural settings that offer picturesque mountain or ocean views
For some foreigners, the first challenge to the onsen experience can be stripping down in public. Most Japanese have grown up with the custom of nudity at public baths (“sento”) or onsen, so we are usually not embarrassed by it. It’s just the way it’s supposed to be. The truth is that no one cares when everyone is naked. It may take time for newbies to get used it, but you’ll get over it.
“Some foreign customers want to wear their towel or underwear into the bath,” says Chikage Ookata, a manager at Hakone Tenoyu onsen, which has seen an increase visitors from abroad. “But that is not allowed at an onsen for sanitary purposes.”
Other practices that may be unfamiliar to non-Japanese bathers that he stresses are the importance thoroughly showering before getting into a public tub as well as being mindful of water temperatures.
“I recommend that you take it slow when getting into a hot bath, maybe start with a (lower temperature) inside bath to warm up slowly then move on to the (hotter) outside bath,” says Ookata. “Some people get heat exhaustion while bathing. It’s important to take a break and try not to stay in the tub for a long time.”
Hakone Tenoyu also has a couple private baths for people who prefer them, or for those with tattoos because, like most onsen operators, they do not allow tattoos in their public baths.
Once you clear these hurdles, you’re good to go.
Many onsen are believed to have various healing or therapeutic properties, depending on the ingredients of the water. Some of the purported health benefits include alleviating muscle ache, nerve pain, fatigue, burns, wounds, arteriosclerosis and more. It could be quite an added benefit given that most onsen very reasonably priced.
Small public onsen are the least expensive, costing about 200-500 yen ($1.70-$4.25) for entry. However, these public onsen can be very simple (sometimes without even a shower) and old. Their privately run counterparts, on the other hand, can be somewhat stylish yet not too much more expensive.
Nowadays, spa-style onsen with facilities that may include restaurants, masseurs, solons and rest areas are very popular. Admission to these private facilities can range from about 1,000 to 2,000 yen with additional charges for other available services.
Personally, I prefer the old-style public onsen for their traditional atmosphere and the opportunity to chitchat with the local elderly that tend to frequent them. It all depends on your personal preference. It can also be fun trying out a few different kinds of onsen to determine your own favorites.
By the way, people are not the only ones enjoying Japan’s hot springs – monkeys like them, too. Who can blame them?
At the Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Park) in Nagano Prefecture, you can see wild monkeys lounging in the natural hot springs this time of the year when it snows. There’s nothing like seeing a family of monkeys with their cheeks red from soaking in hot water, just like humans. For more information, visit Jigokudani’s English webpage at www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/html/top_e.htm.
According to Japan’s calendar, late January is “daikan” – the coldest time of the year. What a great time to skinny dip in an onsen. The experience will not only warm you up, it’s a chance to soak in a genuine Japanese tradition while you’re here.
Soak it like a local
When in Rome, do as the Romans. The same goes for an “onsen,” or Japanese hot spring. Onsen are public spaces where people come to relax and enjoy. It is the perfect opportunity to communicate with locals while sharing a bath. There are, however, some must-dos and don’ts.
- Wash before soaking: Everyone shares the onsen water. To keep it clean, it’s important to wash and rinse yourself thoroughly wash yourself with soap and water from a nearby tap, while sitting on a stool before getting into an onsen. (Soap and shampoo may be provided.) Tidy up your space for others after you finished washing. Make sure that no soap gets into the onsen water.
- Strip down: In an onsen, wearing a large towel or a swimsuit is forbidden, unless it is a spa or similar facility that expressly requires it. You must disrobe completely. If you find the idea of appearing naked in front of others too uncomfortable, private baths are available for a fee.
- Chill out: An Onsen is a place to relax. No jumping into the water or swimming. Loud boisterous talking should also be avoided.
- Wear a ‘head towel’: You will see many people wearing small wash towels on their heads while soaking in an onsen. This is because you should never rinse or let your towel touch the water. So what better place to keep it? A towel wet with cold water is also a good way to keep from overheating.
- Towel off: Before entering the changing room after bathing, towel off excess water to keep the floor dry and safe for others.
- Take a break: Some say that soaking in hot onsen water can consume as much energy as running at full speed. It is important get out of the water and rest from time to time and make sure you don’t get dehydrated. You may also want to avoid soaking after drinking alcohol, vigorous exercise or immediately before or after eating.
- In most onsen, taking photographs is not allowed.
Say it like a local
Here are some useful Japanese when you go to onsen. Japanese are more open for communication in onsen because they are very relaxed. Let’s try these words.
Otoko yu – Men’s onsen
Onna yu – Women’s onsen
Rotenburo – Outside bath tub
Uchiburo – Inside bath tub
Sekken – Soap
Arau – Wash
Atsui – Hot
Tsumetai – Cold
Totemo Kimochiii desu – I feel very good.
Nobose mashita – I feel dizzy after long bath.
Watashi wa onsen ga daisuki desu – I like hot springs very much.
Too bad for tattoo you
In most onsen, or hot springs, people with tattoos are not allowed to enter. This is because historically tattoos have been associated with “yakuza,” or gangsters in Japan (stemming from an even earlier practice of tattooing known criminals for identification).
Although many younger people have tattoos for fashion these days, the practice of shunning the tattooed still persists (in many public bathhouses and commercial gyms, as well). The rule also applies to foreigners. So, you may be refused entry into an onsen if you have very visible tattoos.
If you have smaller less visible tattoos, however, it may be possible to cover them with a waterproof bandage. Another option is to use an onsen with a private bath. However, there will be an additional cost.
Find an 'onsen' near you
Hoshino Resort Aomoriya
EnoSpa on Enoshima Island
Ooedo Onsen Monogatari, Odaiba
Kintaikyo Onsen at Iwakuni Kokusai Kanko Hotel
The Paradise Garden
Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel, Tomigususuku
Tennen Onsen Aroma, Ginowan
Urasoe no yu, Urasoe
Terme Villa Churah yu, Chatan
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