Understanding Onsen Culture

Japan Onsen Guides: Introducing Hot Spring Culture

Introducing Hot Spring Culture

by Greg Goodmacher

Introducing onsen culture in Japan.

Many Westerners are uncomfortable with anyone seeing their naked bodies, but being naked with friends and strangers is a traditional practice in Japan.

It happens every day in hot springs across Japan as it has for thousands of years. Bathing together is a healthy, relaxing, and bonding experience.

A special kind of platonic friendship develops when people do not hide behind their clothes. In Japanese, these relationship is called hadaka no tsukiai.

People tend to shed their pretensions when they remove their clothes. The only cloth that bathers may bring into most hot springs is a small towel that barely covers the private parts.

Japanese Culture & Water

Japanese culture, like many other cultures, has developed ties between water and religion.

Washing one's hands and mouth with water is customary behavior for most Japanese when they enter the grounds of a shrine. An important Japanese legend relates how Izanagi, the male god who created the world with his wife, Izananami, took a bath to purify himself after descending into the land of the dead when his wife died. Other gods and goddesses were created from his tears, wet body, and clothes.

Nowadays, you can still find hot springs with religious connections. One of the best examples is on the island of Sakurajima in Kagoshima Prefecture. This hot spring is right next to the sea on the grounds of the Furusato Kanko Hotel.

Unlike most hot springs, men and women share the bath. Another difference is that all visitors must don white robes in the water. White is a symbol of pureness in Japan.

Hot spring onsen in Kumano Kodo.
A typical rustic onsen hot spring setting
Hot spring onsen in Kumano Kodo.
Enjoying hot spring onsen culture in Japan

Finding A Hot Bath in Japan

Hot springs, or onsen, as they are called in Japan, are in every prefecture. In Japan, one is rarely more than an hour's drive from a spring. What exactly is an onsen?

That is a hard question to answer precisely. Onsen often refers to individual hot springs. Sometimes Japanese say onsen when speaking about Japanese inns, or ryokan, with hot springs, as well as areas with many hot spring baths.

Japan has over 3,000 hot spring areas, but each area has numerous different springs and baths. For example, a website of Oita Prefecture lists 4,749 springs in Oita alone, and these springs are very different.

To be legally designated by the government as an onsen, the spring water must contain at least one of nineteen specific minerals and naturally be over 25 ºC, or 77 ºF. Actually, temperatures of more than 40 ºC are quite common. Springs emitting boiling water are not unusual. The water must be cooled before usage.

Hot springs are enjoyed in remote mountains, on beaches, in major cities, on the edges of cliffs, on the tops of hotels, on river banks, just about anywhere. Some wild, or undeveloped, hot springs require long arduous hikes over difficult terrain to reach.

Others in the middle of crowded cities have masseuses, numerous types of tubs with Jacuzzis, saunas, tubs will almost boiling-hot water and tubs with near-freezing water.  The bathing areas may be carved from huge rocks, constructed of many stones, built with fragrant woods, decorated with Japanese ceramics, or be holes in the ground.

Public mixed bathing facilities are rare nowadays because Japan, as a result of Westernization, has become more conservative. Many neighborhoods have bathing facilities just for locals.

Outdoor hot spring onsen in Japan.
Rotemburo or outdoor bath at a hot spring in Japan
Hot spring onsen and shrine in Japan.
Onsen bathing in Japan is a quasi-spritual activity

Neighborhood baths play an important social role. These facilities are where neighbors exchange news, express kinship, and bond. Empathy and friendship is developed in the baths. Since neighbors frequently bathe at a certain time, the other regulars notice the absence of a friend and check up on him or her. Young children also learn manners in the baths.

For couples, families, or friends who would just rather be together, private rooms with hot springs are becoming popular. Hot spring baths reserved for families are called kazokuburu. Kazoku conveys the concept of family and buru means bath.

These baths are more expensive, but they guarantee privacy. Bathing together in a hot spring with a beautiful view has become a romantic option for dating couples. It is not unheard of for proposals of marriage to be made in these springs.

Hot Sand Baths

Does being buried in hot sand seem like good clean fun to you? People from all over Japan visit beaches in Ibusuki, Kagoshima, to be buried while wearing a yukata in "sand baths" with just the head sticking out.

A parasol protects the face from sun burns. Geothermal steam rises through the sand, gradually heating the body like a steam sauna, but one with a view of blue sea. As the body perspires and eliminate toxins, breezes from the sea caress the face. Another bath in clean spring water removes the sticky sand. Sand baths can be also found in a few other locations, but they are not so common.

If hot sand is not appealing, about a hot mud bath?  Some baths in very natural surroundings contain volcanic ash and clay, and people rub the mud on their bodies. This natural mud often contains minerals that can reduce the severity of various skin ailments, such as psoriasis, and speed the healing process of skin injuries. Many people pay for expensive mud treatments at beauty salons, but you can receive the same benefits for much less money, and smearing the mud on yourself or a friend can be fun.

If a mud bath is not your cup of tea, how about an actual green-tea bath? The 1,300 year-old town of Ureshino in Saga Prefecture is famous for its green tea and silky-smooth waters. From some hot springs in this small town, bathers can see fields of green tea plants in terraced fields.

Warakuen, a Japanese style hotel has a green-tea bath. Tea made with the hot spring water is mixed in the bath. Bathers enjoy wiping their skin with bags of wet green-tea leaves. The body feels amazingly soft afterwards. For the same effect, citrus fruits are sometimes placed in hot baths. As the fruit gently bob in the ripples, sweet scents emanate from the citrus oils, which have anti-bacteriological properties.

Hot Spring Cooking

The boiling waters and steam of hot springs can be used for cooking. Onsen tamago, eggs boiled in a hot spring, are common snacks at hot spring resorts across the country, but the famous hot spring resort area of Kannawa, Beppu, takes cooking with hot springs to gourmet levels.

This cooking style is called jigoku-mushi. Mushi means steaming and jigoku means hell, but minerals in the steam provide a heavenly flavor. Crab, lobster, fish, sweet potatoes, corn, and other foods are steamed for guests at local restaurants and hot spring resorts. Steam pits are also available for visitors and locals to use for a very low price. After bathing with friends, sharing a hot-spring-prepared meal is another pleasure.

Hot spring egg in Japan.
Onsen tamago

Hot Spring Healing

Healing with hot springs has a long history in Japan. Samurai healed their wounds and relaxed in springs after battles. Some hot springs, such as Tsurunoyu in Akita Prefecture, were reportedly discovered after animals were seen soaking their injured bodies in the water.

Tsurunoyu was named for the wounded crane, tsuru, that was seen in the spring. Numerous hospitals are constructed on the sites of natural springs and the waters used for healing. The varying mineral content of hot springs is used to treat health problems: constipation, menstrual pain, diabetes, constipation, aching muscles, rheumatism, and many other ailments.

Stretching in a hot bath promotes the healing of sports injuries. "Onsen therapy" includes both soaking in the mineral water and drinking mineral water.  Hot springs with a high alkaline content are considered to be especially effective in reducing atopi, atopic dermatitis. This water often has a greenish hue and a slippery feel. Tsukioka Onsen in Shibata, Niigata, has a hot spring named Bijinnoyu, which translates as hot water for the beautiful woman.

When is the best season for enjoying hot springs? In spring, a pleasant bath with a view of budding flowers or greenery revitalizes the senses. Bathing while surrounded by the autumn leaves of Japan brings about a reflective mood.

Scrubbing the body after a bath during the humid summer opens the skin pores. And in winter, nothing beats being in a hot spring surrounded by snow and watching snowflakes slowly fall. Many ski resorts in Nagano, Niigata, and Hokkaido have ski resorts at the bottoms of the slopes.

Onsen Rules

The most important rule for when visiting a Japanese hot spring is never ever use soap or shampoo inside the shared bath. Wash and rinse thoroughly before entering the shared bath.

Japanese people usually follow the following steps when bathing: First, wash the body. Second, enter the bath and feel your stress dissolve in the heat. If there is a view, enjoy it.

Many people seem to quickly enter a semi-meditative state. After the body has heated up enough to promote sweating, wash the body again while scrubbing hard. Then soak again. These steps are often repeated.

Some facilities have baths of extremely cold water or saunas and alternating between these is considered to be helpful to the entire body, especially the heart. If a spring is known to have health promoting minerals, do not rinse after the final soaking because the beneficial minerals should be allowed to soak into the skin instead of being rinsed away.

Other rules include not splashing, not being loud, and not bringing items into the water. But once, in a small community bath I saw four old men crazily splashing water and playing with toys with a grandchild.

Occasionally hot springs have signs that forbid people with tattoos from entering the springs.  This rule is to discourage members of the Yakuza, who often have tattoos, from using the premises, but this rule is rarely enforced since few onsen staff would dare to refuse entry to someone with Yakuza-style tattoos.

Actually, on several occasions, I have bathed with people who were most probably Yakuza, and they were always friendly and well behaved. Everyone relaxes in a hot spring.

Hot spring onsen in Japan.
The author onsen bathing in a river in Japan

Understanding Japanese hot springs

The only way to really understand hot springs is to repeatedly immerse oneself in the topic.

Absorb the atmosphere, minerals, and waters of many baths with your friends. The variety of springs is phenomenal. So are the insights into Japanese culture and friendships that you can make while your stress melts and vanishes in the dissipating ripples.

The author of this article is an unabashed hot spring addict, who had bathed his way from Hokkaido to Okinawa. He blogs about hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.

His favorites include Nabeyama-no-yu, an undeveloped hot spring that requires a long walk from Beppu City, Oita Prefecture; Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, a hot spring that is only accessible at low tide because it is actually in the sea; Kusatsu Onsen, a resort area with many rotenburu, outdoor baths, with green water and forest views; Echigo Yuzawa Hot Spring, which is the setting of Japan's first Nobel Prize winning book, Snow Country, because bathing naked while surrounded by several meters of snow is a mind-blowing experience.

A version of this article first appeared in Eye-Ai Magazine

Japanese Bath Products

Purchase a range of wooden Japanese bath products made from the finest Japanese wood including original bath buckets, chairs and soap basins to give your bathroom that Japanese hot spring onsen feel.

Onsen buckets or oke neatly stacked, Japan.
Onsen buckets - oke - neatly stacked

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